Harness Racing And The Yankees

Joe Lee is living the dream. He grew up in the Bronx, moved to Yonkers at age 13, and loved harness racing and the New York Yankees every step of the way. In 1995 he became a Yankees batboy at age 15 and, at 37, is assistant equipment manager for baseball’s most glamorous franchise. He became an amateur driver in 2010, won his first race in 2011, and is off to the best start of his career this season with seven wins, three seconds, and two thirds for $31,635 in purses in 36 starts.

Since the start of 2015, Lee has garnered 22 of his 27 career wins and has hit the board 65 times after finishing in the money 17 times in his first five years. He owns two horses with former Yankee manager Joe Torre and his mentor, Buzzy Sholty. Along with driving and working in the Yanks clubhouse, Lee is a financial advisor for a firm in West Chester, N.Y.

With the Yankees on the road recently, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent Rich Fisher talked to Joe about a wide range of subjects; on everything from John Campbell to Derek Jeter, to comparing great athletes with prized horses; to revealing how a Yankee player once donned his colors in the Yankee Stadium laundry room; to his mind-numbing first race and several other subjects.

RF: So what’s been your more pleasant surprise this year — the young Yankees being in first place or the best start of your driving career?
JL: Probably both. Seeing the Yankees in first place is great and getting to turn to go to the winner’s circle a bunch of times is a lot of fun.

RF: What’s been the key to this start of yours?
JL: The horses have been pretty good. Good horses make good drivers. I’ve just been lucky enough to put some of the horses in position to win. The rest is up to them and luckily, so far so good. I’ve just had good opportunities from some of the trainers I’ve been driving for.

RF: How tough is it for you to get drives? Between being a financial advisor and assistant equipment manager, I would imagine it could be difficult.
JL: Right now it hasn’t been hard because I’ve been doing pretty well. A lot of trainers see an opportunity to race in the amateur races because it might be a little softer; their horses don’t have to race as hard to get a piece. I think a lot of trainers have gained a little confidence in me over the years and fortunately I get a lot of phone calls. That’s really nice. I don’t have to go fishing for them.

RF: Was it like that from the start?
JL: I had some connections in the sport, so it wasn’t terribly hard for me to get some drives. Sometimes you feel the pressure like you have to do good with a horse. The difference between the amateur racing and being catch drivers, is they might be able to sit behind 10 or 12 horses a night and everybody gets to see them a bunch of times. But when you only have one opportunity, just that one race on Friday night, you want to put the horse in the best position possible and if you don’t people say, “Aw man, he can’t drive.” So there’s a little more pressure on that one drive because you can’t make a mistake.

RF: What exactly are your days like with the Yankees? How long are you there before the game, how long after?
JL: When the Yankees are home, I’ll go to the office first thing in the morning, and stay there until about 1:30 and then I’ll go down to the stadium by 2. I’m at the stadium until around after midnight. Then I’ll be back at the office in the morning. When the team is on the road, then I’m back in the office from 9 to 5.

RF: So what are your duties for the Yankees?
JL: All the clubhouse guys and equipment managers are in charge of having the equipment ready for the team, like their bats and uniforms have to be ready to go. We’re in charge of the food they’re going to eat. We feed them three times a day. We make decisions on what restaurants are going to come in and cook for us, what they’ll be eating for the day.

It goes beyond baseball. We’ll help guys out if their families are in town and they want to go see a Broadway show or go to dinner at a restaurant. We’re making those reservations and getting them the tickets. It’s like being a personal concierge for them. We’re putting out fires all day.

RF: I thought that was the job of (Seinfeld’s) George Costanza, the assistant to the traveling secretary.
JL: (laughing) It’s sort of the same thing. That position doesn’t exist in real life. There are interns for the traveling secretary but no regular assistant.

RF: Well George said a college intern took his place when he was fired. I guess he wasn’t lying.
JL: Basically that’s how it would work if that job did exist.

RF: That clubhouse must be a happy place this year. Is it a little different environment from the Core 4 days, when you had a veteran crew that knew it should win, as opposed to a younger bunch that is forging their own name?
JL: The Core 4 weren’t veterans at one time, they were still a Core 4 but very young. I can remember when those guys first came up, and this is very, very similar. I was there back then and I’m seeing a lot of similarities between then and now. There certainly is a buzz in the clubhouse right now, the guys get along very well, there’s a great camaraderie between everybody. Not that there hasn’t been in the last couple years, but this year with a little more youth it’s just a little more of a buzz.

