Owning a standardbred race horse is an exciting and rewarding experience. There is nothing like the thrill of watching your own horse charge into the stretch and cross the finish line a winner. Whether you breed and raise a foal (newborn horse), acquire a yearling at auction, or purchase a horse that’s already racing, participating in the harness racing industry as an owner can be an incredibly fun investment, hobby, or business.
Many owners come from the ranks of harness fans and bettors. If you have spent any time at the track, you no doubt have seen the thrill and excitement on the faces of owners in the winner’s circle. There’s no substitute for the pride and satisfaction an owner takes in their horse’s performance. Like any competition sport, harness racing can be challenging, but most owners will tell you that the rewards are priceless.
How do you get started? There are many options for participating as an owner in the great sport of harness racing. They range from arms-length ownership strictly as an investment to full-immersion, hands-on ownership where you do much of the work necessary to race your horse. Choosing the type of horse ownership that’s right for you is an important first step.
Equally important is to fully understand the costs, expectations, and risks involved in owning a racing pacer or trotter. Whether it’s a business, hobby, or investment that you seek, know at what level you can afford to participate and learn how to manage and influence the costs associated with the ownership.
You should also decide, in advance, what level of involvement you want to have. Do you prefer to rely entirely on your trainer for decisions about the conditioning and racing of your horse? Or, do you want to actively participate in the care, training, and racing of your horse in partnership with your trainer? Various levels of involvement are possible—you just need to find the trainer that’s the right for you.
Some trainers prefer to partner with owners who simply pay the bills and come watch their horse(s) race. Others trainers are happy to work with owners who want to be involved—from cleaning stalls and feeding to helping paddock your horse at the track—even jogging or working out the horse.
Once you’ve decided on the level of involvement with which you’re most comfortable, it’s time to find a trainer who is a good fit for you. Location is important, especially if you desire hands-on participation. But finding a trainer with whom you're comfortable is even more valuable. After all, owning a horse is a commitment and, like a marriage, it will be a much more enjoyable experience if you and your partner get along well.
How do you find the right trainer? There are approximately 250 licensed trainers in the state of Michigan. Some don’t train horses for others, but most do. Your first step should be to contact the MHHA. We can give you an idea of which trainers are in your part of the state and provide you with some background and contact information. Call a few trainers and talk to them about their training operations. Let them know what type of horse ownership most interests you. If you like what you hear, schedule a time to visit their stable, spend some time, and observe the operation. Even speak with other owners, if you have the opportunity. The better job you do exploring the possibilities, the more likely you will get what you want out of horse ownership.
One of the considerations when selecting a trainer is deciding whether you want to own a trotter or a pacer. Of course, that refers to the stride or ‘gait’ a horse uses to get around the track. Horses are bred to perform best in one gait or another. Generally speaking, trotters are a little tougher to train, but they race for slightly higher purses. If you look in any program, you’ll see how many of each type are raced on a typical night’s card and the size of their respective purses.
Trainers sometimes specialize in either pacers or trotters. Having that specialized knowledge is valuable, but a mix of pacers and trotters also has its advantages. To be successful, your trainer needs to be able to enter your horse often enough for you to make money. Since eligibility is limited by the ‘conditions’ required for entry, finding a trainer with the right number of trotters versus pacers and young versus experienced horses will ease the challenge of getting your horse entered to race on a regular basis. The fewer horses in your trainer’s stable that are competing for spots in the same types of races, the easier it is to find opportunities to race.
Your trainer also must have the ability, and be willingness, to take your horse to where it needs to go to compete and make money—colt stakes (fair races), in- or out-of-state pari-mutuel tracks—even outside the country, if that’s where your horse fits best.
You may decide to ease into the ownership experience slowly—and that can be a smart approach. There are many trainers who can offer the flexibility that will let you grow into the sport. Many great trainer/owner relationships have started small.
Whatever approach you decide is the right one for you, take the time to consider ALL aspects of horse ownership and get to know your trainer well. That combination of knowledge and teamwork will help ensure a pleasurable and profitable experience.
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