Joanne Nielsen is charming, gracious and one of the most appealing people you will meet in the Thoroughbred business. And, oh yes, for about 40 years, by dint of single-minded year-round hard work fired by a passion for her calling, she has bred some outstanding horses in New York.
Nielsen is in the headlines of late as the breeder of Travers Stakes fourth, classics contender and $1,221,480-earner Upstart, but he's is just one name on a long resume of successes.
With her late husband of 44 years Gerald, who died in February 2004 in the midst of his presidency of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc., Joanne bred multiple graded stakes winner Capades; I'm All Yours, 2001 champion New York-bred champion turf male; and stakes winners Roman Dancer and Along Came Mary. The couple bred more than a dozen stakes winners and were selected as New York's outstanding breeders in 1991 and 2001.
Originally from in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Nielsen began breeding horses with her husband in the mid-1970s on their 230-acre Sunnyfield Farm in Westchester County. The farm was originally purchased when their four children began to compete at highest levels in the show world. Breeding Thoroughbreds was not long in coming, though. Gerald Nielsen started researching pedigrees almost immediately and the couple got an additional nudge from prominent New York owner, breeder and stallion owner John Hettinger.
The Nielsens got two stakes winners from their first four mares and there was no turning back.
Joanne originally filled her husband's vacancy on the NYTB board when he died and she's been reelected ever since. She's also carried on the couple's breeding work with great success.
Witness multiple stakes winner Saratoga Snacks, most of whose headlines focused, not on the breeder, but on original owner Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells. But that's not all. Just this year to date, Nielsen stands atop the New York breeder rankings, with ten winners, ten seconds and 11 thirds from 67 starts.
For Nielsen, the breeding "season" lasts pretty much a year-round.
"Well, I give myself a little vacation from it, after January ... if I'm finished," she said. "But I'm not always finished. Sometimes it's February. My children think it's too much stress as I get older. They just don't understand that that's what I do! My kids keep telling me about great books to read. I just keep going back to the catalogs.
"I love it. I'm addicted to it."
A big component of Nielsen's research focuses on stallions, which includes multiple trips to Kentucky for viewings.
"Mostly they don't bring (the stallions) out until November," she said, indicating an additional trip to Kentucky after the Keeneland September yearling sale.
New York-based stallions are also on Nielsen's radar.
"I know the (stallions) in the state that probably fit my mares way in advance," she said. "If I have a new mare that is, say a 3-year-old that I've kept, then I've had three years to look at what I think will work for her in the state. I know those sires."
Nielsen considers everything in planning her matings: pedigree, nicks, racetrack performance and she updates each year's notebooks constantly. What she looks at most of all, however, is a stallion's physical compatibility with the mare.
"Everything you can find is a possible (factor), but the physical body is certainly 80 percent," Nielsen said, adding that she pays attention to the sales year-round. "Some of those giant stallions don't necessarily produce giant babies. So you just have to know what comes through the sale."
She did add a cautionary note.
"The trick is I'm not always successful. Sometimes the ones you have the most excitement about are the least successful. So we're only human. It's like having a family. They all look different."
Nielsen relishes being involved in every aspect of a foal's life even after conception. For foalings, she flies back to New York if she's been in Florida.
"I have a very good connection in the foaling stall, so I don't have to worry," she said. "I just like the joy of being there."
Francis and Barbara Vanlangendonck prep the Nielson foals at her farm for the sales.
"That's half the fun," Nielsen said. "The work with those babies for three months every day. It's almost a contest to them. They want to have the best-looking ones. And they do a darned good job."
Nielsen knows the ins and outs of the auction ring. Of a half-sister to Upstart, who sold at recent Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred yearling sale for $135,000 - perhaps less than might have been expected - Nielsen said, "She was small. She's not going to stay small, because I know what her mother does. But for the presentation there, she was small."
A half-sister to Saratoga Snacks was Nielsen's top seller at the 2015 auction, fetching $210,000.
"She's very tall," she said. "(Her dam) Near and Dear is by Red Ransom, who was a Roberto out of a Damascus mare. Both big, big horses, so she's a big girl and she throws big."
Nielsen has been in the business long enough to know just how precious it is to share the experience of breeding a classics contender with family, but she actually came close to missing Upstart's bid in the Kentucky Derby this year.
Twice hospitalized in the spring for pneumonia, she was discharged from her Florida hospital only days before the Derby.
"(My children) were determined that I go to the Derby," she said. "I was only out of the hospital about four days when I went there. I flew home first to see if I was really strong enough, and said, 'Heck yes, I am,' and so away we went. We rented a house well in advance and had a ball. The whole family together. It was just wonderful."