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Youth In Action: Off To the Races

AQHYA member Annise Montplaisir went to the races when selected to compete in the AQHYA National Racing Experience.

By Annise Montplaisir
The American Quarter Horse Journal
June 9, 2014

YIA NRE Robin Alden

The 2013 AQHYA National Racing Experience participants (Credit: Robin Alden)

At the beginning of October 2013, I received a letter in the mail from the American Quarter Horse Association. I didn’t think much of it at first, figuring it was just a general notification to renew my membership … until I opened it and read, “Congratulations! You have been selected to attend the AQHYA National Racing Experience.”

I was absolutely ecstatic! Horse racing has been a passion of mine from a young age, and attending the National Racing Experience was an opportunity of a lifetime where I could learn more about the sport.

Prior to leaving for the NRE, I completed a work book about American Quarter Horse racing; this was one scored component used to determine scholarship recipients. I left my home in Moorhead, Minnesota, on November 6, flying to beautiful, sunny California. I was greeted at the Orange County, California, airport by a diverse group of 10 girls from nine different states. We would spend the upcoming four days learning about American Quarter Horse racing and competing against one another for scholarships.

The next morning, our entire crew headed off to Los Alamitos Race Course to commence the competition. We were placed in pairs with trainers whom we would learn from for the next three days. My teammate, Jacy Nelson, and I were paired with John Stinebaugh. Although Mr. Stinebaugh would not arrive at the racetrack until later that day, we spent the morning learning the layout of the barn, becoming acquainted with the horses and conversing with barn staff. From the track, we traveled to Vessels Stallion Farm, a Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred breeding facility located in Bonsal. The tour was amazing, as the farm was nothing less than spectacular. We learned the history of the Vessels family, their breeding program and even visited the grave of First Down Dash, a champion Quarter Horse known for his success as a racehorse and breeding stallion. We concluded the day in Oceanside, relaxing on the beach and taking in the gorgeous sunset.

Friday morning dawned bright and early. We arrived at the track by 6:10 a.m. to watch a demonstration on how to saddle a racehorse. Afterward, I met Mr. Stinebaugh for the first time and spent the morning learning about his training and feeding schedule for his racehorses. I recorded this information in my trainer work book – another component of the scholarship judging process.

That afternoon, our group attended an AQHA Racing Committee meeting where each of us shared our favorite aspect of participating in the National Racing Experience. We later returned to our hotel to view two informational videos: one about the history of American Quarter Horses and the other regarding racetrack professionals, including outrider, official starter and horse identifier.

That evening, we returned to Los Alamitos to enjoy a night of American Quarter Horse racing. Upon our arrival at the track, we toured the jockeys quarters, then proceeded to an office at the top of the grandstands to meet the stewards. There was a balcony set outside the office from which we had a beautiful view of the track. We watched a nail-biter of a race, with a nearly dead-heat finish, which means the horses finish so close it was difficult to determine the winner!

The following morning was filled with excitement because the Bank of America Challenge Championship races were taking place that night. Mr. Stinebaugh had two horses in the Red Cell Distance Challenge Championship: All About Larry and Frankie B.

The morning flew by, as we learned about racing from the grooms in our barn, a pony rider (an individual who leads the racehorses to the starting gates), and Mr. Stinebaugh. As “Larry” and “Frankie” received baths from the grooms, Mr. Stinebaugh taught us about medication use and proper nutrition for racehorses. I found both of these to be fascinating. Although some people still attempt to cheat by using illegal substances, Los Alamitos, as well as several other tracks, do a great deal to keep the sport clean and drug free.

After finishing up at the barn, we were whisked away to Hollywood Park for a fantastic afternoon of Thoroughbred racing. I immediately fell in love with this track; it was beautiful on the outside and inside. The infield and the paddock area were especially gorgeous, with flowers planted everywhere. Wendy Davis, one of our chaperones at the NRE, knew a friend with a horse running in a claiming race that day. Her friend allowed us to accompany her to the paddock to watch her horse, Chico Suerte (TB), be saddled for the race. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw renowned jockeys Mike Smith, Joe Talamo and Kayla Stra walk past me as we strode through the grandstands. We cheered “Chico” on to a fifth-place finish. It was bittersweet being at Hollywood Park and knowing that in a few months it would no longer be there. I felt very privileged to visit such a beautiful and historic track before it was gone forever.

Back at the hotel, the NRE attendees took a final comprehensive exam. This covered everything we learned throughout the National Racing Experience. After the test, we returned to our rooms to prepare for a fun-filled night of Challenge Championship races!

Immediately after arriving at Los Alamitos that night, we headed to the winner’s circle for the announcement of the NRE scholarship recipients. Our scores from our workbook, trainer packet and exam were combined into a total score to determine the winners. I could hardly stand still – I was so excited and nervous! The loudspeaker crackled to life, and my name was called as the first-place scholarship recipient!

After taking pictures with Zoey Oropallo and Austin Brewer, the second- and third-place winners, along with AQHA President Johne Dobbs, I was interviewed by TVG. It was such a thrilling experience – it felt surreal!

After the fifth race that night, Jacy and I headed to the paddock to meet up with Mr. Stinebaugh and watch him saddle Frankie and Larry for the Red Cell Distance Challenge Championship. Both horses were calm and composed and appeared to be in peak condition. Jacy and I located an excellent spot on the rail to watch the race.

Sadly, both horses had a rough trip and finished toward the back of the pack. Jacy and I returned to the barn one final time after the race. We spoke with Mr. Stinebaugh and he told us that if you’re going to work in horse racing, you have to remember that you will always lose more often than you win. I really respected his positive outlook after such a tough race. We then bid the barn staff farewell and thanked them for all they taught us before returning to the stands.

The next day, our group dispersed, as each of us returned to our home state. Although it felt good to be home and see my family, it was sad leaving California. I met numerous new friends, networked with individuals in the racing industry and witnessed some incredible horse racing. It was an experience I would not trade for anything.

Because opportunities abound for horse-interested kids, the new AQHYA blog, Youth in Action, captures those adventures. Learn more about the endless prospects for young horsemen through AQHYA at www.aqha.com/youth-in-action.