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Youth in Action: Chitcat With Ochoa

Mary Claire Cornett’s highlights from the 2013 AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience include the chance to meet AQHA Supreme Race Horse Ochoa.

By AQHYA Treasurer Mary Claire Cornett
The American Quarter Horse Journal
December 9, 2013

youth racing experience 2013

From left: Mary Claire Cornett, James Lackey and Kalee McCann at the 2013 AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience in Los Alamitos, California. (Q-Racing Journal photo)

Editor’s Note: Mary Claire Cornett is one of two AQHYA officers who attended the 2013 AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience. The AQHYA treasurer from Purvis, Mississippi, Mary Claire participated in the Louisiana Youth Racing Experience, and was able to attend the national event through a generous sponsorship. The National Youth Racing Experience scholarship winner, Annise Montplaisir, also shared her experience on the trip in an earlier edition of Youth in Action.

Honestly, I don't think the airport in Jackson, Mississippi, has ever seen such lively girls at 6 in the morning! AQHYA Vice President Kalee McCann of Walnut Grove, Mississippi, and Meghan Shepherd of Florence, Mississippi, met me at the airport to head out to California for the 2013 AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience at Los Alamitos Race Course. Of course, we had to start out the day with a huge rush of caffeine from Starbucks!

While we were waiting on our second plane, we unexpectedly met one of the National Youth Racing Experience contestants, Kacee Kugler of Ashley, Indiana. It wasn't hard to tell she was a rodeo girl, considering she was the only one of our gang wearing boots.

We finally landed in California at the Orange County Airport after a multitude of hours on a plane (I'm pretty sure the rest of the passengers were pretty fed up with us loud, slow talkin', Mississippi girls). The first thing Kalee and I did when we saw our "other mother" Robin Alden, manager of AQHYA, was look at each other, drop all our bags and run to give her a hug. It's always interesting to see how all three of us, no matter how long we have been apart, are just as close as we were when we last saw each other. Next, I introduced myself to the contestants with my usual "Hey y'all! I'm Mary Claire!" (Of course, I received some confused faces). Either way, all the girls warmly greeted each other and shared where they were from. The first place we went was to get food (thank goodness because we were all starving)! It's crazy how all of us girls started to "click" so fast and share about the things we have in common. After we ate, we went to a small city where we went shopping and ate their famous ice cream. Then we went to the hotel to get settled in for the night.

I was surprised at how exciting it was to wake up the next morning, even though it was only 5 a.m. We arrived at the Los Alamitos Race Course ready to begin the day after eating a breakfast at the diner there. Little did I know, the next person I met would make a huge impression on my life and receive a special place in my heart. Kalee and I were assigned to our trainer for the NRE, Mr. James Lackey (or "Lack Attack!" as we prefer to call him). I could go on and on about how much this man taught me, but that might take a few hours.

Mr. James was a jockey for 23 years and was even the rider of American Quarter Horse Hall of Famer First Down Dash! He taught us about the supplements and care that they give their horses and how in life, you just can't cut corners, especially with athletes like racehorses. Obviously, one of my favorite experiences was playing with AQHA Supreme Race Horse Ochoa and my other favorite horse, If I Were Famous. I think the amount of pictures I took with them can support that.

Kalee and I had a veterinarian talk to us and we also learned about the starting gate. We did a mock race with a few of the other NRE contestants, and I even got to push the starting button. We then went to see Vessels Stallion Farm, which was absolutely gorgeous. After touring the award room, we went to the stallion barn to see where First Down Dash's stall was. My favorite part was going to First Down Dash's burial spot, where late American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame member Frank “Scoop” Vessels III had previously picked out for First Down Dash before they both died. The grave sits upon a hill, which overlooks the farm as a whole, and gives a clear view of First Down Dash’s favorite grazing spot.

Before we ended our busy day, the NRE contestants headed to a town near San Diego and spent time at the beach and ate at Rockin' Baja Lobsters. And the answer to most peoples' question is “Yes, we did this all on Thursday.”

On Friday, we woke up and met with Mr. James and a girl named Tanna, who made sure that she answered all my questions. We watched Ochoa warm up, which I find to be quite a more complex situation than it seems. We were taken to see the jockeys room and given the opportunity to talk to some of the riders. Later that day, we went to a meeting where all of the National Youth Racing Experience contestants were introduced. Kalee and I even saw Mr. Leverne (Perry) and Ms. Leigh (Lepinski) from the racetrack in New Orleans, Louisiana. I want to give them a huge thanks for their sponsorship! We appreciate it so much!

Later that day, we attended a banquet and our first race of the week. We also experienced the awesome view from the stewards office. All of us learned about the qualifications of how if there is a close tie, the pictures decide which horse wins.

Saturday was a bittersweet day. It was exciting, because it was the day for the horses in our barn to run in the Bank of America Challenge Championship races. We attended a brunch with all the breeders, then Kalee and I hung out with Tanna for most of the morning while Mr. James hand-walked the horses that were running that night.

We were entertained during the middle part of the day, when Ms. Windy took us to the Hollywood Park Race Course to watch the Thoroughbreds run.

After the 10 National Youth Racing Experience contestants took their tests, we attended a massive dinner at the Vessels Club. Because all of us love chocolate fountains, I guess you could say we were in heaven! As all our horses started to run, each girl was able to watch their horses being saddled and prepared for their races. The rush that I got whenever I watched my horses run will never be forgotten.

Sunday was an extremely long day. At least I got to spend time with all my new friends as we waited in the airport. I will miss all of these girls! They were absolutely hilarious and always had something positive to say!

I wish I was good with words, and that I had all the time in the world to tell about my trip. I can't count how many times I laughed with all the girls. I made friendships that I will always remember.

I think the greatest highlight for my week, besides getting to take pictures with my favorite jockey, Freddie Martinez, would definitely be getting to take this awesome trip with my fellow officer, who is also my best friend: Kalee McCann. I thank Mrs. Robin Alden, Ms. Windy and Mr. James Lackey, as well as all the others for putting up with us two AQHYA officers and the 10 contestants. They have done an excellent job at making this experience truly amazing. A huge thank you to all of the sponsors that gave us support!

How to Apply

You could be the next AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience champion with a sizeable scholarship check in hand, enjoying an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bank of America Challenge Championship races.

Here’s what you have to do:

  1. Be 16 years old as of January 1, 2014
  2. Be an AQHYA member
  3. Attend your Regional Racing Experience, then be the selected regional nominee to the National Youth Racing Experience
  4. If your area does not offer a Regional Racing Experience, that’s OK! You can complete the online application and submit an essay
  5. Send in your application by September 3, 2014
  6. Applications will be reviewed, and 10 nominees will be selected to attend the AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bank of America Challenge Championships

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