As Gerald Bennett made the rounds of his Tampa Bay Downs barn shortly after 5 a.m. on March 30, he stepped inside the stall of 3-year-old gelding Artie Ocean, who had finally broken his maiden in his 12th lifetime start under jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., in a six-furlong claiming race.
Like the majority of Thoroughbreds at the majority of racetracks in North America, Artie Ocean has a limited amount of ability that will restrict him, at best, to being a useful runner. But Bennett, who had begun training the horse only a month earlier, wanted the barn newcomer to know how much his effort was appreciated.
Stepping inside the stall, Bennett massaged Artie Ocean’s neck and told him what a great job he’d done. When he went to check on the next horse in his shedrow, he turned around to see Artie Ocean’s head sticking out, following the movements of his new caretaker.
It has been Bennett’s way since starting his career in 1976, when the native of Springhill, Nova Scotia first shipped horses from a training and layup facility he owned in Campbellville, Ontario, often unsure if there was enough gas to get to the track.
“It’s something he has inside him, like a sixth sense,” said his wife Mary, who along with Bennett’s older son, Jerry Jr., helps run the operation. “He works with all of them one-on-one and makes sure they get the care and attention they need to be successful.”
Few trainers in the industry have been as consistent as the 69-year-old Bennett, whose 3,346 career victories rank him 18th all-time among North American trainers. From 2003-2011, he saddled at least 100 winners every year, and his horses have earned in excess of $1.2-million each of the last 12 seasons.
Bennett has competed at Tampa Bay Downs every year since 1987, with the exception of one season in the early 1990s when he raced at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. He and Mary are Oldsmar residents. Bennett shared the Tampa Bay Downs training title during the 2010-11 season with Jamie Ness, each with 61 victories. Bennett is third in the current standings with 27 victories.
While he is motivated to help owners turn a profit, Bennett knows the first step toward that goal is establishing a relationship with his horses based on trust and understanding.
“You have to have that ability to communicate with each horse,” Bennett said. “It’s something no amount of money can buy, and it doesn’t matter how much experience you have. It’s an ability to watch a horse walk down your shedrow and be able to call the vet and say, ‘I want you to X-ray something’ or ‘Check him for this or that.’ ”
Bennett is quick to back off a horse in training if he spots a problem, a quality that has always impressed long-time owner and close friend Pat Scanlon, a retired General Motors Materials Manager. “One thing he told me that has always stuck in my mind is that if you don’t wait on them, they’ll make you wait,” Scanlon said.
“He gives a horse all the time it needs. If you try to race them and they aren’t up to it, only bad things can happen.”
Although there is a strong element of horse-whispering in Bennett’s methods, his younger son Dale – himself a successful trainer in the Midwest and elsewhere – says his father’s record is more a product of dedication and hard work than some form of mysticism. From an early age, he and Jerry Jr. learned there are no shortcuts on the road to preparing horses to compete at their peak level (Bennett also has a daughter, Katherine, who lives in London, Ontario).
“A lot of the foundation for my career came from my dad – things such as horsemanship, leg work, and not cutting corners,” Dale said. “When you put in the work, they usually run well for you. At the farm, I learned about rehabbing horses from injuries; we would swim them in the pool so they could get exercise without the pounding on their legs.
“Horses that don’t have any problems are easy to train, but you really have to be patient with the others. That’s where he started making his name – by getting those kind of horses back to the track,” Dale said.
The elder Bennett’s best-known reclamation project was Dr. D. Brian Davidson’s Beau Genius, an Ontario-bred son of Bold Ruckus-Royal Colleen, by Viceregal, who Bennett picked up after his 3-year-old season. Although he had won a pair of stakes at Greenwood, Beau Genius was considerably underweight, had intestinal problems and was unable to sweat.
Once he realized the extent of the horse’s issues, Bennett convinced the owner a long rehabilitation was necessary. “We put his legs in ice tubs, worked on his knees and whirlpooled him. We got him eating good and feeling good, and we put him on medication that got him sweating,” Bennett said.
