'A Man of His Word'
Bill Perretti and the farm that shares his name have changed racing
by Nicole Kraft
Bill Perretti did not start his business career with an Ivy League education, family connections or a sizable fortune.
What he had was $10,000, a single gas station/car dealership in
It was the 1960s, and harness racing was in its heyday. Perretti didn’t know much about the sport--and he didn’t really care. He was busy building an empire that reached its first plateau when the dealer known as “Wild Bill” was--within five years of opening his first store—one of the largest Chrysler dealers in America.
But Perretti was far from done. He took his auto kingdom and moved it west to
A man who seems to find success in everything he touches is often seeking new entertainment and interest, and it was that drive that brought him to The Meadowlands, ablaze with glamour and glitter in the late 1970s. So busy was the track that Perretti had difficulty getting a table for dinner, and he wanted to be part of anything that was that exciting.
He began a quest for a trainer, hooking up with George Berkner, and the pair joined forces on the aptly named Wild Bills Skipper, by Meadow Skipper, and Wild Bills Bunny, a half-sister to the Berkner trained B.G’s Bunny.
Combined, the two pacers earned less than $4,000.
It would be easy to imagine Perretti quickly moving on to other pursuits. But “Wild Bill” had long proved himself a man committed to excellence, and one who did not know how to be unsuccessful—at anything. His answer was to buy more horses—horses that, less than 10 years later, were the best in the sport.
On a sprawling homestead in
The farm’s recipe for winning is summed up in one sentence from its owner’s son, Anthony: “Mr. Perretti doesn’t know how to fail.”
The name Perretti has, in what seems like 20 short years, become household among harness racing. It is uttered throughout the upper echelon of the sport—when a top performer prepares to head off to the breeding ranks, when a fantastic filly needs a home in a broodmare band, when a legendary racetrack needed salvation through new ownership.
It is spoken with both admiration for an incredible rise to fame and success over two decades when racing was not at its peak. It is spoken with wonder at the man who seems to find success in most of his equine ventures, as he stands stallions who make champions.
It is also, however, spoken with some trepidation about a man who will not accept failure from himself or from others. It is spoken with a shake of the head when stories are shared about the famed Perretti temper flaring at the most inopportune moments—of the fellow horsemen he has alienated, of the restaurants he has been asked to leave, of the business dealings that have gone south upon the clash of personality.
“Mr. Perretti is one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever known--or ever will know,” said Murray Brown of Hanover Shoe Farms. “They broke the mold when they made him. He’s brash. He’s the epitome of the car salesman. He is also, in my opinion, a very bright man. I think the game is the biggest part of things for him--the battle or the event. Once the battle or event is done, he goes looking for another.
“He can be abrasive. I’ve seen that side. He can also be extremely charming. I don’t think the minutia impacts him in the slightest. He is always looking at the big picture.”
The bespectacled Perretti, with a toothy smile, mop of white hair often stashed under a baseball cap, and snowy beard, rarely gives interviews, preferring to let the farm’s voice come from the mouth of the well-traveled, well-regarded Bob Marks. Marks had gained a lifetime of bloodline knowledge in the years before racing knew the name Perretti, and is now synonymous with the farm.
A former advertising copywriter, Marks entered racing as a gambler, and by the 1960s was writing articles for <I>Trotter Weekly<I>. He eventually wound up virtually editing the publication, and also creating and distributing tip sheets. In the early 1980s he joined
It is Marks, one of the industry’s greatest pedigree minds—and most clever horse namers (see sidebar)--who tells the Perretti story, from the Wild Bill automotive days to the bucolic perfection of the present-day Perretti Farm. It is clear from the warmth in his voice and his knowledge of the subject how much Marks respects all that his boss has accomplished and created.
“He’s very much a renaissance man, in the sense that he dabbles in everything,” said Marks. “He wasn’t educated much, but he’s super-intelligent, and he’s got tremendous entrepreneurial instincts.”
Those instincts led Perretti in his earliest days to use trainers like Steve Demas of No Nukes fame, and a youngster by the name of John Campbell, who was in the 1980s both driving and training as he made his way in the racing business.
