Harrington Raceway played host to an overnight youth harness racing camp at the end of June for youth ages 11-14. This camp represents a partnership between the Harness Horse Youth Foundation (HHYF), Harrington Raceway and the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. The campers resided at Harrington Raceway for the duration of the camp and spent the majority of their time in the barn working directly with the Trottingbred racing ponies with the guidance of HHYF’s Executive Director, Ellen Taylor and extension staff. In addition, local, professional drivers were present on a daily basis to help guide and instruct campers on the racetrack.
This camp wasn’t just for kids with prior horse experience; it was open to anyone interested in harness racing or horses in general. Although some campers came with a family background in driving horses, others had little to no experience at all. Regardless of experience, every camper participated in and learned about the daily care of racehorses, equipment, harnessing, safety, careers, and even driving the horses on the front track at Harrington Raceway.
As a volunteer with no prior knowledge of harness racing, I came into this camp knowing less than some of these kids. Halfway through day one, I was in the stalls with the campers showing them proper grooming techniques, how to harness their ponies and even how to braid, which seemed to be a new skill amongst the group. The campers formed groups on day one and rotated between the 7 ponies in the stable throughout the camp. Each day, the groups worked together to complete their daily routine of mucking stalls, grooming ponies, packing feet, harnessing and jogging. The camp staff and volunteers allowed campers to learn from each other and to teach one another.
After barn activities concluded each day, campers and I took daily quizzes on what we had learned. Some evenings were spent going to dinner, or at a campfire, while others were spent at the racetrack. While at the track, campers had the opportunity to meet some behind the scenes people. Youth were able to go to the announcer’s booth where they listened to the announcer call a race and went next door to view and use the big camera used to broadcast the races. In addition, campers were permitted to go high above the track for a unique view from judge’s booth where they watched a live race and the replay. All campers received temporary Delaware Harness Racing Commission licenses, which allowed them access to the Thurman Adams paddock. An evening in the paddock spent riding in the starting car, water truck and track conditioner was a highlight for many campers.
Another great part of the camp was a trip to Winbak Farm in Chesapeake City, Maryland. Winbak is the industry’s largest single family owned and operated breeding farm. The staff, including head trainer Jeff Fout, took our group around the barns and taught us about training, breeding and the industry itself. Four lucky campers had the opportunity to jog a stallion with Fout at this facility as well.
The camp wouldn’t be complete without the guest speakers that came to speak with the group. Cory Callahan, a professional driver interacted with the campers, discussed driving, his career path and education, and answered any questions the kids had. Dr. Anne Renzetti, V.M.D. also spoke with the campers about health problems and injuries they might see on and off he track. Sandra Polk, a USTA idntifier, explained the freeze branding process and how she kees track of all the horses that participate in USTA events. Lastly, Wayne Truitt took the group through the paddock and explained his job as well as the job of other officials in the paddock, however, the campers seemed to be more interested in learning about all the different fines horses and drivers can receive!
This 5-day hand-on camp ended with campers partnering with professional drivers to race their ponies on the track at Harrington Raceway in between the betting races. The winners of each race had their picture taken in front of the winner’s circle in order to capture the full racing experience.
The Harness Horse Youth Foundation has been providing youth and their families educational opportunities with harness horses for almost 40 years. They offer a variety of programs for youth and student groups of any size or interest level. If interested in learning more about the foundation or camps available, visit www.hhyf.org.