Old Bridge native is living out his dream

Kelly Breen now the leading trainer at Monmouth Park


Staff Writer

CHRIS KELLY staff Kelly Breen works with one of his horses at Monmouth Park in Oceanport on Saturday.CHRIS KELLY staff Kelly Breen works with one of his horses at Monmouth Park in Oceanport on Saturday. Kelly Breen always knew his life’s work would somehow have something to do with racehorses.

It seemed like he was destined to end up on a racetrack, almost from the day he was born.

Well, OK, maybe not that far back, but certainly since he was a kid. In fact, Breen, a former soccer player and wrestler at Cedar Ridge High School in Old Bridge, was only 13 when his future in horse racing first began to take shape. And he had been around the sport of kings even longer.

“I used to take him to the track with me,” Kelly’s father, Jackie Breen, was saying the other day. “I’ve been going to the racetrack since I was a kid, and my wife and I love it.”

So did Kelly.

“I remember I used to bet the trifectas for $6,” Kelly, now 36 and living in Farmingdale, said. “My father would give me $6 to bet on whatever I wanted every time we went to the track, and I would always bet the two trifectas. One time I won and I was walking around with $200 in my pocket as a 13-year-old.

“So, I fell in love with horse racing at a young age and I couldn’t wait to get old enough to do it. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Kelly followed his dream, and today he’s the leading trainer in the standings at Monmouth Park Racetrack, winning 35 percent of the races the horses he trains have entered this year.

But what Kelly didn’t know as a kid was that his future in horse racing would be as a trainer. For a while, he thought he’d be the one riding the horses.

So did his father.

“One day, my wife and I were at the track with Kelly, and he wandered off and was missing for a few races,” Jackie Breen said. “So we went looking for him and found him talking to the jockeys in the paddock. I said, ‘What are you doing over here?’ and he said, ‘These guys say I should learn how to ride.’

“They told me we should take him to a riding school,” Jackie continued. “They said, ‘Look at his size.’ He was small, about 4-[foot]-9, and wiry, and they thought he’d make an excellent jockey.”

“I was extremely small when I used to wrestle,” Kelly, who competed in the 101-pound weight class at Cedar Ridge, pointed out. “Wrestling matches went by weight, and I was always the first wrestler out on the mat. Even when I was 13 I used to wrestle 90 pounds and had to go first.”

The Breens apparently saw a better future in horses than in wrestling and took the jockeys’ advice.

“I went to a riding farm in Morganville and started learning how to ride,” Kelly said. “I loved the animals.”

His big break, however, came a short time later when a gentleman named Ralph DiSanctis bought a farm right down the street from the Breens, and Kelly had the opportunity to ride his horses. Then DiSanctis brought in some racehorses and wanted to know if Kelly wanted to ride them.

“I said, ‘Racehorses?’ It was like a dream come true. Ralph said they had never been ridden, either, and if I could ride them, I could ride anything. Here I was 13 and I was already going to chiropractors because I had fallen off so many times.

“But now, all these years later, he was right. I could ride just about anything. I started on the bottom and now I’m on the top.”

In between, however, Breen did a lot of learning.

“The first two years I was with Ralph I worked free,” he said. “I used to muck 15 stables so I could ride one horse.”

When Kelly turned 16, his father brought him to Monmouth Park to ride. But there was one small problem. Actually, it was a “big” problem.

“One winter, I gained weight and I grew about 6 inches in a matter of two or three months,” Kelly said. “Next thing you know, I was up there around 120 pounds. I was too heavy and too big to ride.”

Some people might have been devastated to have their dream shattered like that. But not Kelly. He was determined to stay in horse racing. If he couldn’t ride, he would just find something else to do.

So he remained at Monmouth Park as an exercise rider while picking up all the knowledge he could about his craft from veteran trainers like Walter Reese, with whom he worked closely.

It wasn’t long before Kelly himself got into training horses.

“By the time I was 18 years old, I was an assistant trainer,” he said. “I was still doing all the same stuff. After you’ve been around that environment with people winning, the competitiveness goes through your blood.

“My father worked in construction. He was a steamfitter, and the money was good, so I thought about going into that line of work, too. But I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for it as I did for horse racing. Once it’s in your blood, it’s hard to get out.

“I guess I liked horses more than people in construction.”

He eventually hooked up with John Forbes, a well-known trainer, and even when he wasn’t working, Kelly could always be found at the track.

