Groomed for Success in the Garden State: Tony Wilson Forges His Path to the Winner’s Circle

May 24, 2023

Tony Wilson (Ben Baugh)

By Ben Baugh

It seems as if Thoroughbred trainer Tony Wilson was destined for a life with horses. 

The youngest of eight siblings, he had an opportunity to be around his father at the racetrack as many of his older brothers were leaving home and making their way in the world. However, his father faced a series of challenges that were steeped in adversity, having the additional burden of racial inequality and social injustice making things a bit more difficult. 

“I watched my dad (Earl Wilson) work all the time,” said Wilson. “He had a couple of horses, one or two horses, and it took him a long time before he ever got his trainer’s license, being a black guy. But then he made the move, and I was so proud of him when he took the step to get his trainer’s license.”

However, when the elder Wilson finally took out his trainer’s license, he was older than most, and he did condition horses for a while, until he couldn’t any longer as he got on in years, but those experiences resonated powerfully with the younger Wilson.

“It was just being around him, and I was like, ‘I want to do this,’” said Wilson. 

Learning Curve 

As time went on, Wilson became more immersed in the Thoroughbred industry, absorbing as much knowledge as he could about horses and the sport. 

Eventually, he went to work for a trainer with a small stable, but who enjoyed success on the New Jersey circuit, as Wilson continued to build his resume while refining his skills. 

“I worked for one guy for 10 years, (Leonard) “Whitey” Makowski,” said Wilson. “We won a lot of races for a little outfit. He was a New Jersey-bred guy. It was at Garden State. We went from Garden State to Monmouth and then to the Meadowlands at that time. I was living in Camden (New Jersey), and that was just perfect for me.”

It was while working for Makowski that Wilson developed a close bond with one horse, who was in the trainer’s barn for the preponderance of the time Wilson worked for the conditioner. 

“I rubbed one horse for Whitey for eight years named Shamrock Sam,” said Wilson. “He was 10 years old (when he retired).”

Makowski was also a breeder, and there were a number of solid runners that came through the barn that Wilson developed a close rapport with over the years, including Shanachie, her foal Shanaleen, and the produce of the dam associated with that particular family. Wilson took great pride in the success Makowski’s barn enjoyed particularly with the New Jersey-breds that ran well and won in open company and the state-restricted races. 

As Wilson got older and grew in experience, he began working for a number of other trainers, evolving as a horseman and gaining confidence in his abilities. He would work for several prominent trainers on the New Jersey circuit. 

“I became an assistant trainer for Johnny Tammaro, working for him for a few years, and then he went back to Maryland,” said Wilson. “At one time, he was going back to New York and that was okay. But Maryland was a little bit too far away from my family.”

Wilson also had the opportunity to work for Ben Perkins Sr. when Tammaro wasn’t in town and became Ben Perkins Jr.’s assistant trainer. 

“I did that for a few years,” said Wilson. “Me and Johnny Tammaro are always going to be friends. I flipped-flopped back and forth between those two guys.”

Leap of faith

However, a life-transforming event took place in 2000, when neither of the conditioners he had been working for were going to New York for the winter. Wilson’s years of experience and increased self-confidence had him poised for much greater responsibility. 

“So, I was like, ‘What’s going on here guys,’ said Wilson. “’It’s December.’ I was put in the position where I found myself having to look for a job, not that I wouldn’t be able to find work. Perkins said to me, ‘You know what you’re doing, start training. Here’s the one owner, he likes you a lot. Dan Nylen will give you horses.’ Dan is a good friend.’

The decision to go out on his own and get his trainer’s license found Wilson picking up additional horses. He went and got stalls at Overbrook Farm in New Jersey, having three horses for Nylen, and added several others to his string from one of John Tammaro’s former owners Joel Kligman. 

“Joel Kligman said to me, ‘You’re training horses, you know what you’re doing,’” said Wilson. “He gave me six horses, and before you know it, I’m on the farm with like 10 horses and had only been training for a couple of months, and already my stable was taking off. It just grew from there.”

And for the past 23 years, Wilson has been enjoying his sojourn, one that started when he was 11 years old when fortuitous circumstances found him helping his father around the shedrow. 

“My brother got sick, and I was out of school at the time, and he couldn’t work,” said Wilson. “So, they called my father Keggie, that’s what they called him, and asked if it would be okay if I could (hot)walk some horses. My father said, ‘he knows what he’s doing.’ I started walking horses by the head and made $64. I was a happy person then.”

Dance Fever

Wilson’s greatest success as a trainer came with a bay mare, a New Jersey-bred, that was a Patricia Generazio homebred. The daughter of Disco Rico-V for Vera, Concorde’s Tune, won six stakes races and placed in nine others, retiring with nine wins, six seconds and three thirds from 29 starts, bankrolling $496,840. Wilson’s patience and persistence turned Pure Disco into a model of consistency.

“The first year, she was a little bit hard to train, but after a while, she just started gelling and being happy,” said Wilson. “Sometimes, they’re very hard to break, but if you take your time and get them to like what they’re doing, they’ll do the right thing for you.”

Pure Disco won stakes races at ages two, three, and four, placing in stakes at age five, cementing her place in New Jersey-bred lore, with her illustrious career, one that spanned four years. 

