By Dick Jerardi
Trainer Jamie Ness made a decision when all the mid-Atlantic tracks shut down in March. He was going to keep his horses sharp for whenever Parx reopened.
“I came ready,’’ Ness said. “We’ve been off for a while and I told the owners `dammit, I don’t know when we are going to run, but when we run, we ain’t going to give them a race or need a race, we’re going to be ready.’ So we were ready.’’
Were they ever. The stable won the first race on June 22, the day the track reopened. Ness also won the fourth race and had three horses run second. The next day, he won two more, with a second and two thirds. The day after that, he started two horses and won with both. So, three days, 15 starts, 6 wins, 4 seconds, 2 thirds.
“The way they wrote the races with the starters, a couple of my horses just slid right in like you couldn’t have written a better race,’’ Ness said.
His winners were all short prices so yes they fit, but, as he kept winning, the bettors were catching on. They were betting anything he ran as Ness clearly returned with horses that were ready to run and win.
There was no right or wrong way to deal with the unprecedented shutdown. Some trainers sent a few of their horses to farms. Others just walked theirs. It was so hard because nobody knew when it was going to end.
“We kept going,’’ Ness said. “It kept the horses fit. Seems like that is the best way. I’ve seen a couple of guys that stopped for a month, turned them out, brought them back. Seems like they’re playing catch up.’’
Right now, they are all trying to catch up to Jamie Ness.
“I kept them so I could get them ready when I needed them to be ready,’’ Ness said.
In addition to a full barn of 35 horses at Parx, Ness also has 15 at Laurel, 60 at Delaware Park and a bunch at the farm. He did not have a starter from March 15 until May 30. The Laurel restart came really fast. He had a reasonably good idea of when Parx was coming back so he could plan accordingly.
“I’ve been doing this 20 years and I’ve never been in this situation as most people haven’t,’’ Ness said. “Are you training too heavy, are you training too light? A lot of these old claiming horses that have been going forever, it’s hard to breeze them every week. They’re not used to that. They’re used to racing, jogging; get ready to go race again. It was tough. All of us trainers were kind of out of our element here.’’
Ness figures he was ready two weeks before Parx opened.
“When I thought I was ready, I probably got an extra breeze in that made me really ready,’’ Ness said.
The trainer cut his day rate through the shutdown to try to help his owners. This is his busiest time of the year with 2-year-olds coming in and horses returning off layoffs so he has actually been able to add nine employees to his staff when jobs are precious.
“Financially, it’s been rough,’’ Ness said. “Still is a little rough, but we’re getting back to semi-normalcy.’’
Ness has won more than 3,000 races and his horses have earned $51 million. His career has been a great success. The shutdown offered him a chance to evaluate how he had been training his horses.
“Sometimes, you fall into a rut and we kind of do the same thing over and over again,’’ Ness said. “I got a feeling that I might do a little change, trying to evolve into a different kind of training method. I think it’s going to help me in the long run. Sometimes, you get into a routine, but like in any sport, you’ve got to change.’’
Indeed. What always worked may not work forever. And if you get stuck there, you may get passed.
“Maybe a little more breezing up to races where before maybe I kind of eased back into them,’’ Ness said, “A lot of these horses I’m running, I’m breezing five, six days out harder than I probably would have before. They seem to be responding well that way.’’
The proof is in the results.