“He learned everything he could while he exercised the horses,” Jackie Breen said. “And he used to hang around and see how things were run.”

Kelly was apparently a good learner, and in 1992, at the age of 24, he had his first winner.

“I worked for John Forbes, but I also had one horse on the side named Contarito. That was my first winner,” he said. “From 1992 to ’94, we had 16 starts at Monmouth and four winners.”

Still, there were some bumpy roads for him in the beginning.

“He was a young kid, just beginning,” his father said. “Nobody knew who he was.”

Almost nobody. One person who did notice was renowned trainer Ben Perkins Sr.

“He had retired, but he told me he was starting up a stable again with some top-quality horses, and he wanted me to come work for him,” Kelly recounted. “At the time, it was a big decision. I had seven horses and we were winning 25 percent of our races. I felt at the time I was on a little bit of a roll.

“But then I thought, ‘If I can get the chance to work with a top trainer and with top horses, I had to give it a shot and give it my all.’ So I gave my horses to different trainers and took the job.”

Breen worked with Perkins from 1994 to 2000 and had a horse go to the Breeders Cup every year. They even won the Meadowlands Cup one year.

“We never won the Breeders Cup, but we had the opportunity to go to the show,” Breen said. “Just to make it there is an honor.”

In 2000, however, Breen decided to go back on his own.

“Ben Perkins Sr. was kind of retiring, and I saw that as if it was time for me to take a shot,” he said. “So I made some phone calls and started on my own again. I started with two horses and now I have 40 horses.”

He also has two exercise riders in his employment along with grooms and hot walkers. Even Kelly, not one to ever forget his roots, gets on six or eight of the horses himself and works them out.

And lately, Breen has also been training horses owned by Bobby Hurley Jr., the former Seton Hall University basketball star and NBA player from Jersey City.

“A friend of mine, John Dowd, who helped me in the ’90s, was training Bobby Hurley’s horses, but then he took another job at a big farm in Florida,” Breen said. “When he did that, I inherited his horses. Which is funny because when I got rid of my horses to go work for Ben Perkins, I gave some of them to John to train.

“It’s been great working with Bobby Hurley. Knock on wood, we’ve had some early success.”

Including one of the top 2-year-olds in the United States, named Praying for Cash, the son of Song and a Prayer. The horse won his first race and is already considered an early Kentucky Derby hopeful in 2006.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed,” Kelly said. “We know he’s got ability.”

Kelly’s career has also rejuvenated the horse-racing fan in his father — so much so that he and a few friends from The Friendly Sons of the Shillelagh, the Irish club they all belong to, have invested in a couple of horses that Kelly trains.

“I had the Shillelagh stable by myself for three years,” Jackie Breen said, “but it had a lot to offer, so I put something in our club’s monthly publication to see if anyone was interested in investing some money in it, and a bunch of guys did. We have a lot of fun and we’re way ahead. We had two horses, and we’ve already had a few winners and a bunch of seconds and thirds, so we’ve made our money back and then some.”

It also gives some of them an excuse to meet at the track every morning for coffee at the backstretch and watch the horses exercise.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Jackie Breen, the managing partner of the group, said.

It doesn’t end there for the elder Breen, either. Every time he visits Ireland, he brings back containers of holy water from the famous Knock Shrine.

Then on race day, he goes around blessing any of Kelly’s horses with the holy water.

“I have to look for an Irish custom agent at the airport when I come home,” Jackie laughed. “They know all about the Knock. Of course, Kelly thinks I’m nuts.”

Maybe, but Kelly also appreciates all that he, and his mom, have done.

“My parents have helped me so much,” Kelly, married and a father of two himself, said. “When I was a freshman in high school, my father used to get up a little after 4 in the morning and drive me to the farm to muck, and my mother would pick me up and take me to the school. Then after school she would pick me up and bring me back there. So, they’ve put in a lot of time, too.”

Kelly Breen’s entire journey has been fun, but also a lot of hard work.

“He works every single day of the year, seven days a week,” his father said. “He hasn’t had a day off since he was 13. But the success he’s had doesn’t just happen. You’ve got to learn the trade, and he’s worked hard at it. Now it’s starting to come around and he’s getting good owners and better horses.”

“I really am living my dream,” Kelly said. “I actually ran into an old friend of mine from high school last week, and he said, ‘You knew even back then what you wanted to do.’ But I never would have anticipated any of this happening.

“It’s like I wake up every day and flip a quarter for luck, and so far it keeps landing heads.”