Right now the confidence of the team is very high. These guys feel if they’re down two or three runs they know they’re always in it. There were a couple of standout moments this year so far that really showed them they could beat anybody. They beat Chris Sale in Boston. If you can beat Chris Sale in Fenway Park you can beat anybody. And also when they were down 9-1 at home and ended up winning 14-11, that was a huge moment. From there they’ve just been rolling. They’re pretty confident right now.

It’s the same thing with the horses. You can have a horse that’s kind of going on his own all the time, but if he wins one race and he comes off a helmet and blows past the field, the next couple of weeks you’ll see a different horse. There’s no question a horse gets brave and so do the ballplayers.

RF: I was actually going to ask you that? You’re around them both a lot. Can you compare pro athletes with racehorses?
JL: All the time. The biggest comparison is there are some horses that can race week in and week out and deal with the grind of working that hard all the time and there are others that can’t. That’s the same thing in baseball. A lot of time you get players who are so sore and play every single day and they can just go out there and do it for that three-hour period for those nine innings and then worry about the pain tomorrow.

And they’re very similar in their workout regiment. It’s very much a routine. Horses jog every day and they train three days out, then they race. The players have their routine. They come in, they watch video, they work out, they go have batting practice, they play the game, they go home. It’s the same thing the next day. It’s very, very similar.

RF: Can you assess a horse through watching pro athletes and give tips to trainers?
JL: That’s a good question. I think the trainers have a good idea of what they’re doing. The guys that are surviving this game as long as they have, I don’t tell them what to do. Sometimes if the horse was running out or running in or just didn’t have it or is hitting himself in the race a little, the trainer would want to know that information. But they just take that little feedback and go with it on their own. I just stay out of their way. They’re the ones who are with the horses every day. They know their horses better than anybody. If there is an issue, the next week if you sit behind the same horse they’ll have fixed it.

RF: I read where there aren’t any guys on the Yankees that have your interest in harness racing, but do you ever try to get any of them interested?
JL: I own a couple of horses with Joe Torre. But a couple of the ballplayers know I race. Just last week, Adam Warren asked if I had raced lately. And we were watching some of my latest races. He gets a kick out of it. He actually keeps saying “I want to come to the races one night and watch you guys race.” I’ll get him out to the racetrack.

Phil Hughes (now with the Twins) was always interested in watching me race. One day I was washing my colors at the stadium and I went to get them out of the dryer. He was standing in my colors, wearing them. Helmet and all, he was standing there near the washer and dryer with a whip in his hand.

RF: Was he living out a fantasy, or what?
JL: I think it was more mocking me that I would even be doing my laundry in the stadium and that it would be my racing stuff.

RF: They always say there’s a lot busting going on in the locker room.
JL: Ohhh, believe me, I’m not exempt from it.

RF: Brian Cashman’s family was big in the sport of harness racing. Do you ever talk to Brian about it?
JL: His dad ran Lexington for a long time and his brother John was a trainer and driver down in Kentucky for a long, long time. I just saw John Cashman III not too long ago. That’s how Brian met the Steinbrenner family; through harness racing. Brian grew up on a farm. John Cashman was training some of Steinbrenner’s horses and they were very friendly. George was involved in both harness racing and Thoroughbred racing.

RF: Do you talk to Brian about it much?
JL: Yeah, he asks me all the time “Have you won anything, when’s your next drive?” But he was never into the sport as much as his brother and father were. They were real, real horsemen, and Brian was more into baseball.

RF: So with the hours you put in between investment finance and especially with the Yankees at home, some guys would say that’s enough and just relax on the couch. But you’re running out there getting in a sulky during free time. Harness racing must truly be a passion for you.
JL: I grew up loving the sport. My parents owned a couple trotters when I was a kid, we would go to the races all the time. Every Friday and Saturday night I was at the racetrack. I was the kid down at the fence, asking the drivers of the last two races if I could get their whip, stuff like that. Finally I said I have to see what it’s like to sit behind one, and the moment I sat behind one and jogged one, I gave up riding from there.

It is a passion. To this day I don’t care if I’m 100-1 or 2-5; when the wings of the gate open, and the starter at any track — and last year I drove at 13 tracks — calls you and says “All right guys, get them together, bring them to the gate,” it’s a huge rush. There is just a rush of having the horse’s nose on the gate alongside eight to 10 other horses to your left and right. It’s just the competitiveness to try and win a race.

To win something that you were just a spectator at your whole life, it was like all of a sudden today you were asked to play shortstop for the Yankees because Didi Gregorius couldn’t play. Who wouldn’t go out there and grab their glove and try to win the game with the team?

