OLDSMAR, FL. – Ask Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jamie Ness what he plans to do next year for an encore, and you’re likely to draw a blank stare.
When the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, Ness will be officially crowned as North America’s leading trainer for 2012, ending the five-year reign of Steven Asmussen.
Through Wednesday, the 38-year-old Ness – who finished second to Asmussen in 2010 and ’11 – had saddled 394 winners from 1,249 starters, a remarkable 31.5-percent strike rate that is also No. 1 among trainers with at least 400 starters. Ness runners have earned more than $6.7-million, 12th in the national standings.
Given the fact he manages more than 100 horses in training at six different racetracks for his sole client, Chicago-area businessman Rich Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds, another training title will be foremost among the goals Ness sets for 2013.
But the Heron, South Dakota native knows the only way to stay on top is by following the same daily regimen – which starts by arriving at his barn at 5 a.m. every day and usually ends with him watching race replays until 10 or 11 p.m., searching for prospects Midwest can add to its relentless roster.
“The wins title doesn’t really mean that much to me,” said Ness, who has won the last six Tampa Bay Downs training titles (tying with Kathleen O’Connell in 2009-10 and Gerald Bennett in 2010-11) and leads the current standings with eight victories.
“I’m the same guy that I was when I had eight horses here (in 2005). I still drive my 2007 Pacifica. I’m no different if I’m No. 1 or No. 40,” said Ness, who downplays his chances of being considered for an Eclipse Award as North America’s Leading Trainer.
“I’m not going to walk around here saying, ‘I’m No. 1,’ ” Ness added. “Obviously, when you do that well and make that much money, things can change. … but I don’t really care that much for the limelight. This is a very consuming job, and if it gets to where it’s not consuming, you make mistakes and slip up and you’re not as good as you should be.”
Mandy Ness, Jamie’s wife and a former jockey before injuries ended her career, attests that success will not change his personality or his approach to training. The couple will be married three years in April and they have a 2-month-old daughter, Hannah Annmarie.
“He is still the same humble person he always has been,” Mandy said. “We’ve been together four years, and he hasn’t changed at all. He appreciates every win we get, whether it’s a $5,000 claiming race or a $100,000 stakes. Every one is special.”
Like Asmussen, Todd Pletcher, Dale Romans and a handful of other conditioners, Ness manages a mega-stable with runners currently based at Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream, Penn National, Laurel and Aqueduct (as well as Delaware, which currently is closed for racing). He has five assistant trainers and oversees more than 50 employees.
What’s different is that Ness trains only for Midwest Thoroughbreds, which could be voted an Eclipse Award as North America’s Leading Owner after finishing second in 2011 to Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey.
Midwest – which also employs Roger Brueggemann and Tom Amoss as trainers – has won a national-record 538 races (and counting) through Wednesday.
This will be the third consecutive wins title and second money title for Midwest, which has amassed purse earnings of more than $10-million – almost twice the earnings of runner-up John C. Oxley.
Papiese is the founder of Midwest Store Fixtures, a leader in the design, manufacturing and implementation of retail merchandising displays, fixtures and environments.
After growing Midwest Store Fixtures into a $40-million a year corporation, Papiese appointed his wife Karen president of the firm and turned his focus to Thoroughbreds. He joined forces with Ness in 2008, and the following year Papiese purchased Thunder Ranch in Anthony, Fla., a 137-acre facility where Midwest keeps yearlings, layups, those recovering from minor ailments and a handful of retirees.
Managed by former trainer Hector Magana, the farm features 120 stalls, a six-furlong training track with a chute and an equine aquacizer, which improves horses’ fitness and mental well-being.
Papiese says Ness leaves few details to chance, a trait they share. “Jamie and I are fairly similar people,” Papiese said from his home in Dyer, Ind. “When it comes to racing, we both do a lot of homework.
“He is very thorough, and he sees the small details in everything. He sees things other people don’t see,” Papiese said. “From the time we drop a claim (for a horse), he knows where we are going with that horse right away.
“You would be hard-pressed to find someone who works as hard as he does. Besides his family and a few other things, he doesn’t have a whole lot of outside interests. I don’t think I will ever find a better conditioner or a better person than Jamie Ness.”
Like the man he replaced at the top of the national standings, Asmussen, and Hall of Fame trainer William Mott, Ness was born in a state few racing fans will ever think of visiting, unless it is to see Mount Rushmore.
John Ness, Jamie’s father, introduced him to the sport and still trains a small string in Nebraska. But just the experience of growing up on a farm – in a part of the country where people’s relationship to the land and livestock defines success, even survival – helped Jamie get to the level he is at today.
