20-year-old groom and student promotes Michigan racing
by Tim Bojarski
Michigan harness racing is steeped in tradition, going back to 1895 when Peter The Great was foaled in Kalamazoo. Unfortunately, negative developments affecting the sport over the past decade have seen big-time racing there become only a memory.
In 1944, Northville Downs was the first Standardbred track to open a pari-mutuel meet in the state and the sport thrived for decades at venues like the Detroit Race Course, Hazel Park, Saginaw Valley Downs, Sports Creek Raceway and Muskegon Race Course. Unfortunately the boom went bust in 1993 with the opening of Indian casinos statewide and corporate casinos in Detroit–whose proceeds were not shared with horseman.
But in a time when harness racing in Michigan is generally referred to in the past tense, one young voice is fighting to keep it alive in the state and in the consciousness of the entire racing industry. That voice belongs to 20-year-old Jessica Otten.
Otten, a USTA member since 2009, is the daughter of longtime Michigan trainer-driver Peter Otten, and she has been around Standardbreds from the day she was born. Despite her age, Otten appreciates first-hand what the industry has meant to those who earn a living in it and has been an active spokesperson for the preservation of Michigan harness racing for several years now.
At 14 she testified in front of the state legislature on behalf of the horsemen’s association. At 15 she was quoted in newspaper interviews about the condition of the racing industry there. Today, she continues to be a positive force for Michigan racing on social media.
Otten currently works for her father’s stable and for Joe Cirasuola, who is also based in Michigan. She races most nights at Northville Downs, Hoosier Park, Northfield Park or The Raceway at Western Fair District. At the same time, she is working her way through college.
Otten is a second-year, full-time student at Mott Community College majoring in business and marketing. She plans to graduate from Northwood University in two years with a bachelor’s degree, hoping to find employment in racing.
“I would love to get a job like Emily Gaskin or Allison Conte when I graduate,” she said. “I admire both of these women and feel they do outstanding work. Hopefully my degree will take me in that direction because I never want the horses to be out of my life.”
Otten already has gained practical experience toward her goal as she has been on the forefront of social media in her home state.
“Getting the word out on social media is very important to harness racing,” she said. “So many non-racing people end up seeing things on Facebook and Twitter about our sport when people post them because they show up on their feeds when someone forwards or tags them.”
In her quest to promote racing in her state, Otten regularly writes for the Michigan Harness Horsemen’s Association, reports via Facebook Live from the Northville paddock and posts racing material on her own Facebook page.
Aside from that, she gathers trainer and driver comments about their horses, fits them into 140 characters and tweets them to the Northville Downs Twitter account. They in turn send them out before each race. Those comments are also shown on their broadcast every night.
As the horsemen continue to fight for financial help from the state, racing at Northville Downs goes on, but not without its challenges for their horsemen.
“It’s very hard to write classes at Northville because while some horses race in state, others travel out of state and compete for a lot more money,” she said. “So when they come home and enter at Northville, it’s hard to fill competitive condition races because of the earnings difference.
“Right now we’re racing two days a week with 10 or 12 races a night, but they’re not all full fields. But we are doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”
Otten plans to move to Indiana for the summer to work and race at Hoosier while continuing to amass credits for her degree with online courses while school is out. She will also be visiting some of the races on the Grand Circuit this year, doing live reporting for the “Post Time with Mike and Mike” podcast.
“The more you tell the story or explain something, the more people will see it and that all helps in the long run,” she said. “When I see something exciting at the track, I share it because I think everyone should see it.”