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Youth in Action: In the Fast Lane

The AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience was much more than a scholarship opportunity for winner Annise Montplaisir.

By Annise Montplaisir
The American Quarter Horse Journal
November 18, 2013

AQHYA member Annise Montplaisir accepts a scholarship check from AQHA President Johne Dobbs for winning the 2013 AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience

AQHYA member Annise Montplaisir of Moorhead, Minnesota, accepts a scholarship check from AQHA President Johne Dobbs for winning the 2013 AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience. (Robin Alden photo)

At the beginning of October, 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, and I had to go sit down before I passed out, as my mom continued jumping up and down and screaming in excitement.

I waited in anticipation for the next month until I could depart on November 6 from my home in Moorhead, Minnesota, for beautiful, sunny California. When the day finally came, I was greeted in the California airport by a diverse group of girls from numerous states, plus a very wonderful and excited Robin Alden, the manager of AQHYA. The first day was spent getting to know each other, laughing at everyone’s accents, eating at some great restaurants and shopping on Balboa Island.

The next morning, our entire crew piled into our red and black SUVs and headed off to Los Alamitos Race Course to be paired with the trainers we would work with for the next three days.

After eating a delicious breakfast at the track kitchen (I got to try huevos rancheros for the first time!), we made the trek through the shed rows to find our trainers. My teammate, Jacy, and I were to work with John Stinebaugh. As it turns out, Mr. Stinebaugh was still traveling to the racetrack that day, so we spent the next few hours walking through his barn admiring the horses, asking his assistant trainer, Tiger, questions and getting to know one of the grooms, Jose. Tiger also put us to work grooming a gorgeous gelding named All About Larry, and he explained that “Larry” had won the $125,000 Red Cell Distance Challenge Championship (G1) race the year before.

On our way back to the track kitchen, Jacy and I stopped to watch a pair of horses schooling in the starting gates. The official starter and the other gate crew guys invited us to come check out the gates and take pictures. I clicked away on my camera as the official starter taught us all about the starting gates. Not long after, we were joined by the two AQHYA youth representatives, Mary Claire Cornett and Kalee McCann, as well as the racehorse trainer they were working with. The starter suggested that the four of us have our own little race. So, Jacy, Mary Claire and I all chose our post positions while Kalee stood back and watched. I ended up winning, but we all had a good laugh out of the race.

After that we piled back into the SUVs once again, and headed off to Vessels Stallion Farm. The farm was absolutely gorgeous, and the tour we were given was amazing. My favorite parts were getting to see all the trophies and photos in the Vessels’ office building, as well as getting the opportunity to tour the stallion barn. All of us girls tried to convince them to let us move into one of the empty stalls, but without any luck.

We finished the day in Oceanside at the beach. Everyone went their own separate ways, relaxing before dinner. Makayla DeMoss and I walked back and forth on the beach, collecting shells, taking pictures and marveling at the beauty of it all. Later, we enjoyed a delicious dinner at Rockin Baja Lobster. I’ve never had such amazing seafood before!

We began our Friday morning bright and early, arriving at the track by around 6:10 a.m. to watch a demonstration on how to saddle a racehorse in a racing saddle. Afterward, Jacy and I headed back to our barn to meet Mr. Stinebaugh for the first time. After asking a gazillion questions about the nutrition, training and expenses of his racehorses so we could complete our trainer packets, we went with Mr. Stinebaugh to the racing office so he could get an owners license.

We spent the rest of our time in the barn that morning admiring the crazy goat “Lucy,” who keeps a champion filly named PJ Chick In Black (or “PJ” for short) calm; looking at baby chicks; and getting to know a few other grooms and a pony rider named Susie.

Jacy and I headed back up to the track kitchen, our group’s designated meeting location, then headed off to an AQHA Racing Committee meeting. At the meeting, each of us introduced ourselves and shared with the audience what our favorite part of the trip had been thus far. For me, it was being able to be around such incredible equine athletes.

There’s something so special about racehorses; they emit such a powerful presence. It was a privilege to watch the process that goes into preparing them so they can be their absolute best when they get to the track.

Before going back to the hotel, we stopped at a small Vietnamese sandwich shop to grab lunch. Although several online reviews gave the place five stars, we were all skeptical. The lady working at the counter was so excited when she saw this entire herd of girls piling into her tiny (and I mean really tiny!) shop. After we ordered, she came outside with pitchers of iced green tea and refilled our glasses about five times before we left. And the sandwiches turned out to be really good. I’m not sure I knew what I was eating, but it was delicious!

When we got back to the hotel, we sat down to watch two informational videos: one on the history of the American Quarter Horse, and the other about the professionals that work at a racetrack, such as the starter, outrider and stewards.

After a bit of down time, we got ready and headed to the track to take in a night of American Quarter Horse racing. When we arrived at the track, we toured the jocks room, then went to the Vessels Club to eat a meal that was absolutely to die for (all the food we ate there was amazing!). Then we headed up to go meet the stewards. There was a balcony set outside of their office, and from there, we had a beautiful view of the track. We watched a nail-biter of a race with a nearly dead heat finish! We saw the photo-finish picture, and it was so close, you could barely tell who the winner was. Thank goodness for such incredible technology!