Perretti’s early equine purchases further demonstrated his business acumen. He took a big wallet and his ever-growing industry knowledge, and parlayed them into such broodmares as Norah Bell, whom he and partners Lana Lobell Farm and Paula Campbell bred to No Nukes to produce the millionaire race mare Nadia Lobell. Perretti bought out his partners in 1985, before the filly began her stellar racing career. The same year he invested in the Abercrombie mare Angel Be Good, who went on to earn $100,000 on the track.
The blessing of having such good mares is that they carry residual value as broodmares. The curse is having to find somewhere to keep them. That led Perretti to purchase property in
But after losing to Hanover Shoe Farms in a bid to give No Nukes a home upon the closing of Lana Lobell, Perretti had enough of being at the whim of syndicates. He started shopping for his own “major” stallion, said Marks, and settled on 1989 Horse of the Year Matt’s Scooter, a son of outcross stallion Direct Scooter.
“We struck up a relationship with [Matt’s Scooter owners] Gordon Rumpel and Charlie Juravinski, it just sort of happened, and we wound up buying him,” said Marks. “My counsel to Mr. Perretti was very simple; I said, ‘He’s not going to be the next No Nukes, and he’s not going to be the next Meadow Skipper. What he will be is like his father, but better. And he’s going to be long-term—15 or 20 years from now, he’s still going to be siring stake winners. All Volomites do that.’”
To maximize the stallion’s chance at success, the farm analyzed what Matt’s Scooter didn’t have--2-year-old speed—and decided to cross him with bloodlines that had found freshman success.
“We gave him every No Nukes mare we could find, and every Albatross mare we could find, figuring that Albatross was already the preeminent broodmare sire while No Nukes could be the heir apparent,” said Marks.
The experiment worked in Matt’s Scooter’s first season of 1990, as the No Nukes mare No No Abby produced 1993 freshman divisional champion Freedom’s Friend 2,1:53.1 ($637,622), and the Albatross mare Viking Princess produced $399,000 winner Viking Terror. Matt On The Rocks, a winner of $399,054, out of the No Nukes mare Vodka On Ice, led his second crop.
Matt’s Scooter hit pay dirt in his third crop, as he and the Most Happy Fella mare Mossy produced millionairess Mystical Maddy, and the 1994 crop was led by millionaire His Mattjesty, out of the No Nukes mare Lady Hathaway.
After siring 945 starters who earned over $61.7 million, Matt’s Scooter scored his fastest and second richest performer, Royal Mattjesty, who is out of the No Nukes mare Lady Hathaway.
“Matt’s Scooter has turned out to be a very, very good sire,” said Marks. “He’s not a super sire, but he’s been a great sire over the years.”
Cream of the crop
And Matt’s Scooter was just the beginning.
The farm’s stallion roster quickly began to read like a who’s who, as $3 million winner Presidential Ball and 1997 Horse of the Year Malabar Man called Perretti home, as did world champion Falcon Seelster and millionaire Woodrow Wilson winner Jeremys Gambit.
The Perretti consignment, too, also began to read like a celebrity roster, as Marks noted in these edited chronicles from the history section of the farm’s Web site.
* The 1989 crop numbering 33 featured Perretti Farm’s initial major association with the stallion No Nukes, as 11 by that stallion were consigned including the major winners Silky Stallone p,3,1:51 ($785,323), Nuke Of Earl p,4,1:52 ($404,532), Sablevision p,3,1:53 ($379,777), and Nuke Skywalker p,3,1:53 ($259,035). In all, the No Nukes averaged $75,900, with the sales topper Silky Stallone topping the group at $135,000.
* 1990 represented a major expansion for Perretti Farms as the yearling crop swelled to 47, several of which were sold at Tattersalls and the remainder at Harrisburg. Headliners included Nuclear High (No Nukes-Buzzys Gal) p,7,1:53 ($595,548), Cold Warrior (Nihilator-Sniffles Hanover) p,5,1:51 ($150,723)…and a No Nukes filly named Sabilize (Sable Hanover), who would become a headliner in Australia winning the famed Miracle Mile, among other stakes.
