Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: A Family Business That ‘Just Gets In Your Blood’

by | 03.22.2017 | 2:34pm
"It seems like I can watch them and I can tell when something isn’t right," Williamson says of his eye for training

Trainer Brian Williamson had a hard time believing what he was seeing last Saturday, when jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. elected not to send the heavily-favored Terra Promessa to the lead in Oaklawn's Grade 2 Azeri Stakes. Chris Landeros, piloting the Williamson-trained Streamline, took advantage, gauging a perfect stalking trip just off the leader, She Mabee Wild.

“You could see Chris looking underneath his legs to see where the favorite was,” said Williamson. “It looked like he could have went a little earlier than he did, but he looked back and decided to stay where he was a bit longer, which was probably for the best.”

At the head of the lane, Landeros allowed the gritty Streamline to put her head in front. He had saved just enough horse that Streamline held off Eskenformoney by a length at the wire. An elated Williamson greeted his stable star in the winner's circle; the 6-year-old mare had just given him his first graded stakes victory in nearly three years.

The moment was that much more special because the winning owner just so happens to be Williamson's mother-in-law, Nancy Vanier. She, of course, was married to the venerable Harvey Vanier, a leading trainer on the Midwest circuit in the 1980's and 1990's, with whom she had bred and raced Streamline's first four dams in Illinois. The couple also purchased, raced and stood Streamline's graded stakes-winning sire, Straight Line.


On a personal level, the win represented the culmination of a life-long passion for Williamson, 56, a Chicago native who didn't grow up in a racing family. He only happened upon life on the backside in 1983, when a brother-in-law let Williamson tag along as he went to work at Arlington.

“It just gets in your blood,” Williamson, said. “I tried to leave for a little while, but I didn't like the outside working world anymore. So I went right back to the racetrack.”

It was on the Arlington backside that Williamson first caught sight of Lyda Vanier. He convinced her to go on a date with him, and they quickly became a regular “item.” One morning in the late 1980s, Harvey Vanier was short-handed in the shed row, so his daughter called on her boyfriend.

Harvey Vanier was an Arlington Park legend; he won the leading trainer title a total of eight times, five of those in consecutive years. He also captured a training title at Keeneland, where he won the Blue Grass Stakes twice. Vanier started three runners in the Kentucky Derby, the best of those finishing fifth, but he won a number of Grade 1 races in his career, including the Travers, the La Canada, and the American Derby. Though records from the 1940s are difficult to bring up, Vanier likely collected more than 2,000 wins in his 60-plus year career.

Williamson worked his way up into an assistant position for Vanier and married the trainer's daughter in 1991. In 2004, when his health began to decline, Vanier handed the majority of the training business over to his son-in-law, though the veteran still ran a few horses in his own name through 2007.

It was during this period of transition that the family happened upon Straight Line at the 2003 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Nancy and Lyda Vanier make up the more pedigree-focused aspect of the business; the pair selected the son of Boundary for both his physical attributes and as a good potential outcross for some of their mares. They paid just $15,000 for the colt.

Straight Line was a very good 2-year-old, winning his first two starts in Harvey Vanier's name and later capturing the G3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs. Transferred to Williamson's care, he won three more stakes races including the G3 Ack Ack Handicap, though the latter was accomplished under Vanier's banner. The Vaniers retired him with earnings of $489,026 and stood him on their Fairbury Farm in Illinois starting in 2008.

“We bred a lot to him, but when we were running his babies as 2-year-olds they weren't running any good,” Williamson recalled. “We thought maybe he wasn't gonna be any good at all. Then we had a bunch that as they got older, they got better and started winning.”

Though Harvey Vanier passed away on Dec. 1, 2013, the legacy he and his wife built together will stand for a long time. Unfortunately, it will no longer be based out of Illinois; Nancy Vanier bought a farm in Versailles, Ky., not long after her husband retired, and the Fairbury Farm has recently been sold.

Harvey Vanier passed along his training business to Williamson, his son-in-law

The late Harvey Vanier passed along his training business to Williamson, his son-in-law

“The Illinois breeding program and the purse structure in Illinois has really gone downhill, so we had to make alternate plans,” said Williamson, who has taken a string of horses to Churchill for the past several years, though he still keeps a dozen or so at whichever of the Chicago-area tracks is operating. “Considering how far the Illinois program had come just to be torn down like this, it's really sad.”

Streamline's lifetime consistency is something Williamson said she definitely inherits from her female line, the first three of which were Illinois-bred stakes winners and the first four all bred by the Vaniers. In 17 starts, Streamline has never finished worse than fourth, and the majority of her efforts (seven) have been wins. What Streamline did not inherit, however, was her dam's affinity for turf.

