Harness Racing went from being a hobby to a full-fledged passion for his father, and trainer David Brickell knew by his early teens that he loved the horses and going to the racetrack as much as his dad. Now almost 60 years later, he’s still happily training and racing horses, both at The Meadows Racetrack and on the Pennsylvania Fair Circuit.
“My father owned a grocery store, and racing was his hobby, something to do in the summer. He paid a guy to train his horses, and raced 4 times a year. At that time the county fairs had night racing, and he and my brother went to Dayton, Indiana, Clearfield and Ebensburg. He trained them all year long but raced four times a year!” Dave began training, and his career evolved from there. “I trained a few for some guys and for myself, with some breaks in between, when I was working for a living,” he laughed. He and his wife Ronna returned to Pennsylvania in the early 1980’s, and together they raced the fair circuit. She has since passed away, but was supportive to him in these early days of his career, helping to care for the horses and assisting on race days.
Many years ago, the harness racing bug bit his son-in-law, Mitchell York.
“He would stop by the farm and I like to get new people involved, so I asked him if he wanted to jog a horse. I made a track on top of the hill at my farm, and I told him to to jog him about 8 laps. After he did that once, he started coming by every morning or in the afternoon, I’d save him a couple horses and the barn work.” One day, Mitch suggested that he buy in on a horse. Now a retired state trooper, Mitch has partnered with Dave on several horses with much success, the most recent Tiamogonedancen, a two-year-old pacing filly who set a record of 2:01.1 at the Wayne County Fair last August.
Dave loves the excitement and camaraderie of fair racing, especially the fans. “They follow the horses just like you would follow a pro athlete,” he said enthusiastically, adding that families of all ages come out and they can get closer to the horses and see the action up close. He also appreciates the opportunity to race his horses on the fair circuit. “When you race at parimutuel tracks, I compare it to pro sports.
You’ve got the really good horses there, and for the amount that I spend on horses, I can educate them. The good ones go on and become good racehorses. The county fair level you can educate them more; they are manageable.”
His training strategy is to race the horses as two and three-year-olds, and after that year, he tries to sell them, explaining that at the county fairs and at the Meadows, where he races primarily, he can do better with horses up to the three-year-old mark. As for what he looks for in a foal, he likes to take a chance or two. “I often take a chance on first foals, because doing what I do, I can develop them,” he explained, adding that he looks at the mare and what her production record was in the past.
His hard work and dedication have definitely paid off, and he was honored with three awards at the Pennsylvania Fair Awards on January 22nd, for two-year-old pacing filly Lazy Day Hanover; three-year-old pacing filly Dream Dancing; and two-year-old pacing filly Tiamogonedancen. Dave was humble but truly excited to receive these awards. “I’ve worked a long time to get to this, and I’m very proud that I can
compete with some of the top guys at the tracks, both pari-mutuel and fairs, and sometimes win!”
While his grandchildren haven’t expressed an interest in the “family business” as of yet, they love to cheer on Grandpa as he’s tearing down the stretch. “They’re my biggest fans!” he exclaimed. His partner, Kathy Nee, makes it a point to attend his races, and be supportive and offer suggestions and help with the horses. New to the racing business before she met Dave, she quickly learned how passionate horsemen and horsewomen are about harness racing.
While Mitchell is back home with the horses, Dave is taking a much-deserved break before the frenzy of the 2021 season kicks in. He’s wishing for the safety and good health of everyone returning to the races, but his one hope is that fans can return to watch and cheer on their favorites, especially at the county fairs. And if fans come back, “Smilen’ Dave” Brickell will be listening for those cheers as he turns into the stretch!
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