When Joker won the Pentecost Grand Prix in Lebanon as the improbable longshot in the1960s, the Arabian horse brought owner Bassim Halwani national coverage and made himself a household name. Now Halwani and his son Fadi are doing the same in the United States as Thoroughbred owners under the name Joker Racing LLC. After starting off slowly when they first returned to horse racing three years ago, they are driving up their wins and leading the owner standings for the 2014 Calder Meet at Calder Casino & Race Course.
Joker was the most successful horse Bassim ever owned, racing 19 times and winning 15 of those starts.
“He was a super horse,” said Bassim. “He used to beat the giants. He held the record for the 2,000 meter in Lebanon. Nobody could beat it.”
From the very inception of the horse’s name, Joker established a unique bond between father and son, becoming the moniker for their owner name in the U.S. – Joker Racing – honoring the star horse’s memory.
“My father took me to the barn one day and asked me to name a horse he had just bought,” said Fadi. “I must have been about six years old at the time. While small in stature, Joker was all about heart and determination. One of his most memorable races was a head-to-head contest with the prohibitive favorite Arabi at the 1967 2,000 meter Pentecost Grand Prix. Both horses took off leaving the rest of the field some 15 lengths behind. Joker ended up being declared the winner by a nose, and as the saying goes, ‘The crowd went absolutely wild.’ You never forget moments of excitement like these. Having Joker was a privilege, and the memory of his indomitable spirit lives on through Joker Racing.”
Bassim spent much of the 1950s through the 1970s as a horseman in Lebanon, first enjoying the game on his own and then later with his son.
“I love horses as well as horse racing, the anticipation and the ability to predict a winner is what drives my passion,” said Bassim. “I’ve been doing this since I was 17 years old. It’s in my blood. My family was against it, but hey, I’m stubborn. I had horses actively racing in Lebanon even while I was studying aeronautical engineering at Tri-State University in Angola, Indiana. Having racehorses was fun and glamorous; it opened doors for me in Lebanon. Wherever I went, I was welcomed because I was a horseman. People always wanted tips to play on Saturdays and Sundays, which I was always happy to give.”
“That’s probably what seduced my father into racing,” said Fadi in regards to the family home where Bassim grew up, which was built across the street from the racetrack and faced the grandstand. “The excitement was palpable as waves of explosive cheers would flood the air on the half hour every Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I got a taste of that as I grew up while visiting my grandparents’ home on weekends.”
As Fadi grew up he was also able to ride his father’s horses on occasions, galloping in company in the sand dunes. When the family moved to the United States in the 1979 because of the Civil War in Lebanon, they left everything behind, including their involvement with horses, to start their lives from scratch in a new country. It wasn’t until three years ago when Fadi was talking to an acquaintance who happened to own racehorses at Calder that the Halwanis were reintroduced to the horse racing business – this time with Thoroughbreds.
“He said, ‘Well, if you’d like to give it a try here, I can always introduce you to some people on the track,” said Fadi. “I suggested that to my father around his 80th birthday, and his face lit up at the prospect. Before we knew it we had a barn full of horses.”
The idea of returning to the sport that he had a passion for decades ago ignited a spark in Bassim that he once had for the game but had remained dormant while the family transitioned from life in Lebanon to the U.S. and he worked as an engineer. While the Halwanis returned to the game with enthusiasm, their victories did not come easily, and success did not truly come until this year, when all of the pieces fell into place for Joker Racing.
The Halwanis’ first faced a challenge in their new endeavor, entering a game with a different breed of horse and a different system and structure of racing than that in Lebanon. At the beginning, they mainly purchased horses that had never before raced, then eventually transitioned into claiming horses, which has brought them their success. Now, with a few broodmares in addition to the claimed horses that they race, they are looking to expand their business and enter the world of breeding to have some homegrown horses to call their own.
“We were not successful at the beginning until we found the right trainers, and everything clicked,” said Fadi. “With their help we realized that the stock we had at the time was not conducive to success. We gave a few horses away to start new careers and retired a few while claiming new replacements. We eventually rebuilt the team in its entirety except for Glacken Road. You generally have to pay a price to learn a new business and unfortunately this was no different.”
“There is a big lesson to be learned in this success story – a lesson in perseverance and positive attitude,” said Fadi of his father. “Here is a man who in his 80s decided to start a new venture and who, while repeatedly facing failure, never wavered and always believed that he could win. If it wasn’t for him, I would have probably jumped ship when things got really bad. I am humbled and appreciative of the lesson.”
Joker Racing persevered and has now reached the top, coming from winless in its first season of racing back in 2011 to 21 wins so far in 2014, placing Joker Racing at the top of the leading owner rankings for the 2014 Calder meet.
Joker Racing first raced in 2011, going winless in six starts. The ownership progressed to 12 wins from 77 starts in 2012 and advanced to 16 wins from 125 starts in 2013. From 2011-2013 Joker Racing also started horses in partnerships, collecting seven wins from 36 among four different listing partnerships. Joker Racing already surpassed its’ yearly career high having amassed 21 victories from 88 starts this year through June 27. All 21 wins came at Calder, giving Joker Racing a four-win advantage over St. George Stable, LLC and Lady Luck Stable, who are tied in second with 17 wins apiece. Joker Racing is now making a name for itself just like its namesake did way back when.
One of Joker Racing’s most successful horses this year has been the 4-year-old filly Don’tcallmecharley, whom Joker Racing claimed last November at Calder. She won five starts from eight races at Calder in 2014. The 4-year-old filly Glacken Road, as well as the 4-year-old filly My House and the 4-year-old gelding Belief System, are a few of the other horses who have contributed to Joker Racing’s wins this year to help the Halwanis’ reach the top of the owner standings.
“By February we decided we were going for number one,” said Bassim.
Fadi added, “When we realized that we had a chance of becoming leading owner we pushed harder and upped our efforts. It has been our trainers Tommy and Lisa Schell's resolute commitment to reach this goal in honor of my father, and I cannot thank them and the barn crew enough for that."
Helped by Joker Racing’s 21 wins, Schell is leading his own standings with 24 training victories. He is one victory ahead of trainer Christos Gatis, who has 21 wins. Many of Gatis’ wins came for Lady Luck.
The Halwanis have based their horses at Calder since starting to race Thoroughbreds in the U.S. and first started working with the Schell’s toward the end of last year. While Bassim spends many mornings at the track watching horses train and attending the races every time his horses hit the track, Fadi, 53, comes to the races as much as he can while juggling his multiple Internet businesses and product line for horses.
In Lebanon as a young owner, Bassim made it a point to hold his horses for their winner’s photo whenever they won races. Now 83, Bassim continues to show his love for his horses by walking them into the winner’s circle with gusto practically every race they win.
“There is no sense having somebody else walking them when you own them,” said Bassim. “You might as well do it yourself. Hopefully the horsemen will catch up with it and then start doing it here. That’s the beauty of it.”
The passion, love, and devotion for the sport brought the Halwanis’ into the game and back to it again, and is where they plan to be for the foreseeable future.
“Winning the top honor of leading owner for the Calder meet would be of great pride to Joker Racing,” said Fadi. “The title would serve as a reward for our determination to stick with the game despite the lack of early success. The honor would also serve as proof that no matter what obstacles one faces in life or the challenges that arise along the way, the difficulties can be overcome to reach ultimate satisfaction.”