Making the Grade

SUNY Morrisville’s equine program looks toward the future

story by Rich Fisher

Much like a good horse, a good horseman can benefit from the right training at a young age.

For example, David Reid heads up the highly successful Preferred Equine sales agency and is president of the Standardbred Transition Alliance. Dave McCaffrey served as president of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association for eight years, earned seven training titles at Maywood Park and is an Illinois Harness Racing Hall of Fame inductee. Jimmy Whittemore has nearly 1,700 driving wins good for more than $9.5 million in purse money and also trains 20 horses in his stable at Vernon Downs.

The common thread between them?

All are graduates of the Equine Racing Management Associate of Applied Sciences Standardbred Program at SUNY Morrisville, which is experiencing a revival under new instructional support associate Kerin Warner.

“It is a very good program in a lot of aspects,” Whittemore said.

The curriculum provides solid preparation for a harness racing career, including training, driving, breeding and taking part in an actual sale. Since taking over on Jan. 14, Warner substantially increased the numbers in the Standardbred program.

“I get a lot of kids from our Western program, where they’re like ‘Where am I gonna ride a horse for the rest of my life?’,” Warner said. “They leave as freshmen and come to me. The difference with this is I’m 6 feet 3 inches tall and 240 pounds; I can’t be a Thoroughbred jockey. But any kid can come sit in a jog cart. I’m getting some kids who say, ‘I can’t be a Western person because I weigh 200 pounds.’ I tell them ‘There’s no weight limit here, come here.’”

There is also no experience necessary, lest one think they must have an equine background.

Warner, who shut down his stable in northern New Jersey to take the position, feels the program is important in order to get the next generation involved with harness racing.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for kids,” he said. “We’ve got to get the young kids involved. This program is a good opportunity to help the sport. I’m 45 years old. I remember having conversations with top drivers a little older than me, saying, ‘I don’t want my kids to do this.’ Where are the kids gonna come from then? I want to see this program flourish again. The numbers are looking good. I told them, ‘Let me try to treat it like a minor league baseball franchise; give me three years to turn it around.’”

Warner noted there is a total of 140 in the overall equine program—which started 50 years ago—and 16 in the Standardbred program. Some came directly from high school; others come from the college’s other programs, which include Western, Draft, Rehabilitation, Hunt Seat and Thoroughbred.

“Some come here and know they want to be a Standardbred kid,” Warner said. “But some kids just rode horses their whole life; they don’t know what they want to do. So, we give them a little taste of it all to see what interests them. All the programs work hand in hand. If it’s not working out for a kid in one situation, I’ll give him a try at my barn.

“Some of the Western kids are riding and all of a sudden they’re seeing horses on the track with jog carts and they’re like ‘Wow, what is that?’ and then they ask, ‘Hey, Mr. Warner, can we take your class?’ So, I opened my class as an elective halfway through the semester. Anybody could jump in for an hour a day to see if they liked it for one credit. And they all fell in love with it.”

Olivia Voorhees is just such an example. A 20-year-old from Pine City, N.Y., just outside of Elmira, she grew up riding Western while going to rodeos and parades. “Just fun stuff,” she said.

Voorhees enrolled in Morrisville’s Western program in the fall of 2017 and stayed through the year. Last summer, a groundskeeper friend at Tioga Downs hooked Voorhees up to work with Mike Deters, a cancer survivor who recorded 100 training wins and $1 million in purse earnings for the first time last year. Deters is a Florida resident who is in the state’s Harness Racing Hall of Fame and also operates a stable in upstate New York during the summers.

“I needed a job,” Voorhees said. “I just paddocked and worked with the horses for him. I knew absolutely nothing, and he said he never had anybody who didn’t know anything before. He taught me everything. I took care of six or seven horses, cleaned stalls, got the horses ready for the trainers to take out to jog and train.”

Voorhees was so enamored with her summer job that she decided to make it a career. She transferred from Western to Standardbred at Morrisville last fall. The Western credits carried over and she earned an associate degree this spring and is now focused on getting her bachelor’s in equine business management.

“I want to make money,” Voorhees said. “And I liked it. I liked how fast it is. I liked how you’re always doing stuff, always going racing. I’ve met a lot of great people. I think it’s great. It’s so fun. I love doing it.”

Those are sweet words to hear for Warner, who feels the Standardbred program had declined over the past decade due to lagging enrollment. Whitte-more, a 2006 graduate, was part of a graduating class in which all 12 are still involved in the sport as trainers, owners or drivers. He felt part of the reason for the enrollment drop-off was a lack of funding and promotion, along with some government regulations.

The Maine native is happy to see things turning back around.

“You can go in there knowing a ton about horses or nothing, and still come out with ample ability to do a job working for anybody,” he said. “When I went there it was a great opportunity. It got me out of Maine, and it was a great opportunity to meet people. They introduced us to Dave Reid; we all went and got jobs working for him. I met a lot of people that I wouldn’t have, being a guy from Maine. I went on my internship with Mark Ford (the 2000 Dan Patch Trainer of the Year), so now I can call up Mark like it’s nothing, which a person from Maine usually wouldn’t be able to do.”

