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Feature

Billie Schwartz continues family love of the sport

Billie Schwartz, who lost her husband Michael after his untimely death in 1999 after 35 years of marriage, has continued to carry on as a proud California owner and breeder and also recently returned to a seat on the California Harness Horsemen’s Association board.

“Michael and I met at Monticello Raceway in upstate New York,” Billie related. “We both had a love for harness racing even then, but only as fans.”

The couple eventually moved to California, and as Michael became more successful in his professional life, they decided to become more involved in harness racing. They chose Ross Croghan to be their trainer, which right there was a very good move.

“We attended our first yearling auction in 1981 and purchased our first yearling, Best of Dani, for $3,500,” Billie recalled. “He was a late foal, a big strapping beautiful horse, and didn’t race until he was a 3-year-old.”

Best of Dani went on to become the California Horse of the Year in 1983 under Croghan’s direction, banking a then very cool $110,000. “I remember thinking “My, how easy is this?’ We should have lots of horses. That’s when the love affair with the horses really was born.

“I can’t tell you the excitement that occurred whenever Dani raced. He came from behind and could go first over, like no other horse I have ever owned. In those days, there was really tough competition, which made his wins even more exciting.

“The winner’s circle was thrilling, filled with friends and well wishers. Even today, Dani holds the world record for winning a mile and five-eighths marathon over some highly competitive peers.”

Best of Dani’s groom was Nicole Kraft, who would go on to become editor of Hoofbeats magazine. When the horse was retired, Michael and Billie gave the pacer to his faithful and loving groom. “Every time the magazine needed a generic picture of a horse, she used a picture of Dani, because he was such a beautiful looking animal,” Billie noted.

Over the years, the Schwartz stable campaigned hundreds of horses. When Croghan decided to go East, Michael chose James Wilkinson Jr. to be their trainer. “It was a wise choice,” Billie said.

Due to Michael Schwartz’ success in business, he was able to retire at a young age. This gave him time to become involved in the California Harness Horse Association, where he dedicated himself to helping horsemen and furthering the promotion of the sport in California.

He served as President of the CHHA for a number of years, and during that time mastered the art of the deal, including several positive interactions with Los Alamitos owner Ed Allred,” Billie noted.“Michael negotiated the harness lease at Los Alamitos and the game was thriving in the state.”

Billie’s passion for the sport has continued after Michael’s untimely passing, having bred and raced numerous California Horses of the Year in partnership with Wilkinson. “Jim and I have weathered the many challenges that California harness racing has incurred and continues to face,” she noted.

“We continue to try to keep our ship afloat over these very turbulent waters. We have remained loyal to California and cannot understand why this state, the richest in the nation, cannot support harness racing, a sport that has been woven into its very fabric for over 100 years.

“We have bought horses at auctions and at times have had to import semen to impregnate our mares because of the diminishing returns from the California Sire Stakes program. California must remain competitive with other states as well as being innovative in delivering its product to a new generation.

“We need to look at successful venues and see what works and implement these policies here in California. We need to be aggressive in promoting the excitement of the sport.”

Billie recalled two decades ago when she used to assist fellow California owner Eileen Brodbar in running the “Clocker’s Corner” program at Los Alamitos. Fans were invited to hear owners, trainers, drivers and handicappers and were given free programs along with free donuts and coffee.

“I recall that the most valuable freebie was when we had a drawing for a ride that evening in the starting car and a picture in the winner’s circle. It created excitement and from that we had people who wanted the experience of owning their own horse.

“We need to bring that magic back again,” Billie said.