Unfortunately we’re not a team with the other horses and drivers in the race, but you’re a team with the horse that you’re driving and it’s a lot of fun to try and get along with a horse that someone puts you on. You see that even in the pros. You’ll see one guy drives a horse every now and then and another guy drives the same horse every now and then and sometimes for some reason that horse responds to that one guy better than the other. I love that this Karets wasn’t winning early in the year and when I jumped on him he won three of his next four starts (for me). I just get along with that horse; he’s always relaxed for me. Just things like that, you look forward to. It’s almost like, when you get along with them, they know that you’re driving. It’s like “Oh, I’m going to put in a good effort for this guy today.” You almost get that feeling sometimes.

It’s just the rush of it. I must have watched 100,000 races in my life before I finally sat behind one. To finally be in the same game. . . I’ve driven in a lot of the pro races before I did the amateur races just because of my schedule; and to go behind the gate and to your left is Jason Bartlett and to your right is George Brennan or Brian Sears or Jim Taggart or Bruce Aldrich. All these guys that have thousands and thousands of wins; and there you’re sitting. But there’s a chance you can beat that guy. Some of these guys are living Hall of Famers and you can beat them on any given day in any given race, and there’s a thrill in that.

RF: Yeah, whether it happens or not, you have the chance to do it.
JL: Exactly. You have the ability to be on the same playing field as the guy you were betting on 100 times. I could practice every day for the rest of my life and I’m never going to be on the field at the stadium. But this is a sport where you can be at a professional level with the pros. If you try a little bit and work at getting your license and taking the test and doing what you have to do to get there, who could turn that opportunity down? To say “OK, John Campbell’s got $299 million in purses, but I might beat him in just this one race.”

I never look at it like I’m trying to catch these guys. I’m never going to catch David Miller in wins or Dave Palone in earnings. But for that one race if I happen to be behind the gate with them on that particular day, I’ve got the same shot as anybody else.

RF: Can you describe your emotions in your very first race?
JL: Joe Holloway gave me my first qualifying drive and, (laughing), it’s so funny, the difference between watching a race and being in it was nothing like I expected. To this day the whole thing was a total blur. It was at Freehold Raceway. All I could remember was that the starting gate disappeared; I had no idea where the starting car went after he let us go. I had the three hole and all I could think was, get down to the rail, and you just don’t even know what you are doing during the race. After watching a million races in my life, all of a sudden I had no idea where the quarter pole was, the half, the three-quarter. That oval became a total maze for me.

It’s so different. It’s just a different perspective from watching it on TV, or on the apron of the track. All of a sudden you’re being swarmed by seven other horses leaving the gate at the same time. It was just total chaos to me because it sped up in my eyesight so fast. It looked so fast to me. I felt like we were going 150 miles an hour. I didn’t even know where I was. Thank God the horse knew to keep turning left.

RF: (laughing hysterically) I take it things got better after that?
JL: Well yeah, now I think after so many drives the past few years, it slows down. The race is definitely slower in my eyes. I never feel it’s speeding out of control and because of that I think it’s taught me a lot of patience on the racetrack. You can make decisions easier when it looks slower in your eye.

I can remember Joe Torre telling that to players. When games got away from players it was always because the game sped up in front of them and caused them to make errors, whereas a Derek Jeter always saw the game in slow motion, that’s how he could make those decisions and just look better than everyone else. He was able to keep the game at a regular pace in his eye.

RF: Let’s go a step beyond. Describe the feeling after the first win.
JL: My first pari-mutuel win was at Monticello on a horse that I owned, a pacer called Bad Obsession. I had driven her in a regular race. April Aldrich was training her for me up there. She was the favorite, I got away fourth or fifth, came first over and she grinded it out for me the rest of the way. My first pari-mutuel win was against the pros up there in Monticello.

RF: What was that feeling like when you came across the line?
JL: You just try to enjoy the ride down the stretch. I knew I had the race won. I had gotten clear so I knew they weren’t going to catch me. You just can’t believe you’re going to be the guy going back to the winner’s circle. It’s never about the money. It doesn’t matter if you’re racing for $2,500 or $200,000, a win is a win. So yeah, it’s a great thrill. My parents were there to see that, that was nice.

When you win one, you cannot wait to get behind the next one and try to win the next race because it’s such a great feeling. Who doesn’t want to repeat that feeling all the time? In amateur racing we’re pretty much racing twice a week at either Yonkers or Monticello. And every week they’re gracious enough to put a card up at the Meadowlands, so you’re getting two to three starts a week. It’s not easy to win a race at any time. You’ve got to enjoy them when they happen. They don’t happen all the time.