* 1992 brought the debut crop of farm stallion Matt’s Scooter, comprising 29 from a total crop of 72. The first Matt’s Scooters made impressive debuts both in the sales ring and later on the racetracks. Perretti’s Matt’s Scooter sales topper that year was Mattamatics p,2,1:56 ($11,089), at $105,000.
* 1996 ushered in the Presidential era as the first offerings of Presidential Ball would join the Matt’s Scooters as major players on the Perretti ticket. Some of the better known “Balls” were Old Hickory p,3,1:54 ($82,479), Lush Limbaugh p,3,1:52 ($212,534), and Angel Be Great p,3,1:54 ($170,816), though unfortunately the sales topper Real Sport (Lady Hathaway) at $250,000 failed to fulfill expectations.
* 1999 saw a major pendulum shifting to incorporate significant trotters along with the traditional pacers. It also brought the farm’s initial $300,000 yearling in Arts Unknown p,4,1:55 ($63,608), an Artsplace brother to 2-year-old speed sensation Mattna Carter. But it would be the trotting yearlings that would create tidal waves, as that year the consignment featured Hambletonian champion Scarlet Knight 3,1:53 and Breeders Crown champion Liberty Balance 3,1:55 ($997,478)…each in utero at the time of their dam’s purchases in 1997.
* 2000 launched the Malabar Man and Tattersalls era at Perretti. The Malabar Mans were well received, with Mallelujah attracting a top bid of $190,000. The year 2000 also represented major offerings by the repatriated Falcon Seelster and newcomer Jeremys Gambit, in addition to the traditional offerings by Matt’s Scooter and Presidential Ball. The 2000 consignment, numbering 76 in its entirety, featured major headliners like millionaire Royal Mattjesty (Matt’s Scooter-Lady Hathaway) p,5,1:48.4, Mcardle (Falcon Seelster –Lilting Laughter) p,3,1:49.1 ($2,455,609), and My Starchip (Pine Chip-My Starlet) 3,1:54.2 ($383,356).
* 2001 incorporated two new presentations into a crop that had swelled to 103. Joining the incumbent Malabar Mans, Matt’s Scooters and Presidential Balls were the initial showcase offerings of the farm’s newest stallions, Artiscape and Muscles Yankee.
* The 2005 yearling crop might have been the most diversified offering to date featuring yearlings by a variety of stallions, highlighted by the first crop of 2002 Horse of the Year Real Desire.
Standards of excellence
Muscles Yankee moves quietly out of his stall, the shuffle of straw giving way to the clip-clop of hoofed feet on a concrete surface. In the early afternoon sunlight, his bay coat reveals a blanket of dapples. His mane and tail sparkle like the locks of a supermodel. His head is held high, as if seeking out a cute filly in a faraway field.
A glance at the halters along the doors of the Perretti Farms stallion row is like a harness racing who’s who—2005 Horse of the Year Rocknroll Hanover, Triple Crown champion Windsong’s Legacy, international trotting star Revenue S, two-time Breeders Crown winner Artiscape, world champion Dream Vacation, Meadowlands Pace consolation and North America Cup winner Red River Hanover, homebred world champion Mcardle—each stallion seemingly more robust and striking than the last.
The farm’s acquisition of Muscles Yankee is just one example of its desire to get the best to make the best, although it was hardly apparent at the time.
“While we’re always looking for the best available,” said Marks, “we didn’t buy into Muscles Yankee—thinking he was anything more than a promising trotting colt that we’d enjoy racing in partnership with Jimmy Wheeler a charming rogue who we’d become friendly with at Harrisburg. We had a great sale that year and it was more of an impulse than anything else. We had never even seen the colt.
“We said, ‘We’ll take 25 percent of the trotter.’ We didn’t know who he was. We never looked at him. We weren’t even on the program, but after his 2-year-old year, when it was obvious that he was going to be next year’s Hambletonian favorite--to us, anyway--the opportunity came to buy another 25 percent because Wheeler was in financial doldrums. Bill’s entrepreneurial instincts took over. He saw it as an economic bargain for us.”
Charlie Keller III of Yankeeland Farm, breeder of Muscles Yankee, admitted he was pleased when Perretti acquired part of the promising colt, because he knew that meant Muscles Yankee would get every opportunity to succeed as a stallion.