“I told his groom that when we got him back going right, he was going to be one of the best horses he’d ever seen, because he had beaten the best horses at Woodbine when he was younger. But we had to get him feeling good again, and it took a lot of time.”
Beau Genius’s first start as a 4-year-old in October of 1989 (after a nearly 10-month layoff) resulted in an allowance victory at ThistleDown in Ohio, followed two weeks later by a triumph in the ThistleDown Breeders’ Cup Sprint Handicap. Bennett took him to Florida, where he won the Okeechobee Stakes at Hialeah in December and the Hallandale Handicap at Gulfstream in his first race at 5.
The latter was a historic occasion: the final victory for legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker.
The best was still to come for Beau Genius, who finished third at Tampa Bay Downs in the Gasparilla Breeders’ Cup Stakes before winning both the Deputy Minister Handicap and the Olympic Handicap at Gulfstream.
The Ontario-bred then embarked on a six-race winning streak through the spring and summer. Displaying speed, heart and versatility, Beau Genius won at distances from six furlongs to a mile-and-an-eighth, including the Grade I Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth and the Grade II Michigan Mile and One-Eighth Handicap at Detroit.
In the Isaac Murphy Handicap at Arlington Park, Beau Genius beat Black Tie Affair, the following year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year. Bennett hoped to start Beau Genius in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Belmont in the fall of 1990 but was overruled by the owners, who put him in the Classic, where he finished 10th.
“I’d been calling the shots up to then,” Bennett recalled. “And he had been running on Lasix, which was not allowed then at Belmont.”
The likes of Beau Genius don’t come along very often, but Bennett’s list of other high-quality stakes winners is enviable.
One of Bennett’s fastest horses was Lombardi Time, an Alabama-bred gelding he claimed for $10,000 at Fair Grounds in 1990 during his 3-year-old season. After several victories in allowance company, Bennett moved him up to the stakes ranks, winning the North Miami Stakes at Hialeah as a 4-year-old and capturing a pair of black-type events at Thistledown the following year.
Fittingly, Lombardi Time’s final stakes victory came in the 1993 Beau Genius Handicap at Detroit. Lombardi Time finished his career with 25 victories from 68 starts.
In more recent years, Bennett has developed a steady stream of Tampa Bay Downs stakes winners. Secret Romeo, who earned almost $900,000 while competing from 2000-04, counted the 2002 Super Stakes and Pelican Stakes among his 23 career victories. Bucky’s Prayer, who was bred by the Bennetts, won the 2007 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf in stakes-record time of 55.50 seconds for five furlongs. Blind River Fox, who won 24 races and almost $500,000 throughout his career, triumphed for Bennett in the 2009 Pelican Stakes.
At Tampa Bay Downs in 2007, Bennett also achieved the rare feat of saddling two winners in a single race, when his 5-year-old gelding Demagoguery dead-heated with Anglers Reef.
Although he is not a stakes winner, 7-year-old gelding Jr’s Exchange, who is still in training, also deserves mention. He is the Tampa Bay Downs track record-holder at five furlongs on both the main course (56.57) and turf (54.92).
Like her husband, Mary Bennett often knows what’s best for an ailing Thoroughbred. After Jr’s Exchange strained his left front tendon in January of 2012 while setting the five-furlong turf record, Mary Bennett started a daily regimen of Laser therapy to return him to the races. According to the Bennetts, Laser therapy has also been useful with injured jockeys; it promotes healing, stimulates blood circulation and alleviates pain.
Jr’s Exchange is owned by Bennett’s Winning Stables, Inc., in partnership with Pat Scanlon and Raymond Rech. Scanlon says Bennett has always kept the lines of communication open and been forthright in his assessment of every horse Scanlon has purchased.
“Jerry doesn’t pull any punches,” Scanlon said. “I told him when we started out I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to come into GM and tell me how to do my job, and I wasn’t going to tell him how to do his. He knows all the ins and outs of the game. I think he was born to be a trainer. It’s his calling in life.”
