09/04/2006 11:00PM

Jersey boy Breen a star on the rise

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Bill Denver / EquiPhotos
Kelly Breen, here with rider Eddie Castro, is running away with the Monmouth Park trainer title.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - The seemingly sudden success of Kelly John Breen is actually the product of 20 years of hard work and dedication.

Breen, only 37, is about to wrap up a second straight trainer title at Monmouth Park, and his 2-year-olds were prominent in Saratoga's juvenile stakes.

Some have called him an "overnight sensation," but "rising star" is a much better description.

"He's put in the time," said Joe Bravo, 11 times the leading jockey at Monmouth Park and Breen's primary rider. "People say he's come on overnight because he's had a lot of success the last two years, but he's always been around here."

It's too early to tell if Breen will become a major player on the national stage, but his career trajectory for the last two years could carry him far.

"The sky is the limit," Bravo said. "He's got some great people behind him. Those kinds of opportunity don't come around too often, and he has the know-how to get the horses there."

Not bad for a kid from New Jersey who, through pluck and determination, forced his way into the sport.

Breen fell in love with racing before reaching his teens and honed his craft from the ground up while still in high school.

At a point when most teenagers are clueless about their futures, Breen knew what he wanted to do.

Jackie Breen, Kelly's father, is a horseplayer dating back to the days of the defunct Jamaica Racetrack not far from the current Aqueduct site.

When the family moved to Old Bridge, N.J., Monmouth became the track of choice.

"I'd come home from working construction in New York and there'd be a note on the table from my wife saying 'Me and Kelly are at Monmouth,' " Jackie Breen said.

The youngster was quickly hooked.

"We were missing him one afternoon at the track and we couldn't find him," Jackie Breen said. "There he was, over by the jockeys' room talking to the riders. He must have been 13."

Breen first aspired to be a jockey. Jackie took him to a local farm where he learned to gallop horses. That led to a connection to trainer Walter Reese and the late rider Chris Antley, Breen's idol.

"I tried to learn by following Antley around," Breen said. "I was the little pest kid. Antley rode first call for Walter, but he didn't come by to work a horse but once a weekend. That freed me to work a lot of horses. That gave me a ton of experience."

A growth spurt at 16 put inches and pounds on Breen's frame and ended his dream of becoming a rider - but not his desire to win.

Breen took whatever jobs he could get, including pony rider on the escorts that accompany the horses to the starting gate. During the school year, Breen got up at 4 a.m. and drove to Philadelphia Park or Garden State Park to gallop horses for Reese before hustling back to high school.

"When a kid gets up at 4 o'clock in the morning and he's happy and whistling, you don't stop him from what he wants to do," Jackie Breen said.

Breen eventually found a job closer to home as exercise rider for John Forbes, five-time leading trainer at Monmouth.

"A lot of exercise riders, 'Big' John Tammaro used to say, are the only ones on the racetrack that think they've done a full day's work at 10 o'clock in the morning," Forbes said. "Kelly was an exercise rider who didn't stop there. His interest and his willingness to work went through the day. He became part of the whole operation. That was never anything we had to tell him to do."

There was a brief detour after high school graduation. Jackie got Kelly into the steamfitter's union, and they worked together on major construction jobs.

The overtime was flowing and paychecks were plump. As they drove home over the Verrazano Bridge one evening, Jackie offered some fatherly advice.

" 'Kelly,' I said, 'I've got something to tell you. It isn't always like this. We're not always going to make this much money.'"

Breen had news of his own.

"He said, 'I got something to tell you, pop. This is my last day. I'm going to back to the racetrack.' "

He has been there ever since.

Breen rejoined the Forbes crew before making the jump to what became his finishing school: assistant trainer to Ben Perkins Sr. with the powerful New Farm Stable.

"Ben stressed to me that we have quality and I'll teach you how to deal with that," Breen said. "He didn't have to say a lot. I followed him around the sales. I saw what he liked to buy. It was a big education."

When Perkins retired in 1999, the New Farm horses went to his son Ben Jr. Breen had job offers, but interpreted the changing of the guard as a sign to strike out on his own.

"I started with two horses, hustling and bustling," Breen said. "We had some really nice horses when Ben retired. I used to gallop Delaware Township every day. I walked away from that to start out with a couple of claimers. It was tough. My wife was four months pregnant. I had bills to pay. All of this was going on, and not a lot of people were looking for a new trainer at the time."

Longtime friend Ricky Gallo helped out with a couple of horses. Claim by claim, Breen built up his stable. He took major leaps forward the last two years.

He won 11 races and $351,532 in purse money at Monmouth in 2004. He zoomed to the trainer title last year with 38 wins and $914,540 in earnings.

This year, Breen has already equaled last season's win total, and his horses have banked more than $1.3 million at the meet.

The most dramatic development has been Breen's success in developing young horses. Praying for Cash was second for him in this year's $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth and won the Grade 3 Long Branch Stakes.

Breen also had a pair of seconds in 2-year-old stakes at Saratoga: Desire to Excel - now sidelined by an injury for the rest of the year - in the Grade 3 Schuylerville, and True Addiction in the Grade 2 Adirondack.

As Breen started winning, owners took notice.

Dennis Narlinger and Lori and George Hall are now supplying him with a steady stream of 2-year-olds, and Breen is delivering results.

To continue rising, Breen recognizes the need to run more horses outside New Jersey. From Monmouth, Breen feels he is well positioned to compete in New York stakes when the right horses come along.

"There are three places that are the top in racing: Kentucky, New York, and California," Breen said. "In order to keep owners and breeders happy, you have to win races at one of those circuits. Right now, we're stabling at Monmouth Park and we're ducking the heavy heads and still winning races. We run in New York and do well. We're backing up our talk right now. We have some nice horses.

"I think we're proving that we can be a strong stable in New Jersey. You have to find the right horse to go to New York. You pick and choose your fights."

Success with the babies marks a transition in the barn as Breen starts pulling away from his onetime bread-and-butter.

"I'm looking to move forward and get away from the cheaper claimers," Breen said. "I think I've established myself. I'm no longer Ben Perkins Sr.'s assistant. I'm now Kelly Breen, and I've made my own name for myself."