07/01/2013 10:18AM

Jay Bergman: Better stock boosting Tom Fanning to career year

Tom Fanning is on course to break his earnings mark for the year.

In baseball, when a career .250 hitter suddenly starts batting .330 on a consistent basis people stand up and take notice. More often than not there are fewer questions on how the batter modified his stance and more questions of alternate forms of support.

Trainer Tom Fanning has been sending out horses since 1991 from his New Jersey base. He’s been ultra-consistent for the most part with low-level stock racing at the Meadowlands on occasion and at Freehold more often.

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In 2013 Fanning’s stock has risen dramatically. With 20 horses stabled at Gaitway Farm, Fanning has seen his batting average (UTRS) jump above .330. His stable’s earnings are at $656,997 in the first half of 2013, already ahead of all of last year’s earnings and soon to pass all of 2011 as well. If all goes as it currently is, Fanning’s stable is well on its way to eclipsing his career-best earnings of $1.03 million achieved back in 2009.

For horse players, numbers matter, and in 2013 as compared with 2009, Fanning’s horses are winning at a 17 percent clip as opposed to just 13 percent back in 2009.

I caught up with Fanning in the paddock this past Saturday evening at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs to ask him what’s happened to change his overall average and winning percentage in 2013 that didn’t happen for him over the last 20 or so years.

“I’m training .330-type horses,” Fanning said with a serious laugh.

“What’s different? I’ve been able to go out and freely buy more horses that I liked at a higher price."

Last fall, owner Joseph Smith went to Harrisburg with Fanning and came away with this year’s three-year-old trotting gelding Possessed Fashion for $80,000. The price was well above that of most of the stock Fanning has been able to train over the years. The trainer has quickly rewarded Smith’s faith, as Possessed Fashion has been consistent and effective this year racing in Pennsylvania.

On Saturday in the $500,000 Beal Memorial final, Possessed Fashion followed a live cover flow and appeared poised for a major upset in the homestretch. He tipped wide for driver John Campbell with dead aim on the leaders as the wire approached. The son of Donato Hanover would not pass horses in the stretch and finished fourth, a result that didn’t surprise Fanning.

“I told you before the race that I wasn’t confident in his chances," said Fanning. "He had a bad week coming into this race and I’m happy where he finished."

Possessed Fashion could be the first Hambletonian horse trained by Fanning, something he jokingly says would matter more to his wife than himself.

“That would probably be a bigger deal to Moira than it would to me," he said. "As far as this horse in the Hambletonian, I’m not certain racing heats is something he’d be up to.”

Fanning’s wife, Moira, is the director of operations and publicity director for the Hambletonian Society.

Possessed Fashion has earned $78,613 in 2013 with two wins in eight starts and seems to be able to go with all of the top horses he’s faced. Whether he can make the leap to the Hambletonian in the next five weeks remains to be seen.

The core of Fanning’s success this year has come from a deep cast of pacers that perform at a high level. He deserves plenty of credit for going to yearling sales with a limited budget and coming away with solid horses that seem to mature and pay dividends year-over-year.

He’s been focused at purchasing Pennsylvania-breds in recent years due to the increased opportunity, not just in the staking program, but basic overnight events at Mohegan Sun at Pocono and Harrah’s Philadelphia, where most of the stable races.

Just look at the purchase prices of two Pa.-breds in 2010, Lastingart Hanover at $10,000 and Live On at $20,000, and it’s easy to understand the basis for Fanning’s rise in 2013.

Two years ago, Lastingart Hanover and Live On combined to win no races in 15 starts as juveniles while paying some of the bills. Fanning has never been known to try to push his young horses beyond their capabilities and he has seen tremendous advancement from both in 2012 and 2013.

Live On has won nine of his 27 starts over the last two years, earning nearly $130,000 during that time and taking a 1:49 2/5 mark at Harrah’s. Lastingart Hanover has finished first or second in 19 of 35 starts during the same period with earnings also above $100,000.

Old Time Hockey, a New York-bred, will be a player in the three-year-old New York Sire Stakes program this year. He’s already been second twice in two legs with earnings at $63,159 in his first full year of parimutuel racing. The Art Major-sired gelding has been first or second in nine of his first 10 career starts.

“I think we’re training them a little harder than we used to,” said Fanning. “We’re not just out to get checks.”

Fanning believes that much of his current success comes from the opportunity to to buy horses from a “wider financial parameter.” It’s also safe to say that when you can take your time with young horses and have owners that recognize the value in waiting for a horse to mature, the stables success can grow exponentially.

Fanning also sees the way drivers approach his horses as another major factor to his improved batting averages.

“I think drivers are seeing how my horses are racing and they drive with more confidence,” said Fanning.

It is perhaps that last line that matters most in this sport. No matter how much work a trainer does between starts, if a driver doesn’t think the trainer is effective it gives him less confidence stepping out on the racetrack.

Tom Fanning has always been confident in his ability as a trainer, he just seems a little more confident in 2013. I’d say about 20 percent more.