by Evan Pattak
For the relative handful of horses who race through their 14-year-old seasons before facing mandatory retirement, those last years in harness can be challenging. Their connections need to race them where they can win, which means they can become claiming bait, sometimes shunted from stable to stable. That may not be the ideal way for these gallant warriors to bow out.
Then there is the trotter TSM Photo Bugger. When the 14-year-old SJ’s Photo-Rewarding Wink gelding makes his final start Thursday (December 30) at Hollywood Casino at The Meadows, he’ll complete a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented feat: all 345 career races for owner/breeder Ted Tomson without ever carrying a claiming tag; all 345 career starts for the same training tandem, Karen Fread and her husband Jan Fread.
He’ll go from post 2, race 13, with Ridge Warren in the sulky for one last chance to pad his $880,856 bank account. First post Thursday is 12:45 PM.
Tomson’s relationship with ‘Bugger’ was unusually close from the start. The little guy was stuck in his dam’s womb and needed Tomson’s help to make it to this world.
“I was able to get his nose and his leg straight,” Tomson recalls. “He was able to get out then.”
When Rewarding Wink developed complications from the awkward foaling, Tomson shipped her to a clinic in Ohio, foal at her side.
“The girls who worked there said, ‘He keeps nipping us in the butt. He’s a little bugger.’ That’s how I got his name,” Tomson says.
Tomson lives in Brackenridge, about 50 miles northeast of The Meadows, where he and his brothers operate a business called Tomson Scrap Metal as well as a golf club and an auto speedway. Tomson figures he’s bred about 400 horses through the years, most branded with TSM. You might think that stands for Tomson Scrap Metal, but Tomson loves to tease newbies, telling them it means “Turning Scrap to Money,” “Turning Speed to Money” or some other hokum.
“Roger Huston always swears that it means ‘Teddy Seeks Millions,” he jokes.
As a breeder, Tomson is hands on, taking courses at Ohio State University to fill in gaps in his experience and expertise. He maintains three farms in the Brackenridge area, giving him the luxury of segregating horses by gender and developmental stage. While most of his stallions are homebreds, he occasionally dips into the market. He purchased Jake And Elwood, for example, and stood him in Brackenridge for his final years.
Although he didn’t race at 2, ‘Bugger’ was precocious enough to generate a six-figure purchase offer. Tomson declined that and all others, acknowledging that the horse’s success made it easier for him to follow his heart and keep him.
“He was earning enough to pay for himself and all the babies coming along. The best thing to have is the asset.”
‘Bugger,’ who took his 1:52.4 mark at 9, also has been a unique asset for the Freads.
“He’s meant more to us than any horse we ever trained,” Karen Fread says. “He’s a wonderful horse to be around. Anyone who ever handled him fell in love with him. He’s a very sound horse, and you have to give Teddy credit for giving him time off. He’s concerned about the horse’s well-being.”
Beloved as the horse may be, Tomson and the Freads didn’t give him an old guy’s soft send-off this year. In fact, they shipped him to Pocono, where he earned more than $28,000 in 14 starts. What’s more, he did most of it barefoot.
“He loves that track and its cushion,” Karen Fread says. “He’s been there off and on for the last three years. The first time we pulled his shoes, he won by 8 in 1:53 and change.”
Tomson, who’s recuperating from a bout of “long COVID,” may not make it to The Meadows for ‘Bugger’s’ final start, but his relationship with his buddy won’t end. Tomson has carved out a new position for him — role model and mentor for Tomson’s babies.
“They’ll hang out with him. His job will be to teach them manners,” Tomson says. “Jake And Elwood did that for us, and he was amazing at it.”
Karen Fread, for one, is sure the old boy will excel in his new role.
“Right now he hangs out with a bunch of mares. He shows them the best patches of grass. They’d never find that grass without him.”