By Ken Weingartner
Daniel Hare is a newcomer to harness racing, but quickly becoming immersed in the sport.
Hare, a 33-year-old financial analyst from Rochester, N.Y., bought his first horse earlier this year and added a second a few months later. Now, Hare and his uncle, Rick, are attending the U.S. Trotting Association’s Driving School in upstate New York.
"It’s a great experience," Hare said. "Being able to be out here and work with the animals, it puts you at peace. It’s a whole other thing I was not expecting to experience and really enjoyed. Working in an office, it’s a big change for me; a nice change, much needed. It’s like a vacation here."
Hare and his uncle are among 48 participants in this year’s Driving School, which is being held at the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, Historic Track and the Mark Ford Training Center in Middletown. Students receive hands-on experiences at local stables as well as classroom sessions with trainers, drivers and veterinarians.
Trainers opening their stables to the group include Ray Schnittker at Goshen Historic Track, plus Mark Ford, Scott Blackler, Tyler and Amber Buter, Jean Drolet, Rob and Patty Harmon, Brandon Simpson and Allen Sisco at the Mark Ford Training Center.
Friday’s classes included a veterinary session with Dr. Brian MacNamara and stable management discussion with Kelly Ford and Amber Buter, followed by a tour of the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. On Thursday, students heard about driving strategy from John Campbell and Jeff Gregory, plus care and conditioning tips from Ford and Schnittker. The day ended with a trip to Blue Chip Farms.
Driving School continues through Sunday, when participants can take the written portions of the trainer’s and driver’s exams. There also will be an exhibition race at Historic Track featuring several selected students.
Hare owns a trotter and a pacer. The trotter races in the opens at Buffalo Raceway and has won twice since Hare and trainer John Cummings Jr. bought the 7-year-old gelding.
"I started to grow a love for the Thoroughbred side of things and realized that’s probably not a path for me," Hare said. "I came over to the Standardbred side, went to a few seminars, talked to people, and started catching the itch for it. Once it took, it really started to take.
"We’ve gotten a couple wins, got a couple pictures in the winner’s circle – all that fun stuff."
Hare said the chance to jog a horse was "probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life," but was enjoying all aspects of the Driving School. "You take a lot from all the little side conversations that you get to have throughout the day," Hare said. "You take those mental notes and try to bring them home with you."
Jan Rector read about the Driving School in the AARP magazine and decided it was time to be more than just a fan of harness racing. She wanted to sit behind a horse and learn more about the sport. "It sounded like so much fun and an exciting experience, so I decided to do this," Rector said. "I’ve gone to harness races in Chicago; that was my knowledge coming in here. It has been really great.
"If you like an experiential vacation, this is the place to come. People are fun, they’re nice, and they’re really interested in having you have a good time. Yes, we have to work, but that’s part of the experience. You go to see a race, and you see the race, but you don’t experience anything. You come here, you get to jog, you get out on the cart, and you get to see all the preparation that leads up to that (race)."
Rector, who works for the Chicago Transit Authority, sat behind a horse for the first time while spending her mornings at the Ray Schnittker Stable. "The first time I was a little bit tentative," she said. "The second time, all bets were off. You really felt like you could do something. It just was lots of fun."
Rector was happy to meet other participants from the Chicago area, particularly with an eye toward the future. "I’m hoping I will make more of an effort to get out to the racetrack," Rector said. "There are a couple of people here from Chicago, so I’m hoping we can get together and go to the track more often."
Paul Napoli made the trip from Brooklyn to Goshen and did something he’d never done before. He touched a horse. "I’ve always been a fan of racing," Napoli said. "When I saw the opportunity, I had to take it, just to get hands on with the horses and experience how it is. This is the first time I’ve ever actually touched a horse. It’s all new to me."
A security analyst for the city of New York, Napoli was excited for the opportunity to jog a horse and work in the stable. "It was a lot of fun," Napoli said. "You really get to appreciate how they feel, the power of the horses, and we weren’t even moving that fast. I was surprised how responsive they are when you’re controlling them. They really respond to your touch. And just how fast you go even when you’re not going very fast.
"It gives me a new appreciate of the drivers and the difficultly of the job."
Napoli had no firm plans for his future in harness racing, but wouldn’t rule out owning a horse or learning more about driving in the amateur ranks. "I’m looking to gain more insight in the industry, what harness racing is all about, learn more about the game," Napoli said. "One thing at a time, but I would hope to be able to pursue it further and see how it goes."