by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent
To say that Marta Piotrow took the standard route to becoming a Standardbred trainer would be your standard false statement.
It’s a little more complicated than your basic “My family was in the business, I just always loved it and wanted to do it,” story.
To start with, it took the 33-year-old Poland native seven years to go from her initial horseback ride to riding regularly. Her goal growing up was to be a veterinarian or mounted police officer and that altered when she developed an interest in teaching and breeding.
Before fulfilling final graduate requirements for a Master’s in Animal Science at Michigan State University, she landed a position managing broodmares and foals while teaching equine science classes. It was at that point she developed an interest in Standardbreds, but before going full speed ahead into training she worked to achieve higher pregnancy rates at Allerage Farms in Pennsylvania.
That lasted until 2016, when Marta got her trainer’s license and took on training as a fulltime profession. In 19 starts last season her horses took four seconds and three thirds. On Jan. 5, Marta hit the win column for the first time when her horse, Doc, won at Monticello Raceway. Five days later, Winbak Prince won at Monticello, giving her two wins in a row to start off the 2017 season.
“I was really happy to start the New Year with my first start being a win,” Piotrow said.
It was the culmination of a long haul.
Marta’s parents both rode English and hunter jumpers in Poland, and her first ride on a horse came when her mother was pregnant with her. Once born, she climbed atop one on her own at age 7 and quickly fell in love with it.
At 13, her father, a successful automotive mechanical engineer, was recruited by General Motors and the family relocated to Detroit in 1997.
“The adjustment was easy for me,” Marta said. “I jumped two grades and was lucky enough to have a private English tutor when growing up to learn the language. All I had to do was pick up the accent, which came natural with age.”
With her interest in horses already piqued, Marta decided to forego criminal justice and attended Michigan State to major in animal science and equine science and management.
“I developed an interest in breeding horses and potentially teaching,” she said. “So instead of working toward a veterinary future I was offered to stay on for a Master’s in Animal Science with a focus on equine reproduction.”
Before obtaining her degree, Piotrow took a job at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., as an assistant Standardbred Manager. It involved some classroom instruction and broodmare management of the Standardbred facility on campus. She managed broodmares and foals and helped Manager Fred Hofsaess with stallions and yearlings. Marta was promoted to manager when Fred retired. She taught courses in stable management, mare and foal management, stallion management and yearling management, “some of which I had developed and expanded and added to the new teaching curriculum.”
While working at Delaware Valley, Marta took a personal interest in the breed she needed to understand for teaching purposes and breeding, which were Standardbreds. Hofsaess recommended some training centers for her to look into, which she pursued and began working with folks in their barns and on the track. She also began to paddock horses at nearby Harrah’s Philadelphia.
“Shortly, I adopted a Laag Standardbred broodmare and went on to buy my first yearling in partnership and everything started to come together from there,” Piotrow said. “More involvement was more knowledge and more love for the sport. I was not lucky enough to grow up in this business, I had to work extra hard for anything I needed to learn, whether it was work for no pay or low pay in the beginning, I didn’t care. I sucked it up to get better and stay involved and learn.”
Marta was mentored by some top trainers, as she started out with Nancy and Marcus Johansson and moved on to Trond Smedshammer, who taught her about training young horses and developing more skill on the track.
In 2015, Meadowlands boss Jeff Gural was looking for help at his Allerage Farms in Pennsylvania. Gural wanted someone with experience to achieve higher pregnancy rates with foals and yearling prep. It was not the easiest of choices.
“I was a good fit and it was also a good fit for me at the time personally but I had to give up training for Trond, and that was a tough call,” Marta said. “I just started to be comfortable there, Trond was great to work for and I was learning a lot.”
She eventually took the job and remained there from January 2015 to June 2016.
She now owns and trains two horses — Winbak Prince and Doc — in a partnership with her boyfriend, driver Anthony Napolitano. They are stabled at Anthony’s farm in Nescopeck, Pa.
“I’m starting small but looking to grow in the business,” Piotrow said. “I no longer work at Allerage, but Jeff had been very supportive of me while I was there and encouraged my continued involvement.”
Marta qualified Winbak Prince twice in 2016 as a driver and said, “You can certainly look forward to me driving a little more in 2017. I love to drive.”
Napolitano usually drives their horses but is taking the winter off. Thus, Michael Merton was in the sulky when Doc gave the trainer her first win at Monticello.
“He was just coming off a decent second the week prior,” Piotrow said. “He drew the three hole, a much better post for him on a half (-mile track). Michael gave him the perfect trip and Doc was good until the end, finishing strong. This little horse has been really good to us so far. He is hard working and tough and has been showing a lot of class.”
In looking toward the future, Marta said she hopes to drive her own horses one day, but added with a laugh, “I will leave the owners’ horses to the professionals.”
At the rate she is going after the circuitous route she took, Piotrow has become a pretty classy professional in her own right. And this journey is just beginning.