Standardbred Enthusiasts Learn to Race at USTA Driving School
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Standardbred Enthusiasts Learn to Race at USTA Driving School
September 2012 - Kimberly French

Standardbred Enthusiasts Learn to Race at USTA Driving SchoolPhoto credit: Mark Hall, USTA

For the last fourteen years he has always been apprehensive about how much precipitation will fall from the sky on a certain weekend in May, and every year Kent ‘Chip’ Hastings realizes his concerns are unfounded.

“One thing I can certainly tell you is, every year of the driving school it has rained at least one of the three days,” explained the United States Trotting Association’s (USTA) Liaison Officer, who is also the program’s founder and head. “It used to worry me, but now the jog carts have mud aprons and fenders, so you don’t really get too dirty when you jog. This year we had a kid, whose first name is Barry, who jogged Saturday morning after we had a light rain during the night. It was over a limestone track so it’s a little soupy. He ended up getting some mud on his face and he wore it all day. He wouldn’t wash off; it was a like a badge of honor for him.”

Hasting’s notion of instituting a driving school as a USTA outreach program arose from the popularity of fantasy camps in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League as well as the nature of Standardbred racing itself.

“You can own, breed and train your own horse,” he said. “Unlike Thoroughbred racing, people can get directly involved. I thought it was a great opportunity for us to see if we could get people involved that would become interested in Standardbred racing.

Delaware County Fairgrounds
“Things happened to work out,” Hastings continued. “I was on the Delaware County Fair Board and also live in Delaware, Ohio, so we were able to use the fairgrounds, which is the home of the Little Brown Jug, for the first thirteen years of the school. We had the paddocks, we had the barns and the Log Cabin for meetings and meals. Every year we went into it with no anticipation of how long it would last, but year after year, if the school would fill, we would continue to move forward and here we are fifteen years later.”

To attend the school, no experience or certification is required. The fee is $350, which includes jogging a horse with an instructor, handling horses, and lectures from some of the sports’ top drivers and trainers. The students provide their own transportation and lodging, but some meals are provided.

Of the more than 800 graduates of the program, which was limited to first 60 and then 66 participants, many have went on to become trainers and drivers.

For its first 13 years the driving school maintained the same curriculum, format and date. After enrollment declined in 2010, Hastings did some research and determined alterations needed to be attempted to improve his project.

“We could only accommodate 60 people at the fairgrounds with the available horse population,” he said. “Then we upgraded to 66 because there were always at least a dozen people on a waiting list. Also, over the years we had inquiries about conducting a school on the East Coast. Doing this once a year is fun, but twice its work, as it takes about 30 to 40 volunteers. We started planning for this year’s in October.

“When we didn’t have a full school we examined our students’ demographics and discovered they came primarily from Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and New York,” Hastings added. “Due to the racing climate in Ohio and Michigan, we had fewer people from that area and from the Midwest in general, but continued to have a strong representation from the East Coast. People also wanted more time to jog horses and we simply didn’t have enough to do that at Delaware. That’s when we decided to utilize both the Goshen Historic Track and the Mark Ford Training Center to assist us with the hands-on barn work and jogging. We also extended the school by one day and changed the curriculum.”

Revamped for 2012
This year’s revamped program was held May 30-June 3. From 8 am to 11:30 am, students were cleaning stalls and the horses, identifying equipment, harnessing horses, wrapping legs, tending to their feet and so forth, which was quite different in prior years as the only hand-on training they received was going on a mile and a half jog with an instructor in the cart.

During the afternoon, they listened to lectures from top drivers such as Jordan Stratton and Jason Bartlett and respected trainers such as Mark Ford, Scott Blackler, Tyler and Amber Buter, and Ray Schnittker.

On the last afternoon of the program, six students are selected to perform in an actual race on Goshen’s card.

This year’s group of 67 traveled from 15 different states and the Province of Ontario. It included Tom Pontone, who owned 2009 Horse of the Year Muscle Hill, Shark Gesture, Art Major, McArdle, Metropolitan and Red Bow Tie, and Jonathan Klee, who owns parts of more than 40 horses including Hurrikane Kingcole, who triumphed in this year’s $100,000 Meadowlands Pace Consolation in a brisk 1.47.3m. There was also John Darrah, a handicapper, Adrien Synnott, who has owned horses in partnership for several decades, and Samantha Chamberlain, whose experience was with Morgans but who was charmed by Standardbreds after working at a veterinary clinic on a breeding farm.

“We foaled out a ton of Standardbred mares and I just truly fell in love with the breed,” Chamberlain told on Ken Weingartner for a piece on the USTA website. “Through that job I was given a Standardbred gelding. I’ve been riding him. I thought it would be interesting to learn how to drive and learn more about the harness racing part. I’ve always owned horses. This is driving of a different sort and I wanted to learn more about it. It was definitely a wonderful opportunity.”

“I have been so shocked by how much work something like this is,” Ford, a longtime USTA director and training volunteer, said. “It definitely snuck up on me and I was just a small cog in the wheel. I can’t say enough good things about the school.

“Even with all the bad publicity out there about our sport, such as whipping and horse slaughter,” he continued. “If you take the time to explain to people how things really are and how hothoused these horses are, they really understand. They see what is actually going on these with these animals and the process. I’m looking forward to next year.”

Future is Bright
Hastings did have some concerns about all the adjustments to this year’s program, but is extremely pleased with the results and has high hopes for the future.

“We were a little apprehensive because I knew we would have many people, such as grooms and second trainers, that might not grasp their role as instructors,” he recalled. “I was very pleasantly surprised because once I explained to just tell the students everything you are doing while you work and show them how to do, it worked out great. We were also lucky because Kelly Rucker, now Ford as she is married to Mark, was our former membership services manager and became our go-to person. I plan on going back next year from May 29 to June 2 and will see what happens after 2013, but I am very excited for next year. There are a few things we can do better that maybe didn’t work the way we wanted them to so we will do that, but it will be the same format as last year.

“It is difficult to tell what the read impact of the program is,” Hastings continued. “We have people attend the school because they wanted to become trainers or drivers, owners that wanted to know more about the sport, bettors and fans. I’m not sure if you can measure the success of it other than people telling us how much they like it. I can say this though, you can’t wait for the weekend to come and then you can’t wait for next year. It’s a lot of fun. We’ve met a lot of great people over the years and have a lot of great stories that have come out of it.”