Getting Into The Driver's Seat

Published: June 4, 2016 09:23 am EDT

Don Tiger has visited the winner’s circle as a racehorse owner, but he would like the chance to make it there another way -- by driving himself.

Tiger, a 45-year-old from Canonsburg, Pa., is among the 33 participants in the 17th annual U.S. Trotting Association Driving School, which got underway Wednesday (June 1) at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in central Ohio with a welcome dinner and keynote address from trainer George Teague Jr., the owner of harness racing’s 2015 Horse of the Year, Wiggle It Jiggleit.

The school runs through Saturday and offers students a mix of hands-on learning and classroom sessions culminating with the administration of the USTA's trainer and/or driver exam. Participants came from 11 different states plus the Canadian province of Ontario, with Ohio producing the most attendees, with 15. Tiger is among three participants from Pennsylvania.

“I’m kind of a hands-on owner; I like to go to the barn a lot,” said Tiger, a mortgage banker/financial planner who has owned horses since the early 1990s. “I jog my own horses and I just got to the point where I really got a desire to come here and try to become an amateur driver.

“The first day here was great. It’s really exciting. I’ve met a lot of good people already.”

Among Tiger’s 11-horse stable is 10-year-old male pacer Sam Hill, who won 10 of 27 races and banked $107,210 last season at The Meadows, with Tiger donating 20 percent of the gelding’s earnings to charity. He also co-owns Toddler Tantrum, who was a stakes-winner last year at age 2.

“I’ve had a nice run,” said Tiger, who started going to the races at The Meadows as a teenager. “I love it.

“I think people are missing out on harness racing in general. I try to bring a lot of people into the game myself. I think being an amateur driver is maybe going to take me to the next level. I don’t have any desire to be anything special, but I think it’s exciting. I don’t have any thoughts of competing with Brian Sears or Aaron Merriman or Dave Palone; those guys can do what they’re doing. I just think it’s kind of fun.”

Tiger is not alone. Kato Young, a 19-year-old college student from Chillicothe, Ohio, has been working as a caretaker in the stable of trainer Steve Carter for two years and now has his eyes set on passing the driver exam.

“I didn’t start out jogging horses, but after some time (Carter) started to get me out there more and doing more training trips,” said Young, who followed his father, Kenneth, as well as an uncle and grandfather into the sport. “Earlier this year he put me in the race bike for the first time and it’s something I immediately fell in love with. It was one of the best things ever. It gave me the itch.”

Andy Altobelli, a 63-year-old pharmacist and pharmacy owner from York County, Pa., also has enjoyed success as an owner and is attending the Driving School with thoughts of getting more active around the stable and on the track. Altobelli partnered with longtime friend Jim Clarke Sr. on his first horse just five years ago. That horse, female pacer Coffee Addict, has won 25 career races, including a division of the Keystone Classic, and earned $487,804.

“I love horses and I love to learn about everything involved,” said Altobelli, who now co-owns five horses. “My partner and I are trying to do a better job with the horses we have. We have good people around us, (trainers) Norm Parker and Bruce Saunders, and we’re real pleased with what’s happening with our horses. We’re looking to buy another one come November and see where it takes us.

“I would like to see if I have an interest in driving and maybe in a smaller way training. I’ll be 64 and I’m looking down the road a little bit as a hobby for me. I think I would enjoy it. We’ll just see what happens. I’m a competitive person, too, and I like the competitive nature of racing. It takes very good technique and understanding of how to do that, which at this stage of the game I definitely don’t have. But it’s something I would like to progress with.”

Altobelli grew up in New Jersey, but spent time as a teenager helping out at his grandfather’s dairy farm in Bedford County, Pa. In 1985, Altobelli bought his own farm in Pennsylvania and raises beef cattle in addition to working as a pharmacist. His interest in harness racing was fueled in part by living near renowned breeding facility Hanover Shoe Farms, as well as his own interest in breeding and genetics.

“We need to promote the industry and promote the breed and I think more people will get involved and enjoy it,” Altobelli said. “And that’s the name of the game.”

It’s been nearly five years since Big Bad John won the Little Brown Jug, but Dawn Potter still gets emotional when she thinks back to that magical day.

Potter’s husband, Ron, trained Big Bad John, who won the 2011 Little Brown Jug at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in central Ohio. Ron is stabled at the fairgrounds, where Dawn has worked around the barns for the past three years after leaving her job as a pharmacy technician.

Recently, Dawn started jogging horses. And on Thursday, she took horses around the fairgrounds’ oval as a participant in the 17th annual U.S. Trotting Association Driving School.