“Her mother (Love Handles) was more of a turf horse, she won a stake or two on the turf, so I was trying to make Streamline a turf horse,” Williamson laughed. “Once I put her on the dirt, she showed us what she really liked.”

Williamson said Streamline's attitude is one of the things that has kept the mare showing up every time she enters the starting gate.

“She's real calm, she'll stand there on the track, but then when you turn her around and a horse comes by inside of her she'll try to go with it,” he said. “I've also seen her, in the middle of a gallop, kick at some horse that came too close to her, which scared the heck out of me.”

Another factor in Streamline's consistency has to be Williamson's attention to detail, though he only admitted to the practiced ability when pressed. To that point, the trainer has managed to accumulate a total of 606 career wins and over $16 million in earnings with mostly state-bred and lower-level horses.

“It seems like I can watch them and I can tell when something isn't right,” he relented. “Sometimes you can see stuff coming before it happens, but if you wait too long then its not a good thing.”

These days, Nancy Vanier, 82, lives with her daughter and Williamson in Arkansas while he operates from his winter base at Oaklawn.

“She was staying in Kentucky and getting a little lonely, so we brought her down here and she's having a great time,” Williamson said. “We've got a great relationship. I've been married 26 years to her daughter, so we pretty much know each other pretty good now.”

With Streamline pointed to the G1 Apple Blossom at the end of Oaklawn's meet, a race in which she was second last year, Williamson is hoping to keep the positive momentum going throughout the year.

“The waters will get a little deeper, and Asmussen's filly (Terra Promessa) will be tough, but they're going to have to run to beat us, too,” he said of the Apple Blossom. “Anyway, I've got a few horses now and good clients, so I just need to keep doing what I'm doing.”

  • Steve Andersen

    Great win for team Vanier, wonderful legends in the racing game!

  • whirlaway

    Enjoyed this story the race track is made up of many people like Harvey Vanier a very nice win
    for this family, Congratulations.

  • Tinky

    Very nice article.

    I was lucky enough to have cut my teeth in Chicago during what can now be looked back on as the Golden Era of Illinois-bred racing. I headed east well before Brian began to train, but have very fond memories of Harvey and Nancy, and their remarkable successes. It wasn’t only training, of course, but buying at sales (on a relative shoestring), and breeding, and in every one of those aspects of the game they were both creative and successful.

    Of the many nice horses that they raced, I have two, very personal favorites. One was by the best Illinois-bred sire ever, Zen (by Damascus), and his name was Zen King. While he never had stakes pretensions, he was one of the very best mud horses I ever saw, and this was when slop was slop.

    He won 20 of 84 races, the first two-thirds or so for the Vaniers (before being claimed away). Prior to physical issues forcing him into low-lever claiming races, he won five of six starts on sloppy tracks, every one by open lengths. His only loss came after a layoff when he obviously wasn’t right, and trailed throughout.

    The other horse was a mare by Wajima called Pretty Perfect, and she was stakes caliber. She won nine of 23 starts, including stakes at Arlington, Churchill and Gulfstream. The reason that I remember her so fondly is that towards the end of her career, she appeared off of a layoff in stakes race at Gulfstream in early February, 1985. It was a typically deep field for the period, but Pretty Perfect made a spectacular pre-rare appearance. She looked extremely well in the paddock, and her warm-up that day was one of the best I’ve ever seen. It was the type of warm-up that guaranteed to those of us paying attention that she was set to run to her very best.

    In spite of having won a stakes at CD in her previous start in November, she was sent off at 12/1 due mainly to the step-up in class. I didn’t have time to mortgage the house – in fact I didn’t own one at the time – but I did bet ever dollar in my pocket on her, and watched with both confidence and delight as she won by a length under Gerland Gallitano, with whom she had an excellent affinity.

    I don’t remember where my long-time racing friend and I ate that night (possibly Tarks), but I’m quite sure that we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. So thanks for that, Harvey and Nancy, and I wish the family many more successes in the future.

  • Play Nice

    Is Straight Line still standing at stud for the Vaniers?

    • Chelsea Hackbarth

      Straight Line is registered in Kentucky for 2017, and is located at their farm in Versailles. Mrs. Vanier was reportedly looking into standing him in Arkansas for the 2018 season.

      • Play Nice

        That’s great that they have stuck by him and he has rewarded them, too. Thanks Chelsea. And lovely work with the story, too:-)

  • Insightful piece about the Vaniers and Williamsons. Fingers crossed for Streamline in the Apple Blossom.

  • martin keane

    Hi! i worked for harvey. he should be hall of famer. the best!

  • martin keane

    and,old russel mc kay, the hounds too! whoa! whoa!

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