Involving Youth in Horse Racing – Why and How?

“If you race a really fast horse against a slow horse, which one will win?”

This is the sound of cogs turning in the brain of a 6-year-old while I was giving a presentation about horse racing last week. His giant eyes stared me down as I explained the concept of the sport. It was fascinating how quickly his young mind grasped the notion of unpredictability and unexpected outcomes.

We need kids like that asking questions like this in horse racing. Actually, we just need kids. I’m not saying little Henry should head over to the human resources department of the nearest racetrack and apply for a job. But I do think the horse racing industry should spend more time educating youth under the age of 18.

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Presenting to youth at a 4-H Horse Project event

It might not make sense. Youth can’t gamble, and they probably have limited – scratch that – zero funds for investing in racehorses. But they can think and ask questions and dream. They have the ability to make horse racing a part of their lives. But first it takes time, experience, and education.

Time is a given. Most investments generally take time and patience before they pay off, and the same goes for educating youth. It’s my belief that if you teach them young, you can positively influence their career goals, hopefully towards the direction of the racing industry. Most 20-30-year-olds already have a tentative career direction, if not an established profession, making it difficult to channel their talents to the benefit of racing.

Time is an obvious necessity, but creating experiences and providing education are more in-depth.

I’d be willing to bet I could walk up to anyone in the racing industry and ask them about the moment they fell in love with horse racing. They would recall that one race “when [insert horse] fought his heart out to win by a nose,” or the time “when Grandpa Joe handed me a winning ticket.” It could be anything from a horse to a person or a race – essentially an experience that gave them a connection to racing and made them care.

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Youth listen to a veterinarian speak at the North Dakota Horse Park.

My first connection was simple and not very exciting. I saw the movie Ruffian, and that was all it took. I wanted to feel that passion every day of my life.

But once you’ve given someone an experience, which must be a positive one, you have to facilitate their success, and this means following up with education. Some people have the drive and self-motivation to educate themselves. Others require diligent guidance to shape their minds.

And I really cannot emphasize enough when I say an experience must be positive. Racing may be a business, a gambling sport and a lifestyle. But I believe that anyone who cares about the industry has a responsibility to be a teacher, willing to usher in the next generation to take their place when they step out.

I’ve encountered people who have busted their backs and gone far out of their way to help me succeed. I’ve also encountered the opposite – those who have made me feel as though my presence is incredibly unwelcome and unappreciated. For me, the positive far outweighs the negative, but I will always remember both experiences.

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Learning about racing tack at the 2013 National Racing Experience. Photo credit: Robin Alden

One of my greatest educational opportunities was through the American Quarter Horse Youth Association when I competed in the 2013 National Racing Experience at Los Alamitos. This is a scholarship competition held in conjunction with the Bank of America Challenge Championships – basically the Quarter Horse equivalent to the Breeders’ Cup for Thoroughbreds.

Nine other competitors and I worked alongside trainers, observing their daily routine and management of a barn full of racing Quarter Horses. We attended industry seminars, toured a renowned stallion farm and were tested on the knowledge we had acquired.

Not only did this particular experience pay for a chunk of my college, but it helped me make connections and opened doors that led to future jobs. It’s humbling to know that without the guidance and compassion of people who cared about my success and the future of racing, there are a lot of doors that would have remained shut in my world.

I’m nowhere near reaching the pinnacle of a career in horse racing. But you don’t have to be at the top to help the next ones in line. One of the most common questions I get when I speak to groups of youth is ‘What’s your favorite moment in horse racing?’ and it makes my heart smile.

There are simply too many to count. And I hope someday they can say the same.

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Watching the races from the roof at Saratoga

(Top photo: Meeting Blame at Claiborne Farm in 2012 while visiting Kentucky to compete in the Eastern National 4-H Horse Roundup)

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