When he was a young child, around the age of 4 or 5, Pep Moretti sat down with some crayons and began to create his own harness racing driving colors. Now, three decades later, he hopes to begin on a path to put his design to use.
Moretti, a police officer from Illinois, is among the 20 participants in the 18th annual U.S. Trotting Association Driving School, which got underway Wednesday (May 31) at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in central Ohio with a welcome dinner and keynote address from Bob Boni, the founder and president of Northwood Bloodstock Agency and co-owner of 2016 Horse of the Year Always B Miki.
The school runs through Saturday and offers students a mix of hands-on learning and classroom sessions culminating with the administration of the USTA’s trainer and/or driver exam. Participants came from eight different states, with Ohio producing the most attendees, with seven.
“I’ve been a railbird since I’ve been alive,” said Moretti, who grew up in Chicago. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a police officer and a harness driver. I’m a police officer now, but I never was able to work for a stable and get to drive. For the last five years I’ve been trying to get to the school. My schedule finally matched up to where I could make it.”
Moretti’s colors are black, royal blue, and red.
“I don’t know why,” Moretti said. “It just looked cool to me when I was a kid.”
Moretti recently bought an interest in a 2-year-old pacer, his first foray into horse ownership, and was anxious to get to work Thursday in the barn and on the track at the Driving School. His goal is to get licensed as a driver and participate at least at the amateur level.
“Even if I just drove my own horse I’d be happy,” Moretti said. “My friends and family think I’m nuts because they say my idea of a vacation is to work in a stable. Yes, it is. I’m excited. To be here, at the home of the Little Brown Jug, is pretty sweet.”
While the majority of Driving School attendees came from Ohio and neighboring Indiana, Marcus Taylor traveled the farthest distance to the fairgrounds. Taylor, a 37-year-old telecommunications tech, is from Alaska. Taylor has lived in Anchorage since getting out of the Army in 2002.
His interest in harness racing, though, has its roots in Tennessee, where he grew up watching his father and uncles compete on small backwoods tracks. The family also raced horses in Kentucky, but has not been active in the sport for about 25 years.
That has not diminished Taylor’s passion for harness racing.
“I watch races on my tablet at least five times a day,” Taylor said. “I would love to drive in an amateur race. It’s always been something I’ve been interested in, I just didn’t know how to go about doing it. I saw about the school on YouTube and wanted to do it. I always helped my dad and uncles; harnessing the horses, hooking them up to the bike, but it’s been a while.”
In addition to learning about training and driving, Taylor has one other dream when it comes to harness racing — to meet Hall of Fame driver John Campbell.
“What Michael Jordan is to basketball, to me, that’s what John Campbell is to harness racing,” Taylor said.
Boni noted during his hour-long talk with the Driving School participants that access to the stars in harness racing is much greater than most sports.
“One of the things I always stress about this business is you get to meet some of the most wonderful, most special, people you’re going to meet anywhere,” Boni said. “And unlike other areas, they’re very approachable. There’s no other sport that you can go into and literally be shoulder to shoulder with the very best.
“You can’t go to a football game and have a conversation with Tom Brady. It’s not happening. But you can come here and have a conversation with (Hall of Fame trainer) Jimmy Takter, and he’s every bit as accomplished on his level as they are. Great horses, great people, it all goes hand in hand.”
Boni, who grew up in New York’s borough of Queens and was introduced to harness racing through trips to Roosevelt and Yonkers raceways, began working in the industry in the late 1960s. He spent 11 years at Pine Hollow Stud Farm, rising to the position of vice president, before starting his own ventures.
“It’s available, it’s accessible,” Boni said. “It’s not impossible. I’m living proof. Being with the horses, if you’re fortunate enough to do it, I think is a very, very special experience. I would recommend it to anybody.
“If you’re going to be involved in horses, be involved. Go to the barn; see the people that are there. It gives you a different level of appreciation to see what work goes into it. If you’re not going to participate on some level, I don’t think you’re going to get the enjoyment or full appreciation out of what it is to watch a horse race.
“When your horse crosses the wire first, that’s a pretty good feeling. I don’t care what class it is, what level it is, it’s a feeling that’s great.”
by Ken Weingartner