August 2017 | Cornell to California to Parx: Trainer Heather Hollahan
The news horse owners need to know – published 12x a year. Read by 38,000+ horse owners in Pennsylvania and beyond. Don’t miss another issue,
subscribe today
Have each issue of Pennsylvania Equestrian sent to your home or farm. Just a one-time charge of $20.
Don't miss another issue
American Horse Publications Award
Pennsylvania Equestrian Honored for Editorial Excellence
click for more

Cornell to California to Parx: Trainer Heather Hollahan

Chris Forbes - August 2017

Heather Hollahan

Heather Hollahan has been training horses since 2009. Here is her story in racing:

CF: Are you a Pennsylvania native? What is your background with horses and racing?

HH: Actually no. I'm originally from Rockland County, NY, and started legging up thoroughbreds at San Luis Rey Downs in California in the 90's. When I started training again I was based at beautiful Delaware Park. When Delaware started shutting down stabling in the winter I tried Florida one year, Penn National another and then Parx. I had a great winter there and never left.

Growing up I was the horse crazy girl in class. I worked at the barn after school, cleaning stalls just to ride. It kept me out of trouble because my parents always knew where to find me. Besides reading horse racing books like Black Gold and the Black Stallion I really wasn't into horse racing. When I was a kid almost all the horses we rode were off the track but other than that I had zero interest (in racing), I just loved all horses!

CF: How did you make the transition to racing and what did you think of horse racing the first time you saw a live race?

HH: My first real introduction to horse racing came when I was working at a horse rehabilitation center in California. I was attending Cornell University and I spent a summer as an intern there. We had a SATO high speed treadmill, lasers, therapeutic ultrasound, thermography and world class vets diagnosing and prescribing rehab programs for sport horses of all kinds. Upon graduation from Cornell I became the director of the program and ended up with a client who owned racehorses and sent us two to rehab. I was asked to participate in getting the horses sound and back to the track. I was hooked!

I ended up leaving to start a business prepping horses post-injury or layoff at San Luis Rey Downs. The first one I worked on was a gelding by Lear Fan who had chips removed and ran second when I sent him to Hollywood Park. I was 23 or 24 years old and after that people took me a little more seriously.

CF: You became a trainer in 2009, here in Pennsylvania. At what point did you want to become a trainer and how did you become one? Was the test you took easy or hard?

HH: After some time in California I really missed my family and ended up coming home and working in the insurance industry for many years. The financial security was a relief after working with racehorses. I worked in New York City and Philadelphia and ended up building a farm in southern New Jersey. I always had horses and competed in FEI dressage and earned my silver medal. But I always had a feeling of regret. I remembered driving to work in California looking forward to what I was going to do with each horse. I felt like I sold out for the money and was missing my true calling but I had such a good job it was too hard to leave.

Then the economy crashed and my opportunities weren't so great anymore. So many people were going back to school and resetting their lives to be what they wanted to be when they grew up. I did the same. I found someone who wanted to buy a racehorse, John Meehan, and took the trainerís test again at Monmouth. There was a barn test and a written test and it wasn't hard if you've been around horses your whole life. They wouldn't give me the license until I had a horse. So the next day we went up to the Meadowlands and claimed one! I didn't even have stalls anywhere so I had to go to a training center until Delaware gave me a shot shortly thereafter.

The horse I claimed that day, Car Thief, was the one I won my first race with at Philadelphia Park. He was 48-1 that day and times were tough. I put $20 on him and he won by a whisker! That day was the first time I heard my Mom cry because she was happy. It was great. I lost the horse to claim at Delaware and ended up buying him back cheap months later. I tried him sprinting on the grass and he won two allowance races and went from being a $5,000 claimer to a decent stakes horse.

CF: You have been a trainer for about 8 years, have things gotten easier or harder? Does it get frustrating at times? Do you have any idea how long you would like to train horses?

HH: Well that depends on the day. The highs are really high in this business and the lows are really low. Things go in cycles so sometimes horses may start peaking, races come up exactly how you need them and you start winning. Other times horses don't get in, races come off the grass, etc. and it's not so much fun. I do have days when I struggle with what's wrong with the business. There are so many wonderful horsemen that work day in and day out putting their horseís needs ahead of their own. There is a minority that thinks differently and I struggle with that. I've contemplated quitting. But at the end of the day, I love what I do, I love my horses and all I can do is do the right thing by them and allow the progress being made on integrity to continue.

CF: What is a typical race day? How many horses do you have at Parx Racing?

HH: I have about 10 horses at Parx. I have about 10 more at my farm including retirees and young horses. So my day starts by taking care of the horses at the farm and then I go to the track. A day I have a horse racing is not much different than any other day if the horse is running at our home base because everything is prepared in advance.

CF: I always ask: Do you think as a woman you have had to work harder to earn the respect of other trainers, owners and jockeys in the industry?

HH: Yes, but the cool thing is I own many of my horses. I can claim horses and win races without having to rely on owners. However, I have found a group of owners that appreciates me. Some people get it; you can be competitive in this business and do the right thing for the horses.† When it comes to jockeys, if you win races, they want to ride for you. That's what is great about horse racing. You win when your horse crosses the wire first; it's not based on someone's opinion. I'm not going to lie, I have felt the misogyny. People may look for someone else behind your success and try to take it from you, or you may not get the opportunities you would as a man but over time I've earned respect in the business.

CF: Please explain what it is to claim a horse and what do you look for in a claiming race.

HH: I don't always use the same formula but in general I look for opportunity. For myself, sometimes I like horses that are more blue collar, that are consistently first, second, and third but may not have the ability to move up. If you have a few of those horses in Pennsylvania you can do very well. They won't make you famous but the checks add up. Of course, we are all looking for something we can improve as well.

CF: Monmouth Park only runs 50 days a year now. Delaware Park has also scaled back its live racing dates. What do you see for the future of live racing in the state of PA?

HH: I think the future remains bright in PA as long as the horsemen continue to be successful at demonstrating the importance of our industry in PA. We must also continue the progress in cleaning up our sport and I mean now.† So much has changed for the better but we are not there yet.

CF: Since Parx Racing races pretty much all year long (except a three week break in August) you donít get much time to relax. What do you do in your spare time?

HH: When I'm not at the track or working at the farm I'm on Equibase watching replays and reading the pp's for the races coming up. That's the great thing about doing what you love, your work and play is the same. I also enjoy following the horses that I've retired and have moved on to new careers. I don't ride much myself anymore but love seeing what these amazing animals can do when given a chance.

CF: Thanks for your time in doing this interview.