“He went out and spent a lot of money on good trotting mares to be bred to Muscles, and that was very helpful in getting nice offspring,” said Keller. “He is always willing to make the financial investment. He has spent a lot of his own money for our industry.
“My experiences with Bill have been very good. We have a lot of one-on-one conversations, and I always enjoy them. He’s a colorful guy. He’s very frank and very strong in his opinions. I’m sure some people find that irritating, but my experiences are good.”
The farm’s focus was still on trotters when Malabar Man made his run through his Horse of the Year season. When Perretti was approached about standing the son of Supergill, the farm quickly jumped.
In the 1990s, after he had already sent to stud such incredible stallions as Artsplace, Western Hanover and Life Sign, George Segal promised Marks, “You’ve got my next stallion.” Marks, who forgets nothing, woke Segal up at 6:30 in the morning of Oct. 4, 1997, just hours after a Bluegrass Stake in which Artiscape came from 10 lengths off the pace to win in 1:52.3.
“George,” Marks declared, “You said I get the next stallion, right?”
Segal responded, “Yes.”
Marks simply replied, “I want him,” and never even said the horse’s name.
Artiscape became a two-time Breeders Crown winner, and has since sired 2004 Horse of the Year Rainbow Blue and 2004 North America Cup winner Yankee Cruiser. From just 321 starters, he has sired 39 $100,000 winners, and his foals have total purse earnings of more than $17 million. He was moved to Winbak of New York for the 2006 season in an effort to capitalize on the state’s rich slots programs.
Winners and losers
Don’t think for a minute, however, that Perretti doesn’t lose a few too.
The farm wanted No Nukes, and supported him heavily even after losing out to Hanover Shoe Farms. It was behind Hanover yet again in the pursuit of world champion Western Ideal, and watched as that stallion sired millionaires Rocknroll Hanover and Cabrini Hanover--as well as world’s fastest racing pacer American Ideal--from his first crop. The farm even tried to get the great Cam Fella when he left Dreamaire Farm, but “weren’t aggressive enough,” according to Marks. He went to Bob Tucker’s Stonegate Farm and sired millionaires Eternal Camnation, Armbro Positive, Pacific Fella and Armbro Operative.
Finally, Perretti sought Art Major and Bettor’s Delight, but lost both to Blue Chip Farms.
“I’m not so sure that we needed Bettor’s Delight,” admitted Marks, “and maybe we’re lucky that we didn’t get him.”
But one stallion on which the farm simply would not compromise was Rocknroll Hanover, the Western Ideal half-brother to Red River Hanover and millionaire Royalflush Hanover. The farm bought 10 percent of the colt in July from owners Jeff Snyder and Audrey Campbell’s Lothlorien Equestrian Center, after Rocknroll Hanover had won the North America Cup and Meadowlands Pace. The agreement kept the colt racing through 2005 for trainer Brett Pelling, after which he would be retired to stand at Perretti.
“He was the first one that we absolutely, positively felt we had to have,” Marks said. “Pursuing a stallion is ability, instinct and need. We needed a pacing stallion. The opportunity was that Jeff Snyder wanted to diversify a little bit, and he liked the idea that the horse would stand in New Jersey, as [the Snyder-owned 1994 Horse of the Year and Hanover stallion] Cam’s Card Shark does.
“I told Mr. Perretti that Rocknroll Hanover is like Bret Hanover all over again. Bill’s instincts were that we could not afford to miss out on him.”
If racing performance is any indication, then Marks was right on the mark yet again. Rocknroll Hanover ended his career by winning the Breeders Crown, capping a 26-race, 15-win career, in which he earned $2.7 million. The colt averaged better than $105,000 a start.
“What didn’t this horse do?” asked Marks rhetorically.
Arriving at Perretti Farms feels as much like driving through Bluegrass Country as it does a cruise through the Garden State. The farm was constructed, according to general manager Anthony Perretti, “very much on Kentucky guidelines.”
Spacious, with rolling hills and cascading tree lines, Perretti’s New Jersey operation contains 750-plus acres, housing more than 200 horses, primarily mares and weanlings.
