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Haskell gets hometown hero Breen at his peak
He thought he had arrived. Kelly Breen, just 23 at the time, had won twice at the Meadowlands with Contarido and now was sending the horse to New York for his first starter on the other side of the Hudson River. Contarido came through, winning under Julie Krone. Breen had made it there. He could make it anywhere.
Breen excitedly phoned everyone he knew – his parents, his friends – imploring them to watch that night’s edition of “Thoroughbred Action,” the replay show that was hosted by the popular Harvey Pack.
Just before Pack threw his program, his signature sign off, he gave a shout out to Breen.
“She knows how to read a condition book,” Breen remembers Pack saying.
Not long after, Breen started listing himself in the program as Kelly John Breen, just so there would be no confusion. And after the success Breen has had in recent years, topped by a win in New York last month in that state’s biggest race, the Belmont Stakes, they know who he is now.
Breen, 42, has been one of the top trainers at Monmouth Park for a decade, but his stock has risen dramatically since he teamed with owners George and Lori Hall, who have employed Breen as their private trainer for four years. The Belmont win by Ruler On Ice was the high point of their racing careers, and it came a little more than two months after they won the Louisiana Derby with Pants On Fire.
On Sunday, the appropriate apex of their association will take place when they send out both Ruler On Ice and Pants On Fire in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth, the track where Breen first attended as a youth, got his first job on the racetrack, and is based in the summer, in a spotless, well-manicured barn that abuts the backstretch.
“It’s amazing to have one legitimate contender in the race, let alone two,” Breen said. “I used to come here on Haskell day just to get the hat they gave away. As a trainer, I’d always want to try to win a race on Haskell day, just something on the undercard. And now we’re in the Haskell with two horses. It’s hard to put into words.”
The two are known as Fire and Ice, but their names hardly reflect their personalities. Ruler On Ice is a nutcase. He’d be a candidate to be gelded − if he wasn’t so already.
“He has his quirks, but we’ve learned to deal with them,” Breen said. “In the middle of the afternoon, he’ll just spaz out, have a bucking frenzy, and act like a fool. We do things to try to keep him cool − give him food, keep his mind occupied, walk him a turn or two around the barn. Anything to settle him down.”
Breen grew up only minutes from Monmouth Park, in Old Bridge, in a middle-class family that had no racing ties other than the passion his father, Jackie, a construction worker, had for handicapping.
“We weren’t high-tech on the computer,” Breen said. “We’d just buy the Form the day before and bet a couple of dollars each race.”
But Breen was smitten by horses and the racetrack. He learned to ride hunter-jumpers at a local riding academy, then got a job as an exercise rider at age 16 with the top trainer at the time at Monmouth, Walter Reese, after Breen’s father approached Reese’s assistant, Tony Puglisi.
“They protected me at first,” Breen said. “They didn’t put me on the crazy ones.”
After stints with Reese, John Forbes, and Ben Perkins Sr., Breen went out on his own as a trainer for good in 2000, two years after marrying his wife, Melissa, with whom he has two children, Tiffany, 11, and Kelly Jr., 7.
Breen still gallops a few horses each morning and spends the rest of training hours accompanying sets of horses to the track on his pony.
A wrestler in high school, Breen remains competitive not only as a trainer, but also on the golf course – where he has a handicap “between 4 and 6,” he said – and handicapping horses.
“My wife puts me on a budget, or I’d gamble every day,” Breen said.
Breen was the leading trainer at Monmouth Park in 2005 and 2006. During that time, he was introduced to George Hall, who had just started dipping his toe in the racing waters and was about to dive in.
“I had a small investment in a couple of partnerships, but nothing on my own,” Hall, 50, said from the New York office of Clinton Group, Inc., a hedge fund for whom he is the chief executive and majority owner.
At the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2004, the Halls bought four horses. Each of them won, most notably Keeneland Kat, who won the 2005 Sorority Stakes at Monmouth.
“It was a very good start,” Hall said.
Three years later, the Halls had enough horses, and enough interest in Breen, to form a partnership.
With the exception of Shug McGaughey, who largely trains for the Phipps family, the days of private trainers are largely gone. That was once a major component of the sport, with outfits like Calumet and Greentree, which bred their own stock and sent them to private trainers. That old-school mentality permeates the operation of Breen and the Halls, including the hats that Breen and George Hall wear on race days.
“George likes to wear them out of respect,” Breen said. “We’re both into the throwback times, when the grandstand was filled with people with hats on.”
George Hall does not have an old-timey, musty approach to the game, though. Even though he and his wife – who have been married nearly 10 years – now own a 385-acre farm in Versailles, Ky., Hall’s overall plan is straight out of business school, no surprise for someone who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“When we go to the yearling sales, we do it with an intelligent budget,” Hall said. “If a horse is priced too high, we pass. We pay if we think there is value. It’s more gratifying to do it with discipline, with an intelligent budget, instead of just spending whatever you want.”
They buy low – Ruler On Ice, for instance, cost $100,000, and Pants On Fire is a homebred − and they are not afraid to sell high. They privately sold Atomic Rain and West Side Bernie as 3-year-olds to Godolphin in 2009, and earlier this year, they parted with Sweet Ducky, even though, at the time, he was among their top Kentucky Derby prospects.
“If you are carrying 50 horses, it’s hard to make it all up in purses or breeding, so you’ve got to take the opportunity to sell your inventory and replenish your capital case,” Hall said.
Lori Hall, 41, who grew up in a suburb of Houston, had never been to the track until she took a trip up the Hudson, on her husband’s yacht, to attend the races at Saratoga.
“The learning curve was pretty big,” she said. “I’m not afraid to admit this, but the first day I went to the races, I saw Javier Castellano on a horse, and I thought he had so much charisma in his face, like a little Elvis Presley, that I just started betting on his horses. I’m pretty impressed with how far I’ve come.”
Lori Hall said she is most captivated by acquiring yearlings.
“The whole process,” she said. “Picking out pedigrees, looking at the catalog, looking at the yearlings, seeing if their knees are on straight. I love it.”
The Halls, who have three children, live on the Upper East Side of New York City but also have a home in Rumson, N.J., not far from Monmouth. As with Breen, they consider that their home track.
At the end of the races each day at Monmouth, “Summer Wind” is played over the loudspeakers. But Breen these days is partial to another Frank Sinatra song. Call his cellphone, and “New York, New York” is played before he picks up.
If the word isn’t out yet on the rise of Breens and the Halls, it soon will be. Start spreadin’ the news.