John Hertler and Akindale Farm go back a long way together. Akindale’s John Hettinger was one of Hertler’s first clients when the trainer went out on his own in the late 70’s, after working for Hall of Fame trainer P.G. Johnson for 14 years, during which time Hettinger had horses with Johnson.
“I was Mr. Johnson’s assistant and I got to know Mr. Hettinger, and when I went out on my own, he loaded me up,” said Hertler, sitting in his office on the Belmont backstretch. “I had him for a long, long time.”
Among the highlights he remembers is the filly Yestday’s Kisses, the Akindale homebred who won the G3 La Prevoyante and G3 Martha Washington.
Though Hettinger eventually broke off from Hertler—“He fell in love with Nick Zito,” said Hertler—the trainer maintained a relationship with the farm, a relationship that extends beyond the racetrack.
These days, Hertler has a full barn of 22 horses; he has trained for big names like Bill Parcells and Mike Francesa, whom he characterized as a “very nice, generous man with a heart of gold”—which might come as something of a surprise to those accustomed to Francesa’s on-air persona.
His best horse—“absolutely by miles,” he said–was Slew o’ Gold; he trained the son of Seattle Slew for the last six races of his career, after he’d won the 1983 Eclipse for champion three-year-old. In Hertler’s care, Slew o’ Gold won the Whitney, Woodward, Marlboro Cup, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and finished third in the 1984 Breeders’ Cup Classic, then being placed second via disqualification. In 1984, he won the Eclipse for older males. E
No such superstars inhabit the Hertler shedrow currently, but Hertler’s joy in his work in undiminished.
“I get to come here and see every horse every day,” he said, humbly and gratefully. “It works out good for me.”
It works out good for his horses, too.
These days, Hertler’s relationship with Akindale is a joint effort on Thoroughbred aftercare, with Hertler runners heading to the Pawling, New York farm for re-training when their racing days are done. Hertler is a big fan of Kathleen Feron, Akindale’s current trainer, and when he has a horse that can’t run any more, he calls Feron, who gets the horse to the farm and turns it over to Erin Pfister, who runs the Akindale aftercare program.
Two recent Hertler horses that have found their way to Akindale and second careers are Citifest and Oystershucker.
“I hear Citifest is jumping like mad!” said Hertler, his enthusiasm evident.
And indeed he is, according to Heather Carlson, who re-trains horses at Akindale.
“He’ll jump anything,” she said. “He’s fearless.”
In 45 career starts, Citifest got to the winner’s circle four times; his most notable performance was a second in the 2009 Maryland Million Turf Sprint. He earned nearly $250,000 on the track.
“He was a good racehorse that just couldn’t go on,” said Hertler. “He started to run mediocre and rather than beat him down to the claiming ranks, the owners decided to retire him, so I called Katie [Feron].”
Now, the 8-year-old lives in Connecticut, adopted by Alicia Coviello, easy enough to ride that occasionally Coviello’s 13-year-old daughter gets on him. He recently competed as a novice level eventer.
“He took to jumping like a flea to a dog,” said Carlson. “He’s got his knees up to his eyeballs.
“I can’t say enough good things about him; he wasn’t even off the track that long before we started re-schooling him. He came right around and is loving life.”
Swaybacked and with bad knees, Oystershucker never made it to the races. “He just couldn’t do it,” said Hertler. “He got to be too sore and he just couldn’t navigate it.”
So he too headed to Akindale, and while Carlson admits that he’s not the athlete that Citifest is, his other attributes have served him well in retirement.
“We had him x-rayed and a chiropractor looked at his back, and he’s fine,” said Carlson. “He didn’t seem comfortable at first, so we waited until this spring and put him back to work.”
Now, he’s on trial at New Canaan Mounted Troop, a non-profit educational and charitable organization that “builds leadership, responsibility and confidence in youth through sound horsemanship,” according to its mission statement. If he continues to be successful there, Oystershucker will have a new job. He’s done well in his first two weeks.
“They loved how well-mannered he was,” said Carlson. “He’s personable, he likes to be brushed, he’s quiet to ride and easy to groom. He’s just pleasant to be around.”
He’s also, she said, “really good at trail riding.”
“He’s four years old and he’s got the temperament of a 30-year-old,” she said with a laugh. “Anyone could ride him.”
The two horses may have different talents, but their temperaments, said Carlson, are similar.
“Both have the nicest personalities,” she said. “They’re willing to please, they have really good attitudes…I love both of them.”
“They’ve done a magnificent job,” said Hertler. “I trust Katie and John. When you’ve got a horse that can’t run any more, it’s hard to trust that someone’s going to take care of them and not let them starve to death.
“Years ago, we didn’t have this; we used to just run them for $1,500 at Charles Town. Now we can get away from that. If they’re sore, we don’t keep going on them. We’d rather stop and give them a rest and a new career.”
Both Hertler and Akindale will be at Belmont Saturday for New York Showcase Day, featuring seven stakes races for state-breds. Hertler will have three entries: Half Wildcat in the Bertram F. Bongard; Considerate in the Ticonderoga; and Barrel of Love in the Mohawk.
Akindale will be part of the Showcase Day fall festival, focusing on Empire State organizations and products. Pfister will be there to talk about Akindale’s rescue, retirement, re-training, and adoption programs. Unfortunately, none of Akindale’s star residents, who include Evening Attire, Tacticianor, Hotstufanthensome, Greeley’s Legacy, and Callmetony, will be in attendance.
Talking about his life at the racetrack, Hertler said, “I’m 62 and I’ve been doing this since I was 14; I’ve been lucky like that. It’s hard for people to find something they really like, and I love this.
“I’m just blessed.”
And so, it seems, are the horses in his barn, who retire sound enough to head north to Akindale, to begin a second career.
For more posts about Akindale Farm, click here.