John Reading, who trained for Stella F. Thayer and George Steinbrenner, will be honored in the winner's circle after Friday's first race.
If you want to gain greater insight into John Reading’s serene, even-tempered personality, consider that he trained Thoroughbreds for both Tampa Bay Downs’ President-Treasurer, Stella F. Thayer, and the track’s former co-owner George Steinbrenner, the late shipping magnate better known as the owner of the New York Yankees.
Thayer, who owns Tampa Bay Downs with her brother, Howell Ferguson, has always preferred to remain in the background. She was more likely to borrow a stable pony and ride the property line on a barn visit than offer Reading advice. “She trusted you 100 percent,” Reading, who turns 99 on Friday, recalled last week. “She never bothered you.”
Steinbrenner was, well, George. Reading once had the misfortune of getting stuck in Hillsborough Avenue traffic (back when road access to the Oldsmar oval could be problematic) long enough to miss saddling one of Steinbrenner’s horses for a race.
“You tell him that might be the last one he gets to saddle for me,” Steinbrenner fumed to Reading’s assistant trainer, Peg McVey.
It wasn’t, but Reading later left Steinbrenner’s employ before “The Boss” had another chance to fire him. “We probably had a disagreement,” Reading said. “Mr. Steinbrenner was tough to train for.”
According to official Equibase statistics, Reading – who grew up on a dairy farm in Rauchtown, Pa., rode to school on a buckboard and was milking cows when he was 6 – stopped training in 2010. But as recently as last season, he was “unofficially” training a 9-year-old race mare named Golden Dove at McVey’s barn on the Tampa Bay Downs backside.
“He was here every morning, telling me what he wanted her to do and watching my other horses train,” said McVey, who went out on her own in 2006.
Reading, who is credited with 711 victories and $4,733,995 in purse earnings over a 40-plus year career racing primarily at Tampa Bay Downs and various Northeast and mid-Atlantic tracks, will be recognized after Friday’s first race with a ceremony in the winner’s circle.
It will be a nostalgic and emotional happening for scores of Tampa Bay Downs regulars, most of whom make a point to greet him on his frequent visits to the track kitchen with friend Ron Payne, another former assistant.
Reading still gets around pretty well, although he relies on his daughter, Jackie Halloway, and her husband Henry for transportation and daily caretaking. His wife of 64 years, Gwen, passed away in 2007, and another daughter, Barbara, died four years ago.
The Oldsmar resident has four grandchildren, including two who worked for him at the barn through high school as young men, nine great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren. Although he did not begin training racehorses until he was 54, his rural upbringing served him well enough to become leading trainer at Tampa Bay Downs for the 1991-1992 and 1992-1993 meetings (he also was a training champion at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire).
He served for several years as a director of the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
“Being born and raised on a farm, I always liked animals,” said Reading, who retired from an executive position with automotive-parts maker Dura Corporation in Toledo, Ohio to pursue his Thoroughbred dream, with loving encouragement from Gwen. “I knew it was going to be hard work, but I was used to that.”
Payne got a first-hand look at Reading’s work ethic back in the early 1980s, when Reading was approaching his 70th birthday. “He would get up at 4 a.m. and do 50 sit-ups, then he would eat a bowl of Wheaties and be at the track by 5 a.m. I only beat him there a couple of times,” Payne said. “He rode the stable pony until he was 90 years old.”
Family and friends experienced a scare about 14 years ago, when Reading tried to corral a loose horse on the track from atop his pony and suffered a compound leg fracture for his trouble. “He had no business trying to catch that horse, but it was just in his nature,” Payne said.
Less than three months later, Reading was back to work on the track. “We were all amazed,” Payne said. “Someone said, ‘What do we have to do to get rid of this guy?’ ”
The episode didn’t surprise his family, even though they found irony in it. “Dad always preached to everyone about never going after a loose horse,” Halloway said.
Reading trained his share of nice horses, including such stakes winners as Blue’s Tuscany, Tri Bowl and Furash Folly. The latter finished second to 1986 Horse of the Year, multiple-Eclipse Award winner and eventual National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame member Lady’s Secret in the Regret Handicap at Monmouth Park in 1985, the same year Reading led the nation in percentage of stakes victories from starts.
Reading also trained Strike the Knight, who won the 1987 Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs via a disqualification.
In a newspaper interview during the 1987-1988 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, Reading expounded on his philosophy of training, as well as dealing with owners. “For me, it started out as just a hobby, but it developed into a real challenge. There have been some disappointments, but you have to accept them. This was easier than working as a (plant) manager,” he said.
“You try to use good common sense and know what your horse is capable of doing. Some are more difficult to handle than others, like people.”
In another interview with The Florida Horse magazine from about the same time, Reading stressed the need for trainers to “Be honest with (owners) and tell them what type of horse they have, and at what price you think they will be able to win.”
Anyone who has been around Reading for an appreciable amount of time – and taken the care to listen – has received an education no university can match. Not only on how to be a successful trainer, but on how to deal with friends, co-workers and rivals on a daily basis.
“He is a gentleman who was great to work for,” said McVey, who joined Reading in Barn 29 on the Oldsmar backside in the mid-1980s and was with him through his “retirement” (which might not be official).
“He wasn’t a screamer, and he never had a harsh word for anybody. He let everyone at the barn do their jobs,” she said. “If we had any issues, he made sure to discuss them with us. I learned a lot about organization from him. He had training charts for 25 or 30 horses, and everything went like a well-oiled machine.”
McVey also learned from Reading that honesty and the power of observation are trademarks of training success. “If a horse was coming up with an issue, he wouldn’t keep it in the barn just to collect the day rate,” she said. “He would recommend sending the horse to the farm if that’s what was needed.
“A lot of times at the barn and the track, he would just sit back and pay attention and not say anything. He didn’t mess around running horses where they didn’t belong and beating his head against a wall. He would drop them down and run them in the right company.”
All those years, of course, it has been Reading’s owners, employees, friends and family who have been traveling in the best company of all.