After watching the rest of the races that night, we headed back to our hotel to get some well-needed rest before another long day of adventures.

When we got to the track the next morning, Jacy and I headed back to our barn. It was an exciting day, because the Bank of America Challenge Championship races would take place that night. Mr. Stinebaugh had two horses in the Red Cell Distance Challenge Championship: All About Larry and Frankie B.

We spent the morning hanging out, talking to the grooms, Susie and Mr. Stinebaugh, and watching the horses get baths. I was impressed by how well Larry stood for his bath; he hardly moved a muscle. I wish my horses stood that well for baths! Jacy and I stood with Mr. Stinebaugh as Larry and Frankie dried off in the sun. He taught us a lot about medication use in horse racing, which I thought was very interesting. Although people still try to get by with illegal substances, Los Alamitos, and many other racetracks for that matter, do a lot to keep the sport clean and drug free.

I also really enjoyed learning about Mr. Stinebaugh’s extensive nutrition plan for his horses, with their various supplements and grain and hay, all to keep them in peak condition.

After saying goodbye to everyone in our barn and wishing them luck for the races that night, Jacy and I headed back to the track kitchen, where we wrote out thank-you cards, then headed back to the hotel.

When we got there, we finished up our packets of information about our trainers and turned them in.

Next stop, Hollywood Park, to take in some great Thoroughbred racing! I fell in love with this track right away; it was beautiful on the outside and inside. The infield and the paddock area were especially gorgeous. Wendy Davis, or Ms. Wendy as we called her, had a friend with a horse named Chico Suerte running in a claiming race that day. Her friend was kind enough to let us go into the paddock to watch “Chico” get saddled for the race. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw jockeys like Mike Smith, Joe Talamo and Kayla Stra walking past me on our way to the paddock and back. We sat in the reserved box seats to cheer on Chico to a fifth-place finish. It was kind of bittersweet being at Hollywood Park and knowing that in a few months it won’t be there any longer. I felt very privileged to have been able to visit such a beautiful and historic track before it’s gone forever.

After a couple more races, it was back to the hotel again. Everyone took a speed nap before heading down to the hotel lobby to take our final exam. After the test, we went back up to our rooms and got ready for a fun-filled night of Challenge Championship races!

When we got to the track, we headed straight to the winners circle for the announcement of the scholarship recipients. Our scores from our workbook, trainer packet and exam were added up and combined into a total score to decide the winners. I could hardly stand still – I was so excited and nervous. When they announced the first-place winner, I was overjoyed to hear my name being called. I hardly knew what to do for a few seconds!

After taking pictures with Zoey Oropallo and Austin Brewer, the second- and third-place winners, and AQHA President Johne Dobbs, I was interviewed by TVG. It was such an amazing experience; it just felt so surreal!

Then it was back up to the Vessels Club for another amazing dinner. After the fifth race, 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 looked absolutely amazing. All About Larry had sustained a tendon injury a few months back, so there was bit of worry about how he would hold up in the race. After the horses went out on the track, Jacy and I found a good spot on the rail to watch with two other girls from our group.

When the horses broke from the gates, it looked as though Frankie and Larry got a good start. But when they came around the hook, it was obvious that something was wrong with Larry. His jockey eased him up in the stretch, and we observed, downhearted, as they loaded him into the horse ambulance. After watching a few more races, all the time wondering how Larry was, Jacy and I decided to run back to our barn to see if he was going to be OK. As it turned out, he had injured his tendon again. Frankie also had a rough trip in the race, as he started bleeding badly from his nose and finished second-to-last.

Talk about a rough night for Mr. Stinebaugh and his connections! But both horses are going to be OK, which was great to hear. We talked to Mr. Stinebaugh for a while about the race. 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 had to respect how positive his outlook was after such a tough race. We then bid everyone farewell one last time before heading back up to the stands. It was sad saying goodbye to Mr. Stinebaugh, Jose, Susie, Tiger and the rest of the barn staff. They all taught us so much and were so kind while we were there.

Back in the stands, we watched the final few races, then headed back to our hotel to spend our final night. Jacy and I packed up our things and went to bed, exhausted. The next day, we got up and ate breakfast together one final time before heading off to the airport. After we went through security, all of us met up at Starbucks to hang out before our planes flew off. One by one, and sometimes in pairs, our group disappeared as girls headed to their flights. Crystal Malo and I flew to Minneapolis together (since she’s from Hector, Minnesota), and from there I flew to Fargo, North Dakota, which is closer to my home in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Although it felt good to be home and see my family, it was sad leaving California. I met so many great new friends and people and had the opportunity to be around some amazing, beautiful horses. It was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

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

Opportunities abound for horse-interested kids and a new AQHYA blog, Youth in Action, is going to chronicle those ventures. Learn more about the endless prospects for young horsemen through AQHYA at www.aqha.com/youth-in-action.