Back To School, Harness Racing Style

by Ken Weingartner

When Jennifer Leslie left her job as a social worker for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, D.C., and returned to her roots in Lexington, Ky., she was uncertain of her future. But when Leslie looked back on the most joyful days of her life, she realized horses were at the center of it.

USTA/Mark Hall photos
Jennifer Leslie is in her third season at the Kentucky Horse Park, working in the Hall of Champions.

So Leslie started volunteering at the Kentucky Horse Park, where she now takes care of retired harness racing greats Mr Muscleman, Staying Together, Western Dreamer, and Won The West. And she fell in love.

Leslie was among the 33 participants in the 17th annual U.S. Trotting Association Driving School, which was held this year at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in central Ohio.

The school, which ran through Saturday, offered participants a mix of hands-on learning and classroom sessions culminating with the administration of the USTA trainer and/or driver exam. Trainers opening their stables to the school’s attendees were Brian Brown, Mike Conklin, Tim Lane, Ron Potter, and Ron Steck. Attendees also got to visit Sugar Valley Farms breeding facility and receive information on veterinary care and ownership initiatives.

Leslie is in her third season at the Kentucky Horse Park, working in the Hall of Champions.

“I love those horses,” Leslie said. “They’re the first Standardbreds I ever knew and they got me interested and made me want to learn more.

“I’m not sure what I’ll do in the future. Driving sounds like fun, but I’m not sure where I really want this to go. But The Red Mile is in town and the idea of maybe being able to work on the backside of the track and maybe jog some horses there is really cool. I’m just going to try to get a license and then I’ll kind of see where it goes.”

The Delaware County Fairgrounds is home to the Little Brown Jug. Western Dreamer won the 1997 Little Brown Jug and Won The West finished fourth in the 2007 Little Brown Jug in the first year of a nearly $4 million career.

“When I was a teenager I had a horse,” Leslie said. “I did 4-H and learned a little bit of show jumping. I didn’t get really far with it, but it made me happy. When I left my job and thought about what I wanted to do, the last thing that made me really, really happy was when I worked around horses.

“I went to the Horse Park and I started volunteering. During my first season, one of the seasonal employees had to leave to go back to school so they hired me to finish the season. Now I work during the tourist season and I volunteer during the winter.

“We have two presentations a day in the Hall of Champions, but a lot of the day is just people coming into the barn and we tell them about the horses. I like to get Won The West out and show him off. He’s my favorite. Other people will come to ask to see specific horses so we’ll bring them out. Really that’s all those horses have to do now is be ambassadors. They live the life of Riley out there.

“I tell people my job is to come in and love on those horses all day long, which is a pretty great job.”

* * * * *

Kellie Kvern is around racehorses on a regular basis as a photographer. Sometime in the future, Kvern would like to get her picture taken in the winner’s circle as an amateur driver.

Kellie Kvern enjoyed the jogging sessions at the fairgrounds.

“I’ve always liked Standardbreds and watching them,” said Kvern, who lives near Lexington and has photographed horses at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and The Red Mile. “I thought maybe I wanted to learn how to drive, but I really had no idea how to access that world. I found the Driving School and thought it would be a great introduction and a way to get hand-on experience with the horses and the trainers and get to drive.

“It’s been great. I love it. It was really, really fun. I hope I will end up getting a trotter, starting out with something really simple, and becoming an amateur driver in the future.”

Kvern, who has ridden horses since she was 6, joked that she was dominant during the Driving School’s jogging sessions at the fairgrounds.

“I’m smoking the other students,” Kvern said, laughing. “They didn’t know we were racing, but they should have known.”

* * * * *

Andrew Perkins planned to attend the Driving School last year when it was held in Goshen, N.Y., but he broke his ankle playing paintball a month prior to the event and was unable to go. As it turned out, the school’s return to the Delaware County Fairgrounds worked out perfectly for the Hilliard, Ohio, resident.

Andrew Perkins would like to become a driver.

After all, it was at the fairgrounds in 2014 that Perkins watched Feel The Heat win a division of the Ohio Breeders Championship on Little Brown Jug Day. Feel The Heat is owned by Perkins’ father, Steve, and uncle, Don.

“After being at the Jug that week and coming the next year, I got hooked,” said the 31-year-old Perkins, who is a part-time plumber’s helper and groom. “I just really enjoyed it when I saw the races here and then started helping at the barn. I would like to learn to drive to assist the family, be available if they can’t get a driver, and maybe get to the point where I can just drive their horses.”

Perkins would like to get more into training horses as well, but said, “I’ve got a lot to learn there.”

“All these guys (at Driving School) are good trainers and they’ve been real nice and helpful,” Perkins said. “It’s really been helpful to be out there jogging a horse with another person who can explain things to you. It helps you learn so that when you’re out there by yourself you know what’s going on.”

* * * * *

Dr. Richard Williams is hoping to buy his first racehorse this fall.

Dr. Richard Williams, a radiologist from Clearfield, Pa., owns horses — including a Paint and Friesian — but is hoping to buy his first racehorse at the Standardbred Horse Sale in Harrisburg in November. He was introduced to harness racing by his father, who took him to the track and fairs.

“I know things about the riding end of it, recreational riding, but I wanted to learn about the racing side of it,” Williams said about his experience with horses. “I’m learning like crazy. This has been a really nice setup. I’m just happy to be a part of it. It’s been a real great thing.”

Williams hopes to get a horse that can win a race at his hometown fair.

“That would be really cool,” he said.

“My aspirations aren’t to be a driver in the real world, but I’m intrigued by the amateur driving,” he added. “I think it would be fun.”

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