“It’s pretty special,” Potter said about jogging horses on the same track where Big Bad John won the Little Brown Jug. “It’s neat.

“(Winning the Little Brown Jug) was unbelievable,” she continued, with tears welling in her eyes. “I knew that’s what Ron worked for his whole life and how much it meant to him. I just knew how big a dream it was for him.”

The USTA Driving School, which runs through Saturday, offers participants a mix of hands-on learning and classroom sessions culminating with the administration of the USTA trainer and/or driver exam.

Thursday’s schedule featured morning barn work and jogging horses followed by classroom sessions featuring drivers Ken Holliday, Aaron Merriman and Dan Noble, as well as trainers Brian Brown, Tim Lane and Ron Potter. There also were sessions on stable management with Jennifer Brown and horse ownership with Jim Gallagher and Steve Oldford.

Dawn Potter received her Driving School experience as a Mother’s Day gift.

“In the past, I’d just done barn work but I never jogged or drove any,” she said. “You watch people do it and you think it’s not hard, but then you go out there and find out it’s harder than what it looks. This has been fun, a lot of fun so far.”

Potter left her previous job so she could help take care of the stable’s horses in Florida each winter.

“I think it’s a fair trade,” she said with a laugh.

Potter is not the only Driving School participant with connections to a Little Brown Jug winner. Adam Browning’s great-uncle Jim Hackett won the 1967 Jug with Best Of All and his father-in-law Bob Wingfield is among the owners of 2014 Jug champion Limelight Beach.

Browning, a 37-year-old costume shop owner from Kenton, Ohio, has attended the Little Brown Jug for the past 16 years and enjoyed Limelight Beach’s victory with his wife Rebecca and children Will and Brooklyn. He is attending the Driving School to become more involved in harness racing.

“We always went to the races when I was growing up, but I didn’t have hands-on experience with racehorses,” Browning said. “I would love to work with them, groom them, and maybe one day work up to driving. I want to be more involved at any level that I can. I thought this would be a good place to start. I’m excited to see where this will take me.”

On Thursday, Browning jogged a horse for the first time. He sat behind stakes-winner Mr Right Hanover, a male pacer from the stable of trainer Brian Brown who is eligible to this year’s Little Brown Jug and is co-owned by Wingfield.

“It was amazing,” Browning said. “And being behind one of our horses that we’ve watched race gave it an extra special feel. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a great experience. I can’t wait to do it again tomorrow.”

Alan Jaworski last worked around a stable as a way to pay his way through college at Cleveland State. The now 58-year-old purchasing agent from Parma, Ohio, is looking to get back to working around a stable as part of his future retirement days.

“It’s the only job I looked forward to going to every morning,” Jaworski said. “The camaraderie among barn people is so different from anything else.

“I’m here to learn as much as possible about training, driving and owning harness racehorses. I’d liked to get involved with horses again when I retire, or maybe sooner if I can part time. At a minimum I’d like to get a groom’s license.”

Jaworski also was among the 16 Driving School participants who jogged a horse for the first time Thursday.

“I loved it,” he said. “It was great. Don Irvine Jr. was my idol growing up and I always wanted to become a driver like him.”

Bill Thomas first became interested in harness racing while growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, near Northfield Park. Since then, the trucking company owner has visited approximately 100 different racetracks across the country. He’s never had his own racehorse, but would like to buy one in the future.

“I’m not a big gambler, but I love the atmosphere and being around the track and horsemen and horses,” said Thomas, who now lives near Nashville, Tenn., and has land with a barn and paddock.

“It’s always been intriguing to me. I’d like to purchase a horse, maybe claim a horse. Just starting out, I don’t think a yearling would be up my alley. It would be more of a hobby, but I’d love to own a couple.”

Thomas discovered the Driving School when searching about harness racing training on the Internet.

“This is fantastic,” Thomas said. “The people here are so nice and willing to give up their time and expertise. It’s really fantastic. I don’t think you can get a better education. It’s just such a great opportunity.”

Tom Radominski, a 55-year-old contractor from Dayton, Ohio, also is looking ahead to possibly training his own racehorses in the future. His uncle, Joe Latella, trained horses in upstate New York and Radominski got into owning horses thanks to his friend John Reames, a past USTA Driving School participant.

“I’ve been an owner for a few years, so I know how that works,” Radominski said. “I wanted to learn a little bit more about the horseman side of it.

“My work right now doesn’t really allow me to get into training, but in the years to come I’d like to get into training a little. Maybe do one or two of my own, nothing big. This is fantastic. It’s a really nice program.”

This story courtesy of Harness Racing Communications, a division of the U.S. Trotting Association. For more information, visit