Yankee Joe

Amateur driver lives a grand-slam life

by Bob Carson

Joe Lee after his victory. Photo by Geri Schwarz

 

“Today is a perfect day to start living your dreams.”

Amateur driver Joe Lee is “living the dream.” To be truly accurate, he is living several dreams while still in his 30s.

His harness racing dreams began in childhood.

“I was always interested in harness racing,” said Lee, 38. “My parents owned a couple of trotters when I was a kid and we used to go down to Freehold all the time. There are pictures of me in a stroller in the barn area of Freehold.

“As I was growing up, we always went to the races. I was the kid along the fence begging the drivers in the last couple of races for their whips. I still have them. I would write on the whip who gave it to me and the horse they drove. I must have around 150.”

It took a few years for that whip-collecting kid to become a whip-holding driver, however.

“From the time I was 8 years old until I sat behind my first harness horse in my 20s, I rode show-jumping horses and loved jumping fences,” he said. “At the time, my good friend Sandy Goldfarb owned quite a few horses with ‘Buzzy’ Sholty. I had told (Goldfarb) that I would love to sit behind one at some point and he put me in touch with Buzzy.

“I started going to Buzzy’s barn every Saturday morning and any other free time that I had. I would leave my house in Yonkers at 5 a.m. to be down to White Birch Farm by 6:30 so that I would not miss a horse stepping onto the track. From there I started training with Buzzy and focused on getting a license to drive in some races.”

Lee’s baseball dreams began to develop when he was 15. Due to his work as an assistant in the clubhouse of the New York Yankees, fellow competitors in the amateur driving colony refer to him as “Yankee” Joe.

As assistant equipment manager for the New York Yankees, Lee knows the players on a personal level and is shown here chatting with now-retired shortstop Derek Jeter in 2014. Photo courtesy of New York Yankees.

“I started in the clubhouse with the Yankees in 1995,” he said. “My dad ran the visiting locker room for the New York Jets football team and was a friend of the equipment manager for the Yankees. There was a spot open for a batboy position and that became my first summer job.  I have always enjoyed seeing baseball from behind the scenes and getting to know the players on a personal level rather than just being a fan.

“Being a part of the organization since 1995 was good timing. I was so fortunate to see all of those playoff games and go to the World Series seven times, seeing them win five times. I was 17 years old in 1996 and Joe Torre made sure everyone got to go on the road for the playoffs, so there I was sending in my homework via fax from Atlanta back to Fordham Prep.”

Lee’s business dreams began to form while he was in college.

“I went to Fordham Prep for high school and then to Fordham University,” he said. “I studied finance at Fordham, graduating in 2001. I am a financial advisor with the Yvars Group, a financial advisory firm in Valhalla, N.Y. Being able to blend all of my interests with the finance world is more than I could ever have asked for.”

To complete Lee’s personal grand slam of dreams, music has been a constant in his busy life.

“When I’m not racing, working in the clubhouse, in the office or watching the market, I love to travel,” he said. “When I’m home, I play the piano every day. I’ve been playing since I was 9 years old and I love playing everything from Billy Joel and Elton John to ragtime and the Beatles. Sometimes I get to play in public or at events.  I get so much enjoyment from people being around the piano and singing along, having a good time.

“But nothing beats coming across the wire first and turning back to go to the winner’s circle.”

Lee is sure to share his love of harness racing with the boys in pinstripes at Yankee Stadium.

“Most of the players in the Yankee clubhouse know that I have a passion for the sport of harness racing,” he said. “They always ask if I’ve raced lately. I’ll show them the videos of my latest races and they get a real kick out of watching.

“One day I was cleaning my colors in the clubhouse and when I went back into the laundry room to get them, Phil Hughes, who is now with the Minnesota Twins, was standing there, helmet and all, in my colors. Masahiro Tanaka likes watching my races as does Brian McCann, who is now with the Houston Astros.”

Joe also brought another Joe into the fold.

“Joe Torre, who is a great friend, has also gotten involved in the sport,” Lee said. “He has been a partner with me a few times on horses.  We currently own a piece of Hillosophical, a nice Muscle Hill filly that has done pretty well for us.”

Lee recently won a leg of the Catskill Amateur Drivers series with TKR’s Metro Specs at Monticello Raceway. Photo by Geri Schwarz

As much as Lee enjoys driving, he said he plans to retain his amateur status.

“I have driven in both the professional races and the amateur races (see sidebar below titled “Amateur Status.”),” he said. “They are very different. I don’t think that I will ever go pro. With my schedule the way it is, I like having the option to drive in both the pro races and amateur races as time permits.

“I guess the most fun I had in a pro race was in the slop one day at Monticello driving a horse named Blowout. He had been bad the week before, but I got to drive him again. At the three-quarter pole he wasn’t quitting on me, so we swept the field, got up right at the wire and paid $183 to win.”

Lee has enjoyed the trips he has taken to drive horses as part of the C.K.G. Billings Amateur Driving Series.

“The amateur races are so much fun,” he said. “I can’t believe the places I have gone in the last couple of years. Last year I drove at Yonkers, Meadowlands, Pocono, Freehold, Vernon, Batavia, Mohawk, Delaware (Ohio) County Fair, Monticello, Saratoga, and two tracks in New Zealand.

“The trip to New Zealand was special and the racing there is quite different as well. They were great hosts. Winning a race last year at Delaware, Ohio, was something I will never forget.”

Editor’s Note: Joe Lee has an “A” driver license from the USTA. This allows him to drive in both professional and amateur races as long as he does not take the purse money drivers earn. By not taking purse money, “A” license drivers can retain their amateur status.

To see more from the September 2017 issue of Hoof Beats, click here.

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