Dan Conway hesitated a beat, then dove right into the subject of what he did for 10 years away from the racetrack.
“You’re not going to believe it,” said the trainer, who runs Nicole’s Miss El in Monday’s Union Avenue. “I worked for the city of Canandaigua as a garbage man. My daughter was growing up and we couldn’t travel as much. Things got lean here for a while, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and as long as you come out on the other side it’s OK, right?”
But he’s back with a barn full at Finger Lakes, in his hometown and former employer the city of Canandaigua.
His daughter, Katie, is in her final year at Nazareth College. He and his wife Grace, a veterinary assistant at Finger Lakes, have been married 25 years.
Conway took the hiatus, and the city job, in 1993. The son of Finger Lakes Hall of Fame trainer Dan Conway Sr. needed to make a living, needed to stay close to home, needed to get away from racing. His training operation was struggling, money was tight, Finger Lakes was not exactly a thriving hub of potential at the time.
Conway had never done anything else, but every day for a month, he went to the city offices to ask about openings. Over and over, the answer was no until they gave him a part-time job reading water meters. That led to the full-time assignment on the garbage truck.
“Those jobs are hard to get because people don’t leave,” he said. “We plowed snow all night in the winter, pitched garbage during the day. I needed to provide for my family, that’s what I did. The first time I went to dump the truck, we were on this mountain of garbage and I got out to dump it and went up to my waist, my waist, in garbage. It was very educational.”
But it was a job – with a steady paycheck, benefits, overtime and without the pitfalls of being a horse trainer.
“At the end of the day, you turn the key off and go home, it’s nothing like training horses,” said Conway, 58. “No late-night colic call or anything like that. It was the most relaxing job I ever had. No stress, no nothing.”
Of course, even a garbage truck can’t match a Thoroughbred for horsepower.
“It’s not the same thrill,” Conway said. “The horse business gets you. They say horses are dumb, but I think they’re smarter than their trainers. I love the horses, I love being part of it, it’s my life.”
After 10 years on the truck (he didn’t start a horse between 1994 and 2005), Conway came back to the track.
The stable now numbers 40. He wins at Finger Lakes all year, Aqueduct in the winter and makes rare forays to Saratoga. His Lady’s Lunar Luck was third here Aug. 14, and Nicole’s Miss El can give the trainer his first win at the track since the 1980s.
Conway grew up with horses – his father started in the show world, then moved to Thoroughbreds, winning three Finger Lakes championships in the 1960s and saddling six winners of the New York Breeders Futurity. Son worked for father, and became a trainer in 1976.
“He was a good trainer, one of those old-school guys,” Conway said of his father. “I learned everything – everything – from him. I still use what he taught me 40 years ago. The basics are the same. It’s all in knowing your horses. You’ve got to know them, really know them, to do as well as you can.”
Conway rode the business up and down, winning more than 40 races a year from 1980-86 but never topping 27 from 1987-94. Faced with a struggling business and all the bills that come with it, the trainer became a garbage man.
Then became a trainer again. He credited New York breeder Daniel Burke with helping re-start the shedrow and is happy with his current stable including the 5-for-8 Nicole’s Miss El for owner/breeder Ron Kiser.
“The percentage is pretty good (.16), we’re winning races,” said Conway, ninth in the Finger Lakes standings this year. “I’ve got one in a stakes at Saratoga.”
The garbage-truck days seem like a long time ago.
“Out of 30 days a month, I’m glad I came back 29 of them,” he said. “There’s always that one day where you’re thinking about doing something else. I’m in this because I love it and it worked out amazing when you think about it now. I wouldn’t change it for anything, especially the part where I had to suck it up and work on the truck.”