The Standardbred program provides pretty much everything a harness racing hopeful would want. Students work with assigned horses on a daily basis, one on one, gaining invaluable, hands-on experience. Upon successful completion of the USTA’s driver/trainer test and other mandated requirements, they can race those horses on the New York county fair circuit or amateur driving events at a local pari-mutuel track.

For those who want a two-year associate degree, they will learn about horses and take anatomy and nutrition courses with veterinarians. Should they decide to go for a bachelor’s degree, they will get a trainer and qualifying license their junior year, and participate in internships as a senior. A typical day starts at 6 a.m. with Warner’s 2½-hour morning lab.

“They feed, we knock out stalls, we start jogging, we do horses up, sweep the barn, wash the jog carts,” Warner said. “I teach them how to screen and drag the track. Whatever the morning lab doesn’t finish, the afternoon lab will. If we have horses to put away, then we rotate. I don’t want kids who don’t get to jog, only get to do horses up. So, we switch it up the next day, so they get to do everything. One day a week, I’ll teach them about business, maybe soft tissue injuries. Anything, really.”

He also teaches students how to drive the necessary vehicles.

“We have five new trucks and trailers—a six-horse, a five-horse, a four and two threes,” Warner said. “I tell them, ‘If you don’t get a job in the Standardbred industry, I’ll make sure you get a job somewhere.’”

The training grounds include a state-of-the-art equine rehabilitation center, an equine breeding and training center, an indoor pool, two indoor aqua treadmills, four indoor arenas, and a half- mile training facility (the only one of its kind on a college campus).

The breeding end of it is managed by Erin Shantal and includes four studs and 37 mares. Several of the horses have been donated by trainers and alumni such as Reid and Whittemore, as well as other area stables. Warner and Shantal have brought in some younger mares, who average between ages 6 and 7.

“Again, it’s like running a baseball team,” Warner said. “You have to turn over stock.”

Voorhees, who is working at Morrisville during the summer, found the breeding aspect interesting.

“We had some classes about reproduction,” she said. “We had to foal watch. We had to spend a night in a barn and see if there are any foals born. I thought that was kind of cool. We had a little mattress thing we got to sleep on, so it was all right.”

As he prepares to start his first full year at Morrisville, Warner is hoping to pair each incoming freshman with some Morrisville-bred horses all their own.

“I’d like the kids to keep two or three babies and if they’re gonna be four-year kids, they get to watch that horse,” he said. “We get to break [the horse] together; they’ll get to race it together. The other thing I’ve been doing this year is I’ll shoe a lot of my own horses. When we have a foal and we go out and trim their feet, I let them come with me so they can watch that foal grow to see what its conformation is going to be, what can we correct, stuff like that.”

One of the main attractions is the sale, which will take place Sept. 15. Animals on the market are a combination of Morrisville-bred horses and those from other breeders and owners.

“We take consignments,” Warner said. “Dave Reid will probably have 20 or 30 in the sale with outside horses. We’ll send a couple to the Ohio sale because they’re Ohio-bred. We’ll have 16 in our sale this year. Then we have the sophomores, juniors and seniors run the sale. They show the horses, they groom the horses, they do the parking. They run the whole sale.”

Whittemore remembers the experience fondly.

“It was real good,” he said. “I was a leader the last year where you went in the ring and stuff, and I was a leader before then to bring horses into the ring. It taught you a lot. When you were in the shed row or whatever, you knew all these trainers and what each person looked at and how they looked at things differently.”

Voorhees got her first taste of it last year.

“I worked for Preferred (Equine) when they came here; I helped do the sale,” she said. “When people asked to look at the horse, I showed them. I think it was great. You learn how to speak to people. Communication skills are a lot of it. If you just stand there and don’t speak with them, they’re like ‘Well, what are you doing here?’”

Unlike Voorhees, who made the switch from Western, Whittemore entered the program as a third-generation horseman. The Morrisville experience enhanced the knowledge he already had.

“The contacts I got through there was a real big thing, and also a lot of the equine classes, exercise physiology, anatomy and stuff like that,” he said. “You knew you used to do stuff, but you didn’t know why. This taught you why you were doing certain things. You did all kinds of stuff they taught you, like dissecting horses. If a horse had to get put down out there, they showed you things. No animals went to waste there. If one was sick or whatever, and had to be put down, you knew why. It was a learning experience for everybody.”

Whittemore has donated horses to the program and has also encouraged others to do the same in hopes of helping the cause. Students like Voorhees are the beneficiary.

“I would like to both train and drive,” she said. “That’s why I’m here this summer. I want to get my trainer’s license. And I want to have my own barn, hopefully.”

She feels the experience she is receiving at Morrisville just inspires her further to achieve those goals.

“I like jogging and driving and doing all that; I think that’s my most favorite part,” she said. “I like taking care of them. It’s not hard because I like it. It’s not like it’s a job. This is something a lot of people don’t know about it. When students from the Western barn come up, they say, ‘Well, what do you do?’ I say, ‘Well, we do this,’ and they say, ‘Ohh, that’s so cool.’ A lot of people think it’s really cool.”

And as several of the alumni have proven, it can also be pretty beneficial down the road.

For more information about the equine programs offered at SUNY Morrisville, go to www.morrisville.edu/areas-of-study/equine, where you can find overviews of the programs as well as access to an information request form. HB

Rich Fisher is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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