Remembering Danny Perlsweig: Old-School Trainer Touched Lives On The Backstretch

by | 03.01.2018 | 3:39pm
Dan Perlsweig, aboard Jackie W after a winning race at Cumberland, Md., in 1952

(Editor's Note: Gulfstream Park will remember Danny Perlsweig during a winner's circle ceremony after the first race Saturday. Perlsweig was active creating Backstretch Appreciation Days at Gulfstream and Monmouth Park, spoke at the Universities of Louisville and Arizona, and earned the Dogwood Dominion Award in 1999 for unsung heroes in racing.)

Danny Perlsweig may not have been a household name. There are trainers with more wins but perhaps none with such an accomplished resume. Yet great things always end. Danny developed a disease that slowly silenced his quick wit. The process was a portrait in grace. And Danny peacefully passed away Feb. 27.

His crowning moment was buying and training 1980 Eclipse Award winning 2-year-old colt Lord Avie. After bidding $37,000 for the son of Lord Gaylord at a 2-year old sale Perlsweig had one problem … he didn't have the money. “But I had to have that horse,” he said. The SKS stable bought Lord Avie and parlayed that into $11M in one year.

Perlsweig said, “Anyone can train a good horse but a good trainer will hit the bullseye more often.” And Lord Avie was never off-the-board.

Lord Avie and Dan Perlsweig (right) at Lane's End Farm in 1993

But modern computer systems don't do Perlsweig justice. Equibase records date to 1976 and report that he had 3,870 training starts, 505 wins and earned $7.9 million in purses. But Perlsweig often spoke of his training titles at Liberty Bell. These would have been during that late 1960's. I have a win picture of him riding Jackie W in Cumberland, Maryland in 1952. None of this was counted.

Another runner he trained was Natania. Owned by Dogwood Stable she earned $441,000 back when that was a lot of money. Around 1986 Perlsweig anointed me to graze Natania outside of the shedrow. As the mare snacked, Perlsweig took frequent glances to check if all was okay. I wouldn't have let go of that mare if she ran out of the stable gate.

Danny trained some of Dogwood Stables second stringers. During a 2-year old sale Perlsweig found a filly prospect that wasn't on Cot Campbell's short-list. But Perlsweig recommended her. The gray filly, Smoke'n Frolic, became a graded stakes winner of $1.5 million for Dogwood.

But it wasn't always easy. Perlsweig mucked stalls for the Philadelphia Police Department. He then became a World War II enlisted Navy sailor. Perlsweig said he was one of the first to set foot on Japanese soil after the surrender.

In the Navy he was an excellent boxer. Once while preparing for a bout he asked what it meant when the opponent blessed himself. His corner man said, “Not a damn thing if he can't fight!” His stories demystified life – and horse racing.

After his military service Perlsweig galloped horses and became a jockey. Once at Belmont Park he was asked to work a horse a mile. He broke from the wire but thought the horse tired before completing one lap. As he dismounted the trainer kicked Perlsweig in the butt – and he fell. He then remembered that once around at Belmont Park is a mile and a half. Regardless, the horse, who I think was named Boy Knight, won its stakes race.

His jockey career ended after a spill at Havre de Grace. He said that every bone in his body was broken. But in trademark style Perlsweig said his hard head was okay even though jocks wore papier mache helmets. Perlsweig began wearing a copper bracelet because he thought it relieved pain.

As a budding trainer Perlsweig spoke of how he and Allen Jerkens lived in neighboring trailers and grew tomatoes for sustenance. And Perlsweig could have ended up sharing a shedrow with Jerkens in New York. “Kenny Noe guaranteed me stalls but my family wanted to stay near Monmouth Park,” he said without regret.

Perlsweig at the races

Perlsweig set up shop at Monmouth Park in Barn 8 – which he shared with Hubert “Sonny” Hine. Across the path was good friend Warren “Jimmy” Croll. Between Lord Avie, Holy Bull and Skip Away being around during those years was high cotton. Old schoolers like Croll always made time to talk – just as Perlsweig did.

Regarding the syndication of Lord Avie, “non-assessable stallion shares, that's what you want,” said Perlsweig. Yet while his fortunes grew he retained the old Navy habits. After the races at Monmouth Park he'd wait for Wayne Lukas stable entries to return to their barn. After Lukas assistant Kiaran McLaughlin left we'd pick up the just-removed run down bandages. “That's profit,” said Perlsweig with a smile revealing his overlapping two-front teeth. The bandages were then used to pack horses feet.

“I can squeeze the crap out of a buffalo nickel,” said Perslweig.

He could make a point without being pushy. Everything he said was clear. “I could have been a surgeon, but instead I'm a horse trainer, how smart am I?” he'd quip.

He transitioned smoothly after retiring from training and losing his dear wife Pat. He became a cruise ship ballroom dancer – travelling the world. He also notified clockers of “workers” at Gulfstream Park, and focused on the idea of improving backstretch life.

