For the past 16 years aspiring Standardbred trainers and drivers from across the world have traveled to the USTA Driving School to make their dreams possible. Located in Goshen, NY the past three years, students learn firsthand from some of the top trainers and harness racing personalities what it takes to manage a barn of racehorses, proper horse care and grooming, rules and tips for driving and so much more. This year we tagged along with the students as they were put through their paces and even picked up a few things ourselves!
The first night the class of almost 50 students were greeted with an introduction by USTA President Mike Tanner and an open chance to ask questions of the $100 million trainer himself, Ron Burke. Ron has a storied career but the main message as he spoke to students was to put in the hard work, get to know the horses and trust your instincts. “As I become older, I become more of a horse person,” he said. “I train more [young horses] now, and I love the [young horses]. Before, all I wanted was racehorses … but there’s more pride in [working with young horses].” Students from across the country really took this message to heart to kick off the 2014 Driving School course.
After spending the evening meeting fellow students and learning from Burke, the 7:30am start at the barn may have been a surprise for some but for the staff at Mark Ford Training Center it’s daily life. As students trickled in, many of the horses were already going for their first training runs on the track and grooms waved friendly hellos. Holly, a groom at the Harmon Racing Stables, greeted students with a warm welcome and immediately dove in to barn work – dishing out tasks and instructions left and right. The classroom sessions would come later in the day, the morning was for hard work and students were quickly tasked with “learning by doing”: grooming horses, mucking out stalls, bathing them and getting them ready for their turn at the track.
After their first morning of barn work, students returned to the Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame for the first full afternoon of classes and what would be the first of many delicious and filling meals (we tucked in to several plates at each meal to refuel). Note pads came out and pens moved furiously as an all-star lineup detailed what goes in to driving Standardbreds and managing a barn. First Tyler Buter, who won 175 races and his mounts banked $2.69 million last year, and Jeff Gregory, with over 6,600 wins and more than $66.7 million in purses, shared about driving. Through honest conversation, lessons learned from tumbles and mistakes and joking with the class, Buter and Gregory gave a sense on what they’ve picked up from their time driving down the track.
Mark Ford, the youngest trainer in history to reach milestones of $10, $20, $30, $40 and $50 million in career earnings, and Ray Schnittker, winner of more than 2,650 races and driver of horses with more than $40 million in purses, took the afternoon to go over care and conditioning 101. While not all lessons can be fit into an afternoon, both shared how they learned their craft of training horses, balancing racing with rest and recuperation and strategies for working with horses aged from foals to 10 years old.
With the rain still going strong, the planned BBQ dinner to end the day moved in doors to the Simpson stable at the Mark Ford Training Center. Students and barn staff didn’t let it dampen their spirits, and tables and solid pulled pork provided a great base for conversations and swapped stories from lives spent around horses.
Day Three began with sore muscles being stretched as the students, now familiar with the barn routine, grabbed shovels and bridle leads and set about their work. Intense rain doesn’t stop horses from needing to be fed or stretch their muscles, and so hardy drivers and brave students headed out to take care of training runs and run to and from the sawdust piles to freshen up stalls.
Drying off in cars on the way back to the classroom, students shook off a sodden morning with a hot Italian buffet lunch and lessons from veterinarian Dr. Brian S. MacNamara, DVM. Dr. MacNamara went through some of the main ailments that can plague racehorses and injuries to watch out for. “Beware of supplements and miracle cures,” he warned saying if it hasn’t been vetted by the FDA or more importantly the supplier won’t give you a list of ingredients then why would you give it to your horses? He ended by inviting people to meet with him after, ask questions and even handed out his email to help them with their curiosity about treating horses.
The day ended on a light hearted note as Kelly Ford and Amber Buter took the students through stable management. Kelly, who previously competed as an amateur driver in the C.K.G. Billings Series and Amber, who last year posted 144 victories and purse earnings of $1,878,864, spoke to the tough job of coordinating traveling schedules, owner inquiries and bringing in new horses. They were able to grab every student’s attention with humor and personal stories while imparting the struggles and wins they find each week at the barn.
All successful racehorses’ stories begin at the stud farm, and Blue Chip Farms was a perfect setting to hear what makes a stallion a stud and how bloodlines are managed. Students got to meet the man himself, Credit Winner, the top stud at the farm and also poked their heads in to the stalls of brand new foals from great mares like Blur, a Breeders Crown winner with $1,000,000 in career earnings. Just in time, the rain cleared for the group to wander to the fence post, greet mares in the field and snap photos of the shy, cute foals.
After every storm is a rainbow, and a beautiful morning greeted students as they took to their barn work and enjoyed turns in the jog cart with horses on the track. Joe Faraldo, national Amateur Driver of the Year in 1997 and longest serving director on the USTA board, and Lon Frocione, who represented the US in the 2006 World Cup of Amateur Driving and is a member of the Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame, greeted students back at the Hall of Fame after they wrapped up their last day of chores. They detailed what it meant to be an amateur driver and the basics to watch out for when starting to drive in the bike with Standardbreds. Humorous explanations of different tack like blinders, like to “prevent the horse from seeing flying snakes” helped students to remember the functionality of racing gear and how each setup needs to be customized to the horse and racing situation.
With that wisdom in mind and a final run-through of the lesson book before the following morning’s test, students were randomly drawn from a raffle to participate in the opening race at the Goshen Historic Track on Sunday. The excitement was high and shouts of joy greeted each new name called as each selected student pulled the name of the next from a hat. With six students lined up to take on the Sunday matinee, friendly jibes and challenges were lobbed back and forth during group photos.
Sunday dawned and those aspiring trainers and drivers solemnly sat down to the USTA test after a final night spent studying for this moment. Some trotted through while others methodically went through each question, but all knew this could be the start of realizing a dream. None more so than those participating in the Goshen Historic Track matinee, as they received their driving lines and temporary colors for the race soon after the test.
Lined up with horses from different parts and paired up with drivers, it was time to test their mettle on the track as jogging carts were hitched up. For the safety of the students and the horses, double lines were attached to the bridle so that, student driver style, the professional drivers could jump in at any moment if students made a mistake or got nervous. We mounted a GoPro camera on one student’s helmet (stay tuned for the footage) before the starting gate took everyone on one tour around the track to start the race. As soon as the gates swung out, the horses were off and four days of lessons and hard work were put to the test. Alan Roberts, of Jamestown, TN, crossed the finish line first and pumped his fist in the air to celebrate the victory, listening to the cheers of the grandstands and his fellow classmates.