It started as an old potato farm, with nary a fence or barn to be found. In the next two decades, under the Perretti vision, it was modeled and crafted to suit every anticipated equine and human need.
And in a salute to the history that predated the Perretti presence, pastures bear names like Malsbury and Cemetery, the former the moniker of one of the original old farmers of the area, and the latter a nod to the 19th-century burial site that is visible from the hill.
The equine end of the Perretti operation is supervised by stallion-broodmare manager Fidencio Cervantez, who came from Mexico knowing barely a word of English and is now considered indispensable in caring for some of the most famous stallions in the world. Dr. Peter Boyce, who used to be with Hanover Shoe Farms, is Perretti’s attending vet, while Linda Petrenko runs the office, and Lindsey Taylor runs the lab.
“You have to surround yourself with good people--that’s Bill’s doctrine,” said Marks. “We have the best people for the best horses.”
The mares—200 in the off season and up to 300 in the breeding season--are bred in New Jersey and then the youngsters get shipped to the family’s 980-acre Kentucky property after they’re weaned. Perretti owns the majority of the broodmares—including such greats as Sable Hanover, dam of $300,000 winners Sablevision and Mattduff, and Lady Hathaway, who produced Royal Mattjesty and Breeders Crown winner His Mattjesty. The farm has also played host to some pretty famous boarders, among them world champion Worldly Beauty and 2001 Horse of the Year Bunny Lake.
Marks discussed the idyllic mechanics of broodmare life at Perretti, stressing that often the best thing that happens is often nothing out of the ordinary. He acknowledged that if he knows anything about a given mare besides the fact she had a foal, something is usually wrong.
“I always get into trouble whenever I walk around the racetrack, and people say, ‘How’s my mare?’” he said laughing. “I say, ‘Damned if I know!’ The reason why is, if I know, you’ve got a problem. If I don’t know, she’s in one of those fields, fat, sassy and raising her foal, doing exactly what she’s supposed to be doing in harmony with nature.”
Then Marks inadvertently reveals one of his own secrets to his own success: He actually does know something about the farm happenings.
“I can tell you Worldly Beauty is possessive,” he said slyly. “And she fell in love. Her buddy last year was Vernon Blue Chip, the dam of Blue Mac Lad, and if any of those other mares went near Vernon Blue Chip, Worldly Beauty was kicking them away. She was protecting her friend. She’s a boss.”
Worldly Beauty had a Western Ideal filly in 2005 and is in foal to Cam’s Card Shark.
As for Perretti’s own foals, they return home to the Garden State in September as yearlings, having been raised at the farm’s Paris, Ky., annex where they are prepped for the Standardbred Horse Sale Company’s Harrisburg sale under Cervantez’s vigilant eye.
“Basically they’re groomed and they’re exercised, and they’re taught to lead and they’re taught to stand, and they’re taught to do everything a horse must do,” said Marks. “By the time they finish with the walker, starting gates don’t scare them. They’re virtually ready to be harnessed and hitched up from the day they are brought home after sale.”
Trials and tribulations
While Perretti Farms may be on its way to perfecting the way it does the pedigree matching, breeding, foal raising and selling end of the sport, roadblocks keep Perretti from getting too complacent. As a New Jersey breeding operation, the farm must deal with such “frustrations,” said Marks, as the prohibition against embryo transfer foals in New Jersey Sires Stakes, which fortunately is slated for adjustment commencing with the foals of 2007.
“It’s ludicrous that the horse can race in the Hambletonian but not in the New Jersey Sires Stakes,” Marks said. “[In 2004] we sold a colt that Bob McIntosh bought. He was out of My Starlet, and he had to be an embryo transfer, because she can get in foal, but she can’t carry it. He sold for $120,000. He might’ve got $200,000 without that rule. He was the complete package.
“At that moment we realized, we’re cutting off our nose to spite our [face]. We’re not protecting anybody with this rule—we’re just hurting the breeders. But that’s always been the problem in New Jersey.”
Perretti is “vehemently,” according to Marks, against an industry proposal that attempts to address bloodline diversity by limiting stallion books. The move is a result of a study by Dr. Gus Cothrane that revealed potentially dangerous levels of inbreeding in the Standardbred.