“It’s a tough life growing up there. When it’s 20-below and snowing and kids on the East Coast are inside watching TV, you’re out feeding the cows and horses,” Ness said. “Or if we weren’t doing that or chopping the ice, we were playing in the snow because we didn’t have anything else to do.
“I think it teaches you discipline and a work ethic. The people are a little different – they’re more community and farm-oriented – and you learn a lot about responsibility. I would love to have my daughter grow up out there. I really would.”
Mandy Ness – whose mother, Glenda McKeever, and father, the late Billy McKeever, were also jockeys – says that Hannah Annmarie is certain to grow up on the racetrack. The baby is already a familiar sight to many – whether it’s at the Ness barn, in her stroller on the grandstand apron or dozing on her father’s chest as he watches replays late into the night.
“She will probably know more about horse racing than any other little girl,” Mandy said, laughing. “He says ‘No’ to the racetrack – he wants her to be a doctor or a lawyer or something like that.
“Having her hasn’t changed anything. She has just added more joy to our life and made it more complete,” Mandy said.
Jamie admits it probably is inevitable Hannah Annmarie will gravitate toward Thoroughbreds and the racetrack. Yet his profession’s grueling lifestyle and 365-days-a-year demands make him yearn for something better, or at least less time-consuming.
“I love my job, but it’s a job fit for very few people,” Ness said. “It’s a tough job with a lot of ups and downs and a lot of stress.
“I guess as a father, everybody wants to see their daughter go to college and be a businesswoman or something like that,” said Ness, himself a graduate of South Dakota State with a degree in business economics and minors in marketing and journalism. “But whatever she wants to do, that’s fine.”
It is just that the job is so demanding, at least if you crave winning as much as Ness and Papiese.
Their success is virtually unprecedented and derives from spending nearly all their waking hours studying horses and past performances and race conditions.
Plus, counting on their legwork to prove their judgments right most of the time, because even then it’s amazing to win at a 25-percent clip, let alone more than 30-percent.
As their successes continue to mount, Papiese and Ness plan to keep upgrading the quality of their stock through clever claims and crafty yearling and private purchases. Which means study, study and more study.
Watching replays, Ness observes how horses are moving, how they finish and how they come back after a race. If he doesn’t like the way a horse is traveling, he’ll scratch it from his list.
On the other side of the coin, he keeps a close watch for horses with potential that might be running over their heads or competing in conditions that don’t suit. All of this preparation and study is done with a mind toward acquiring horses that fit Midwest’s program and the tracks where the stable competes.
“You have to be prepared,” Ness said. “That’s why we are able to have a big stable – because we win races and are able to sustain the business and make a profit. If you don’t do the work, you risk relying on luck.”
His skill in claiming horses and moving them up the competitive ladder has attracted respect and envy from other trainers and racing followers. In January of 2007, Ness claimed a 5-year-old Florida-bred named Lookinforthesecret for $12,500 out of a winning effort at Tampa Bay Downs.
Owned by his own Jagger, Inc. outfit, Lookinforthesecret turned into a cash cow, finishing first or second in 19 of his next 20 starts. Luck played its inevitable role, too: Ness entered him first time back for a $20,000 claiming tag, but no other trainer took the plunge and Lookinforthesecret returned to the Ness barn after a 10 ¼-length victory.
Lookinforthesecret went on to win eight stakes for Ness, including back-to-back editions of the Turf Dash Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, the 2008 Pelican and Super Stakes and the $250,000 Bob Umphrey Turf Sprint Championship at Calder that spring. He retired with career earnings of $553,456.
In February of this year at Tampa Bay Downs, Ness claimed the 6-year-old gelding Guam Typhoon on behalf of Midwest Thoroughbreds for $25,000.
Guam Typhoon won six races in a row after the claim, extending his winning streak to eight. His triumphs included the Chesapeake Stakes at Colonial, the Senator Robert C. Byrd Memorial at Mountaineer and the Changing Times at Penn National.
Guam Typhoon is stabled at Tampa Bay Downs after recuperating from a slight injury and should return to competition soon, Ness said.
In any endeavor, taking the guesswork out of the equation usually paves a path to greater success. All signs indicate Ness is approaching his prime as a trainer, which may be scary to his rivals but is a credit to his dedication.
“Rich Papiese and I are very competitive people,” Ness said. “We’re good at what we do, and it takes a lot of work to be that way. The key is being smart about what you’re doing.
“We like a lot of action,” Ness added. “We had eight horses running the other day all over the country, and to us that is as good as having one horse in a stakes race.”