Harness Trainer David Mattia on 'Write' Track

Thoroughbred racing got the Hollywood treatment with the release of the movie Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book. And if all goes well, harness racing could take its own star turn in the future. Written by Gen Sullivan for EquiSearch.
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Trainer Dave Mattia, a part-time screenwriter, is working on a full-length motion picture titled "Victory Red," a slice-of-life art film that uses harness racing as a backdrop. The title, while it sounds like the name of a racehorse, refers to a shade of lipstick popular during the World War II era. Mattia gives himself 2-1 odds at getting the project done.

"I can do it," Mattia said. "I have the means, the money, the access. The question is will I, or will I chicken out? It all depends on how much nerve I have." Some of the allure to proceed with "Victory Red" is because Mattia has access to harness racing facilities and personalities. "That creates the illusion of a high-budget movie," he said.

Mattia, whose mother, Maria, is a literature professor, is no stranger to screenwriting. His first screenplay -- about a funeral home and dysfunctional family -- was optioned in 1997. Under an option, a producer pays to have the exclusive right to produce that movie over a defined period of time. The project got shelved - and when HBO's drama "Six Feet Under" debuted in 2001, he worried his idea was, in his words, "ripped off."

"I was assured it had nothing to do with my screenplay," said Mattia, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and now lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "And I was able to make friends with a lot of people associated with the show. I didn't realize (in 1997) that getting an option, much less a production deal, was next to impossible. I assumed everyone got an option. I quickly learned that this is far from the truth. "I've made a lot of friends in the movie industry, most of them in Los Angeles, and the last five years have been like a learning period for me. It's a very tough racket but if you know how to maneuver and you have a good imagination you can gradually squeak your way into some semblance of success."

Mattia said he received positive feedback from Alan Kirschenbaum, the creator of the television comedy "Yes, Dear" on CBS and the co-executive producer of the hit series "Coach," about his future in the business. Kirschenbaum owns more than 150 Standardbreds and competes as an amateur driver.

"He really encouraged me," Mattia said. "A few years ago, he told me to send him a sample of my work. He called me up and said he thought I could make the transition from horses to Hollywood. That really inspired me. I really admire his work. I love his kind of comedy. It's not cheap, schlocky, comedy."

And if screenwriting doesn't work out, he still has his day job, even though he pointed out, "I'm a lot funnier creative writer than horse trainer." Currently, he is training several horses for owners Dave Scharf and Abe Warshaw. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact he has "the nicest filly I've ever had," he might have headed to Los Angeles to pursue moviemaking by now. The two-year-old, AB Seascape, was an $18,000 Harrisburg purchase selected by Mattia. She is by Artiscape out of AB Sea.

"I think she was overlooked," Mattia said. "I've received nothing but compliments about her. She's training well. She's done everything right from the first day. I'm not rushing her. I give the fillies a little extra time to make them happy, and Dave and Abe don't put any pressure on you to get them to the races."

He also has high hopes for two three-year-old fillies, Juddy Muddy and Tiger Tooth Lily. "If I owned them myself, I'd be madly in love with them," he said.

Mattia was introduced to harness racing by his grandfather, who took him to Yonkers Raceway. He got further interested in the sport because his father, Arnold, had bought a house near Lou Telymonde's farm in Toms River, New Jersey. "I used to go over there and check out the horses," Mattia said. He started training in 1991, not long after graduating from Rutgers University-Newark with a degree in zoological science.

"I think my education helps me," he said. "It helps to understand the horse as an athlete and not as a machine. I notice a lot of people who make mistakes that they could avoid with a fundamental understanding of animal physiology."

In addition to training, Mattia owns a dozen horses. His favorite probably is This Island Earth, a six-year-old pacer who didn't start racing until last year and was named for a 1955 science-fiction film that Mattia called "a horrible motion picture."

"He was a pet," Mattia said about the horse This Island Earth. "He used to follow us around wherever we went. I gave him to (trainer) Julius Czermann and told him to see if he could get him to the races. Not only did he qualify, he won in 1:57 at Freehold and paced in :53 at The Meadowlands. Everyone bet me he'd never race. Then they bet me he'd never win a race. People owe me like a million dollars."

And for anyone who wants to pay up, Mattia has an investment opportunity. "I'm not a filmmaker, but maybe by next year I will be one," he said.

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