“It’s Addictive”

Published: June 8, 2017 11:38 am EDT

When Mark Davis was named the acting executive director of the Delaware Harness Racing Commission several years ago, he figured it was a temporary assignment not unlike other interim positions he held during his time as the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s deputy principal assistant and policy advisor.

But after a nationwide search, it was determined the best person for the job was the person already there. Temporary became permanent.

In the ensuing years, Davis has sought to learn as much as possible about all aspects of the sport, which is why he was jogging horses and cleaning stalls last week at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in central Ohio.

Davis was one of 20 participants at the 18th annual U.S. Trotting Association Driving School, a three-day program that offered work at fairgrounds-based stables each morning followed by ‘classroom’ sessions with trainers, drivers, veterinarians, nutritionists, and others.

“I’m just trying to learn more,” Davis said. “I’ve never seen this side of the sport up close. That’s why I thought it was important to come. The class is awesome. It’s good to hear other perspectives. I’ve enjoyed it a lot.”

Davis had jogged a horse prior to attending the school, but was happy to get multiple opportunities at the fairgrounds, which is the home of the Little Brown Jug.

“That was great,” Davis said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s addictive. Agriculture is like that in general. The horsemen are like other farmers; poultry farmers, crop farmers. It’s in their blood and there’s nothing else they want to do. They’re fiercely independent, good, hard-working people. That’s the same throughout agriculture.”

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Craig Schmidt may have retired and moved to his home in Florida, but he’s still getting up every morning at 7:30 for his new hobby, harness racing. He owns a two-year-old pacer stabled near Pompano Park and wants take a more hands-on approach to ownership.

Opportunity struck when Schmidt saw an advertisement for the USTA Driving School in a track program and decided it would be a great learning experience for him.

“I’m trying to figure out how to help my trainer train my horse so I can be more involved,” Schmidt said. “He’s really nice and will let me help and do anything I want really, but I sometimes feel like I’m just getting in the way.

“I really want to be able to jog a horse. I also really want to be able to understand everything that goes on behind the scenes.”

Schmidt was happy with the knowledge he gained to take back to the stable.

“The best thing I’ve learned here is the barn work and washing the horses down,” he said. “I’ve already heard and learned a lot, just while working in the barn area and trotting.”

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After serving in the Navy for eight years, Logan Hawkins recently moved from Hawaii to Lexington, Ky., all because of horse racing. He was first interested in Thoroughbred racing, but quickly switched to harness racing after going to the races at the Red Mile.

“It just kind of happened that I got into harness racing,” said Hawkins, who works in construction. “I just really enjoy it and the fact that I might be able to drive and not have to weigh 110 pounds to do it.”

Hawkins does not currently own any horses, but he does have his owner’s license and an aspiration to do more.

“This Driving School is a great way to get my foot in the door,” Hawkins said. “I want to get my driver’s license and eventually become a trainer.”

As for the school, Hawkins said that although shovelling stalls has not been his favourite part, he appreciated the experience and was excited to drive.

“It’s been fun jogging,” he said. “I’m ready to go faster though.”

(Haley Clinker contributed to this story.)

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