Scanlon picked up first-hand insight into Bennett’s horsemanship years ago at the old Detroit Race Course, when they were along the rail watching a horse work out. “I turned around, and Jerry was gone,” Scanlon said. “A horse had gotten loose on the track, and he sprinted down to the gap and pulled the bar shut so the horse didn’t wind up on the backside under a full head of steam. He is just a consummate horseman. In my book he is a Hall of Fame trainer, but he is an even better person than he is a trainer.”
Two years ago, Bennett shocked nearly everyone on the Tampa Bay Downs backside by claiming a 3-year-old named Crimson Knight for $16,000, then sending him out less than three weeks later to finish second by a neck in the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby at odds of 86-1. Crimson Knight is owned by Bennett under his Winning Stables, Inc., banner in partnership with Rech, a builder and real-estate broker who credits Bennett’s ability to get the utmost from each horse to his non-stop devotion.
“Training is his whole life. He is at the barn every morning by 5:30 and he doesn’t leave until everything is done,” Rech said. “He has compassion for every horse, whether it’s a stakes winner or a claiming horse. And he checks every horse before and after every race himself, rather than delegating it to someone else.”
Bennett’s success with horses competing at the claiming level derives from attention to detail and an eye for runners he believes are underperforming, for whatever reason. “I made mistakes, and that’s how you learn,” he said. “You don’t want to be too quick to claim. It’s better to wait and pay a little more and know the horse is racing sound.
“I look at a horse’s conformation, look at how their legs are in the front and the back. A lot of horses, conformation doesn’t matter. It’s basically their heart and their desire. There is something inside them telling them they have to win.”
Although the current Tampa Bay Downs meet has only two weeks remaining, Bennett’s schedule is more hectic than ever. Earlier this week, he hauled horses to Cleveland for the ThistleDown season, which began Friday, and also spent time installing rubber mats in the stalls. The majority of his stable will be based at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., which begins its 2013 meet May 12.
Bennett’s constant drive and enthusiasm are a source of wonderment to those closest to him. “I wish I knew where he got it from,” Dale Bennett said. “He is the hardest-working man I’ve ever known.”
“I don’t understand it myself,” said Mary, who jokes that she is still waiting to go on a honeymoon after 22 years of marriage. “He doesn’t take any vitamins or supplements – it’s just a natural go, go, go. He may sleep for a couple of hours in a rest area, then he gets going again. He’s done it all his life, but it’s amazing to see the energy level he has.”
Indeed, Bennett’s vibrancy and enthusiasm are a source of encouragement for everyone he comes across. Between hauling horses from track to track (Bennett also races in Kentucky and West Virginia) and going to Ocala, where they keep several horses, Bennett keeps fuel-stop proprietors happy through a wide swath of interstate highway. And with a stable consisting of from anywhere between 50-60 horses, the need to maintain quality help is paramount.
Carlos Cacho, the stable foreman, has been with Bennett for 15 years. So have his brothers, Angel, Jr., and Victor, and their father, Angel, who work as grooms. And Bennett also relies heavily on the services of his exercise riders: Alex Mendieta, Tim Strong and Tom Pellegrino.
“He (Bennett) is like another father to me, and Mary is like a mom,” said Carlos Cacho, who adds that Bennett gives him the freedom to do his job. “It’s like you are working your own business. He has helped me a lot.”
The prospect of developing future stable stars keeps Bennett going strong. The Bennetts still own Bucky’s Prayer, and earlier this year in Ocala the 11-year-old broodmare foaled a filly by 2010 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Big Drama “that is absolutely the most perfect thing you’ve ever seen,” Bennett said. They have another broodmare, 8-year-old Crimson Bucky, in foal to Big Drama, and they stand a son of Beau Genius named Beau Classic at stud in Ohio.
“When the horses get in your blood, they become like your kids,” he said. “Mary says I spend all our money on the horses, but you have got to love them if you’re in this sport.”
Around Bennett, the subject of retirement never comes up. He believes he is doing the job he is meant to do, and sees no reason to stop while he’s still loving it and the horses are performing at a high level.
“It’s like that girl (jockey Rosie) Napravnik,” Bennett said. “I’ve never met her, but I’ve seen her on the simulcasts, and she will get on a horse and they’ll run for her. It’s just a God-given gift.”