“We finally got her ready,” said Wilson. “Frank (Generazio, the owner) said, she’s ready. And I said, ‘she’ll win for you, Frank.’ And she started winning…we had her in a stake and Denny Centeno came in to ride her, she broke and dropped him. That never happened again I was always trying to find out everything that was going on with her.”

Racing Royalty 

The relationship between Wilson and the Generazios lasted several years, and Wilson was appreciative because they had some nice racing stock. One of the horses he had in his barn for a period of time was the 2009 Florida-bred Horse of the Year, and a two-time winner of the Grade One United Nations Handicap and an 11-time stakes winner, a gelded chestnut son of Royal Anthem, who was conditioned by Mary Hartmann.

“’We had Presious Passion,” said Wilson. “Frank was such a good man and horseman. He was smart enough to know that there was no turf racing in January at Aqueduct. The first time I ran Presious Passion was at the Meadowlands and Alan Garcia was on him. He said to me after the race, “Tony, if he will run straight, he will win by 10 lengths because we didn’t know that you couldn’t rate this horse.”

At various points of call in a race, Presious Passion would at times have a double-digit margin lead over the other entries in the field. 

“If you look at his other starts, like in the United Nations Handicap (Gr. 1), he would open up by 15 or 20 lengths, that’s the way he used to run,” said Wilson. “He used to last.”

Ideal Conditions

Pure Disco’s resume included four consecutive victories, including three stakes wins in a row during the autumn of 2007. Cooler temperatures and precipitation didn’t seem to bother the daughter of Disco Rico. She appeared content in her home environment. 

“When it was time for the Breeders’ Cup, and the Breeders’ Cup was at Monmouth Park that year, we had Chuck Lopez getting on horses for us,” said Wilson. “We were nominated for the Revidere Stakes (which Pure Disco won). Everybody was complaining about the rain, and I was the only guy, who was like, ‘Let it rain.’ It was messing up everybody’s Breeders’ Cup plans. This was the first time for me to stretch her out (1 1/16-mile on a sloppy and sealed track at Monmouth Park), and she won the race by a length, wire-to-wire, on a sloppy track. It was so amazing. She was all heart.” 

Paying Dividends

Wilson has had the opportunity to be around a number of good horses, one of those was the Patricia Generazio homebred Pretty Imposing. The gray daughter of Defrere won the 2006 Klassy Briefcase Stakes at Monmouth Park by 11 lengths and the Incredible Revenge Stakes at the same racetrack 36 days later by 5 ¾-lengths. 

“It did me good to actually work for Frank Generazio,” said Wilson. “I had a chance to be around some really nice horses. Juan Chavez who used to take care of the Generazios horses farm, did an outstanding job, the horses came in ready to train. They were fit and had a foundation. We had to move them on from there.”

Lulu’s Number, another Generazio homebred, who ran in the money 16 times during her career, is a horse Wilson enjoyed success with. 

“She took on some really hard girls,” said Wilson, about the gray daughter of Numerous. “They were fast. In some interviews, prior to her races, I would tell them, ‘you know where I’m going to be. I’m going to be on the front end.’ I said, ‘You can go with me if you want, but you know where I’m going to be at. It’s up to you guys.”’ 

Nicholas and Joan Sacco’s homebred Odssondustymiller, the gray mare is currently in Wilson’s barn, and the veteran campaigner began her training for 2023 at Tampa Bay Downs in preparation for her 7-year-old debut at Monmouth Park. 

Like father, like son 

His sons have followed in their grandfather and father’s footsteps, with Tyree serving as his assistant trainer and Paul and Jimmy working in the barn. 

Home away from home 

Tony Wilson at Tampa Bay Downs, his home away from home (Ben Baugh)

Tampa Bay Downs provides Wilson with the opportunity to keep his horses fit and get them read for the summer at Monmouth Park. 

“It’s better then when I used to stay in New Jersey during the winter,” said Wilson. “It used to drive me crazy. At Parx, they cancel races and at the farm we used to be at, the track froze. It was challenging to get ready for the races because we couldn’t train, and we’re in the training barn. It wasn’t fair to my clients. So, what I would do is get half a crew and just stay there.”

The conditioner had missed a couple of winters at Tampa, when one of his owners asked him if he would like to return to Oldsmar. It was a long-time client, who has played a pivotal role in his career. 

“Happy Tenth (Tom Lamont) asked me, ‘Tony, would like to start going back to Tampa?’ I said, ‘Yes, I would.’ They’ve been a blessing to me, ever since I started training horses. I’ve been working for them for 21 years, since I started. They were owners with John Tammaro III, until he retired, and I was his assistant, and they asked me if I had started training. And I said, ‘yes sir, Tom.’ He said, ‘Well, would you like to train horses for me? I said, ‘Yes sir!’ And they’ve been with me ever since.”

Among the horses in Wilson’s barn to watch during the Monmouth meet include Okletsgo, who he claimed at Tampa Bay Downs this past winter, Dance Step and Awesomebrotherbill

Contributing Authors

Ben Baugh

Ben Baugh has been writing about Thoroughbred racing for more than 25 years. A past winner of the Raleigh Burroughs Award, his work has appeared...

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