RF: I know Buzzy Sholty tutored you, but exactly what did he mean to your career? Is it a stretch to say he made it all possible?
JL: Every bit of it. A hundred percent of it. He was the one that let me come down and start driving his horses. He knew I had a horse background when I was show jumping, so he was comfortable letting me jog his horses. Then we started training, and he helped me get my license. He introduced me to enough people that I could start making the connections to start talking to other trainers or owners about getting qualifying drives. We have a great relationship. I talk to Buzzy every day. He’s like a brother to me. I wouldn’t be racing at all if it wasn’t for Buzzy and Mike Sorrentino Jr. Those are guys that were lifelong guys in the horse business and they carry a lot of weight. A lot of people in the business know them and if they ask for a little help in letting me drive a horse, people were willing to do it for them, and that’s how I got the opportunity.

RF: You became a Yankee batboy at age 15 so I’m guessing you were a big baseball fan. Were you as big a harness racing fan as baseball?
JL: A bigger harness racing fan than baseball. I was always into horses. There wasn’t a vacation I didn’t go on where we didn’t go horseback riding or I wasn’t show jumping horses or we were not at a racetrack. I’ve probably been at every track in this country, both Thoroughbred and harness.

RF: Being into the sport as much as you are, was it as big a thrill to meet guys like Brian Sears and Tim Tetrick as it was to be in the same clubhouse as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera?
JL: Definitely! When you work with somebody every day, the novelty of that kind of wears off. Being in the clubhouse every day with Derek Jeter was kind of like, really no big deal. But the first time I met John Campbell I was 16 years old and he was sitting right outside the dugout. He was driving some horses for George Steinbrenner. I knew who he was, I was in my uniform bat boy-ing and I asked the team photographer to take a picture of John and I.

John gave me his card and said “Send it to me when you get it developed, I’ll sign it and send it back to you.” I’ve known John since I was 16 and John and I became close friends. John helped me along the way too. Seeing John Campbell at the game, for me that was better than seeing Mickey Mantle (laughing). I didn’t care that Mariano Rivera or Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams was in the dugout. I was like “John Campbell’s here today, who cares about Mariano Rivera!” I’m eating lunch and dinner with those guys every day. That’s boring compared to meeting John Campbell right outside the dugout. That was great.

RF: What would you consider the highlight of your career?
JL: I would say three. My first win at the Meadowlands was the Hambletonian Amateur Race. I won that for Mark Ford with Upfrontstrikesgold. That was fun. Last year with winning the (Billings Amateur Series) Silver Cup down at (Harrah’s Philadelphia) with Captain Primeau, that was a lot of fun. The biggest thrill would be I got to beat the pros at Monticello one day in the mud and paid $183 to win. I beat Jim Taggart at the wire and was 90-something to one. That was (2015).

I had driven the horse (Blowout) the week before and he was so bad, he wanted to go back to the paddock after the half. The next week, at the three-quarter pole, he still felt like he had something left and I started moving him. I tipped three wide and he was coming and I was like “Wow, I’m going to hit the board” and down the stretch I’m like “My God I might win this thing.” I turned to Jim Taggart at the wire and said “Did I get you?” and he said “Yeah, you got me.” His name was Blowout. It’s really a lot of fun when you think that you have no chance and all of a sudden the horse wakes up.

RF: What do you see in your future?
JL: I would do the amateurs as long as I can. When one fits that I can win with, whether it be my own or somebody else asks me to drive, even if it’s a pro race, I’m all for that too. I’m always up for that challenge to race against the pros. It’s a different type of racing. The pro races play out different than the amateur races. They race a lot tighter and they’re a little pushier on the track, but I like that. I’ll be on both if the opportunities come.

RF: Are you where you want to be at this point in your career?
JL: Right now I don’t think I would change a thing. I love being able to race as much as I’m racing. Last year was a thrill. I logged so many miles last year between winning a race at the Little Brown Jug in Ohio, to going to Canada to race, and this winter we raced a few down in New Zealand.

RF: New Zealand!
JL: I never thought that going to Buzzy Sholty’s farm to just jog a horse on a Saturday morning would ever lead me to racing in New Zealand. That’s ridiculous when you think about it. You have to be half a nut job to even want to do all this and fly all these places and spend the money and pay for hotels. Here I traveled all the way to New Zealand. You’re talking an 18, 19 hour time difference, for two or three races. For six minutes worth of races! Short of landing on the moon to go race, what else is next?

(On the New Zealand trip) my parents tagged along. We went to Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. We made a three-week trip out of it. I was not flying all the way to New Zealand for three races. That would have been nuts.

These trips cost money, but at the same time, how do you put a price on going behind a racehorse? I can’t put a price on that. To me it’s worth every penny.

by Rich Fisher

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