Two-time leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer John Reading died Thursday night, April 23, at his home in Oldsmar, Fla., of natural causes. He was 99.
Reading, who had the unique distinction of training Thoroughbreds for both current Tampa Bay Downs track owner Stella F. Thayer and late track co-owner George M. Steinbrenner, is credited with 711 victories and $4,733,995 in purse earnings, according to Equibase statistics.
In addition to his training titles at Tampa Bay Downs during the 1991-1992 and 1992-1993 meetings, he won a meet title at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire. Reading trained from 1976-2010, primarily at Tampa Bay Downs and various Northeast and mid-Atlantic tracks.
Among the best horses trained by Reading were stakes winners Blue's Tuscany; Tri Bowl; and Furash Folly, who finished second to 1986 Horse of the Year and eventual Hall of Fame member Lady's Secret in the Regret Handicap at Monmouth Park in 1985, the same year Reading led the nation in percentage of stakes victories from starts.
Reading served for several years as a director of the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
Earlier during the 2014-2015 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, Reading told the story of how he almost was fired by Steinbrenner, the tempestuous figure best known as the owner of the New York Yankees.
One day, Reading had the misfortune of getting stuck in Hillsborough Avenue traffic (back when road access to the Oldsmar oval could be problematic) long enough to miss saddling one of Steinbrenner's horses for a race.
"You tell him that might be the last one he gets to saddle for me," Steinbrenner fumed to Reading's assistant trainer, Peg McVey.
It wasn't, but Reading later left Steinbrenner's employ before "The Boss" had another chance to fire him. "We probably had a disagreement," Reading said. "Mr. Steinbrenner was tough to train for."
Although he did not begin training racehorses until he was 54, Reading's rural upbringing served him well when he decided to retire from an executive position with automotive-parts maker Dura Corporation in Toledo, Ohio, to pursue his Thoroughbred dream with encouragement from his wife, Gwen.
In a newspaper interview during the 1987-1988 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, Reading shared his training philosophy, as well as his way of dealing with owners. "For me, it started out as just a hobby, but it developed into a real challenge. There have been some disappointments, but you have to accept them. This was easier than working as a (plant) manager," he said. "You try to use good common sense and know what your horse is capable of doing. Some are more difficult to handle than others, like people."
McVey said she learned a lot about organization from Reading.
"He had training charts for 25 or 30 horses, and everything went like a well-oiled machine," she said. McVey also learned from Reading that honesty and the power of observation are trademarks of training success. "If a horse was coming up with an issue, he wouldn't keep it in the barn just to collect the day rate. He would recommend sending the horse to the farm if that's what was needed.
Reading's friend and former assistant Ron Payne, who accompanied him on his daily trips to the track kitchen, got a first-hand look at Reading's work ethic back in the early 1980s, when Reading was approaching his 70th birthday.
"He would get up at 4 a.m. and do 50 sit-ups, then he would eat a bowl of Wheaties and be at the track by 5 a.m. I only beat him there a couple of times," Payne said. "He rode the stable pony until he was 90 years old."
Family and friends experienced a scare about 14 years ago, when Reading tried to corral a loose horse on the track from atop his pony and suffered a compound leg fracture for his trouble.
"He had no business trying to catch that horse, but it was just in his nature," Payne said. Less than three months later, Reading was back to work on the track. The episode didn't surprise his family, even though they found irony in it.
"Dad always preached to everyone about never going after a loose horse," said his daughter, Jackie Halloway.
Reading will be buried in Toledo next to Gwen, who died in 2007. They were married 64 years. Funeral arrangements are pending and will be made through Reeb Funeral Home in Sylvania, Ohio. In addition to Halloway and her husband, Henry Halloway, survivors include four grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and six great-great-granchildren. A daughter, Barbara, died in 2011.