As Perlsweig walked the backstretch of Monmouth Park in June 2015 he visited with Hall of Famer Jorge Velasquez, who rode Pleasant Colony, Alydar and Lord Avie. Velasquez said, “Thank you Mr. Perlsweig for letting me ride Lord Avie.” Chris McCarron had won the Florida Derby on the colt, replacing an injured Velasquez. But Perlsweig put Velasquez back up. “Not many trainers would do that,” said Velasquez. Perlsweig's son Mark proudly stood nearby.

Perlsweig earned the 1999 Dogwood Dominion award as an unsung hero of the backstretch. On a shoestring he started Backstretch Appreciation Day at Monmouth Park. It became a festival for workers – food was free and gifts were given to the children. Perlsweig hustled most of the donations. He'd supply sweet corn that the track would cook gratis. At dusk Perlsweig would return to barn 8 and feed the tender shucked husks to horses. The event migrated to Gulfstream Park also – with Perlsweig at the helm.

With Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez

One time at Keeneland he met with Charlsie Cantey. Who didn't love her groundbreaking on-air horse reporting? As Perlsweig walked toward her Charlsie yelled, “Danny!” and embraced him. Ever the joker Danny introduced me as a neurosurgeon, and Charlsie gave me a hug too – one I will never forget.

And Perlsweig's friendship with Salty Roberts was old-school fun. A reformed drinker and fighter Roberts parked cars at Monmouth Park and gave his life to Jesus Christ. Roberts founded Racetrack Chaplaincy of America and with Pat Day accomplished great work on the backstretch.

Roberts would throw his arms in the air bless Danny, say a prayer, and be on his way.

Perlsweig retired from training in 1999 and said he'd have to go back to school to train horses today. The horses back then were mostly treated with vitamins before they ran, Lasix, and an anti-inflammatory the day after a race.

At Monmouth Park, circa 1999, I wondered how Perlsweig, in his prime, had no horses to train. It didn't make sense.

Perlsweig would answer any question. He'd admit that in his jockey career guys might let someone win a race if they needed food money. But those were rough and tumble times, before cameras, where jocks could hold an opponent's saddle towel, or pull another's foot out of a stirrup to gain an advantage.

But as kind as Perlsweig was he drove slow-paying owners out of the barn quickly – but he wouldn't cheat them. Once at Keeneland he asked a consignor how much a colt might bring. The man said $20,000 but added that for every dollar Perlsweig bid over that amount they would split 50/50. Perlsweig said, “No thank you.” He bought the colt anyway for $20,000 and it became a stakes winner.

But just when you're ready to crown Perlsweig as a saint he'd fool you. Looking at yearlings we'd compare notes. Perlsweig asked one handler to “walk a colt again, please.” Perlsweig looked at me and grinned, “You dummy that horse is horrible, but that handler is cute,” he said. He provided perspective. Perhaps the generation today would miss that moment for what it was.

But then Perlsweig would counter balance his humorous irreverence. At the grand opening of the The Blood-Horse office he drank free bourbon and ate shrimp. After leaving he drove went to a nearby restaurant for dinner but couldn't find parking. There was a handicapped spot and I suggested that he use the placard in the car. Perlsweig paused and said, “No, that's Patsy's,” referring to his late wife. So we parked far away, and walked.

Another lesson learned.

Perlsweig was the stanchion of Barn 8 at Monmouth Park where many fast horses, and troubled people, found him. He met with people like Will Farish, and then a hot walker, but the tone never changed.

Danny tied the backstretch together. It was a time when people helped one another, laughed and had fun. On a rough day he would open his tack truck and we'd have a shot of morning whiskey.

He wore plaid button snapped shirts, Levi jeans, and paddock boots. He always said please and thank you. Perlsweig didn't have fancy flowers adorning his barn. There was a tomato plant near the feed room and nothing was sweeter. His stall gates were bought from Marion Van Berg and painted pink to match Perlsweig's saddle towels.

He rooted for trainer (now front office exec) John Forbes, drank trainer Pat McBurney's coffee, loved his son Mark's surfing exploits and his daughter Jude's cooking. His grandkids Daniel, Zach and Morgan meant everything to him. Cathy was his companion and they enjoyed dancing and dining.

He also loved his crew that included a cast of characters: his son Mark, daughter-in-law Carolyn, Betty Melendez, Debbie Bitterly, Messiah, Donna, Shorty, Skeeter, Charlie Butler, Al Givens, Bobby Sage … and the list goes on.

Today's generation may have forgotten Lord Avie (1978-2012) too but that sire line survives and can be found in the Spendthrift stallion Itsmyluckyday (who, by the way, was stabled in Barn 8 at Monmouth Park).

Perlsweig was one of the last members of racing's Golden Era. But his influence lives through the people he touched on backstretches across the country.

“Racing is about enjoying your friends, family, and having fun,” said Perlsweig.

Thanks for making it so, Danny.

Steve Montemarano is a lifelong Thoroughbred enthusiast who moonlighted with Dan Perlsweig for 20 years.


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