“There are too many things wrong with the business than to worry about whether the genetics might dry up in 40 years,” Marks said. “That is kind of sidestepping the issue. The main question would be, who’s going to buy these yearlings? How do we get fans? Why can’t we get the collective powers that be together to implement meaningful marketing programs?”
Additional challenges have come as Perretti sought expansion beyond the breeding and racing end of the business. His most notable foray came in 2000, when Perretti put together a group of investors to purchase The Red Mile and the Tattersalls Sale Company, including Frank Antonacci (Lindy Farms), the late Paul Nigito (Joie De Vie Farm), George Segal (Brittany Farms) and Joe Thomson (Winbak Farms).
Perretti was hands-on with just about every aspect of the track—from advertising to paving the parking lot. Those close to the situation said that within two years his relationship with some other investors had soured to the point that the partnership no longer seemed viable.
By 2002 Perretti, who had invested substantially in both his new Kentucky acreage and the track facility itself, had sold out. There was talk that he would eventually leave the horse business completely.
“Bill didn’t think it was going the way he wanted it going, so he decided to sell out,” Thomson recalled. “He’s an entrepreneur type of guy. I think he thought it was in the best business interest of he and The Red Mile for him to sell.”
Thomson credited Perretti with reviving the floundering track with new ideas and new management personnel, acknowledging that there are not many people that could have accomplished as much as Perretti did in The Red Mile’s revitalization. The challenge came in as old ways began to prevail over new ideas, and once relationships started to sour, there was no ability to recover.
Marks said Perretti’s goal with the purchase was to create a “collective,” like a cartel, especially with the sales (Tattersalls) aspect of the venture, whereby the group would join forces to create a dominating yearling marketplace at one locale. The other partners disagreed, however, and some continued to sell their yearlings at the Standardbred Horse Sale Company’s Harrisburg Sale.
“When it was obvious that it was not going to be run as a cartel situation, but rather more like independent people doing their own thing who happen to own this track and sale, Mr. Perretti did not think that was a good business plan,” Marks said. “He just felt that at that point we would sell out--divest our interest.”
“Being a self-made man, I believe Bill likes to make decisions on his own,” added Thomson. “He does not like people telling him what to do. Bill is a fellow that if he’s a friend, he’s a great friend. If he’s an enemy, that’s not so good for you.
“He loves the action. When things are boring or humdrum, Bill is not going to be in that business very long. He likes to go forward.”
Perretti’s management style—his way or the highway—may be unique in racing, but he is far from alone in the business world. In fact, Marks said, Perretti’s model closely follows that of his good friend, George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees.
“George is the only guy that Mr. Perretti actually calls ‘boss,’” Marks said with a chuckle. “Mr. Perretti has done the same thing that George has done with the Yankees—he wants people around that are smarter than him. There are not too many people that are, but basically that’s what he seeks out--intelligence and talent.
“But he is also just as unmerciful. He’ll get rid of somebody in two seconds if he doesn’t think they’ll measure up.”
The future is now
At Perretti Farms, the future is seen in Rocknroll Hanover, who expects a full book in 2006, and with the continued shuttle of stallions like Red River Hanover and Mcardle between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres to service the ever-expanding breeding market.
The future is also evident in the return to the farm of Perretti’s son Anthony, who cut his teeth in the car dealerships and returned from a sojourn in the film business to serve as the farm’s general manager, and in the family support offered by Bill Perretti’s wife Cindy, an accomplished horsewoman, and daughter, Veronica, a recent George Washington University graduate.
Marks, too, represents the farm’s future, as he maintains the careful balance between Perretti’s passions and the interaction the farm has with the Standardbred industry as a whole, fostering the relationships that will bring promising blood through the Perretti gates for generations to come.
Behind it all is Bill Perretti, now age 79, a man who continues to see the future as happening right now.
“He’s very much of a renaissance man, in a sense where he has expertise in a lot of areas,” said Marks of his boss. “He’s terrific at just looking at the big picture. He does not get involved in the small aspects--he gets people to do that for him.
“I think he’d like to be known as a breeder of great horses, of world champions, and he’d like to be known for evolutionary ideas. He’s very much a man of his word and a man of the world.”
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