Thoroughbred publicist tries to get ink for Zenyatta of harness racing

Harness racing, with at least one huge story to tell as summer arrives, has turned to a Thoroughbred man to help tell it.

The story is that of See You At Peelers, a 3-year-old pacing filly who has won 18 straight races, has never been beaten, whipped colts in a major stakes at Yonkers Raceway, and has won more than a million dollars, but can’t get a line in major North American newspapers. Her trainer, Jimmy Takter, one of the best in the sport, calls her the Zenyatta of harness racing.

The man whose job now will be, in small part, to get her into black type and on television and magazines, is Dan Leary, whose racing career has been exclusively with runners. He has been named Director of Communications by Mike Tanner, the executive vice president of the United States Trotting Association, the Jockey Club of harness racing, in Columbus, Ohio.

Leary is widely traveled in the running ranks. He goes to the USTA from his most recent work as director of communications at Lone Star Park in Texas and at Arlington Park in Illinois, where he spent eight years in that post. He is a former assistant director of public relations and broadcast services media for the New York Racing Association, has worked in PR jobs at Gulfstream and Hialeah, served as media center manager for the last two Breeders’ Cups, and was the recent two-term president of the Turf Publicists of America through last year.

He also has worked as director of information for the National Hockey League and held similar jobs for the American Bowling Congress and its ABC tournament.

If he thinks any of those jobs over three decades in sports after graduating from Boston College were tough, he now is tackling an even tougher one.

Harness racing, with a 200-year history in this country, was the dominant racing sport of the late 1800s, until the coming of the automobile in the early 1900s drove horses off the roads of the nation.

It had a huge resurgence after World War II, with the introduction of night racing at Roosevelt Raceway in New York and the growth of the game in most major cities of the country.

Its acceptance by the country’s press was less successful, and its virtual disappearance from the New York Times, which influences journalism coast-to-coast in the U.S., was a costly blow. The Times treatment was gradual. The paper sent one of its best known writers, Gay Talese, to cover the opening of a new Yonkers Raceway in the 1980s, but as new sports editors who learned sports in front of television sets as kids took over, coverage declined to near zero. Thoroughbred racing fared better, but also has suffered a media relapse since its days of its pre-TV glory.

The See You at Peelers story is fascinating enough to make a solid feature in the Times or any other media source. The filly was named for a strip joint, Peelers, as an inside joke involving a former owner in the stable. A primary beneficiary of her success has been – as with all Takter-trained top horses – Jimmy’s beautiful wife Christina, a prototype Swedish beauty. Takter’s horses won $7,879,955 last year, and with See You At Peelers now at $1,205,713 and the rich New York Sires Stakes ahead, where she figures to be totally dominant, and the Takter-trained Pastor Stephen a leading candidate for this year’s $1.5 million Hambletonian, there is no reason to think the stable won’t have an even bigger year this season. Since his wife is a partner in all of his best horses, and runs the stable’s business besides, Christina sits in perhaps the most enviable position in harness racing.

Jimmy and Christina came to this country from Sweden, where Jimmy’s father was an outstanding trainer, and Jimmy was an immediate success here. He is a major player at all of the yearling sales, with an unerring eye for a good horse, and the ability to produce champions after buying them. He and Christina own a spectacular home and training center in New Jersey’s horse country, with American flags and motifs spelling out clearly their love for their adopted country. They have good reason to love it. Horses Jimmy has trained have won $54,963,088 since he arrived here, and he also is approaching 1,000 wins in horses he has driven, although top catch drivers, including his son-in-law, Marcus Johansson, also from Sweden, handle most of the Takter driving assignments. Jimmy has been nominated for election to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame this year by the nation’s harness writers, and has a good chance to make it.

All of this should give Dan Leary a flying start in his new career, and we wish him well. Give Jimmy Takter a call, Dan. He can get you off and trotting on the right hoof.