National Youth Racing Experience: An Experience of a Lifetime

AQHYA member and National Youth Racing Experience finalist Charles C. Lee shares his experiences at the Bank of America Challenge Championships and how family connects AQHA members.

The American Quarter Horse Youth Association

National Youth Racing Experience participants enjoyed a weekend of racing!

“But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget.” -Tim O’Brien

My name is Charles C. Lee, Texas Quarter Horse Youth Association president, residing in McAllen, Texas. I had the privilege of representing my youth affiliate at this year’s American Quarter Horse Youth Association National Racing Experience in Los Alamitos, California. This comes after attending my affiliate’s race experience two times and learning so much from it. Our affiliate director, Mrs. Val Clark, encouraged me to apply for this fantastic opportunity, and I am so glad she did.

As I write this blog, my mind floods with memories of all 10 of us youth meeting up at an airport in California with Ms. Jacy Bradford, manager of youth development and AQHYA, and Ms. Wendy Davis, associate coordinator of the race track industry program at the University of Arizona. We were all individuals bringing different ideas, backgrounds and goals to California to compete for three scholarships and learn about an industry that was so unknown to most of us. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that we would all become friends while representing one of the largest youth organizations in the world to an industry that is sparsely populated with youth, yet connected through the love of the American Quarter Horse.

On Wednesday, Ms. Davis and Ms. Bradford briefed us on our schedule, along with the trainers we were going to be working with for the next couple of days. My partner, Erica Melhaus, and I had the privilege to work with Elena Andrade, an outstanding trainer. When we first met her, I think Erica and I can both agree that we were struck by what a hard worker Elena was. Multitasking as a trainer, ponying one horse, unsaddling another horse, and putting one on a walker … in other words, Elena was very busy. We were both grateful that a trainer would actually let two teenagers who knew very little about racehorses come and learn what it was like before, during and after the race.

 We learned so much about properly wrapping a polo wrap, the tack a jockey uses and everything in between. Over the next few days, we got to experience so many things that are important to the horse-racing industry. We were able to see the “referees” of the races, the stewards, in action along with the placing judges. We also saw what trainers go through to prepare a horse for a race, how the photo-finish camera works and even meet the starters.

Our coordinators also took us to go see Santa Anita Race Park, the Disneyland of Racetracks (well, at least in my opinion). The history of the racetrack really opened my eyes to how long racing has existed. Not only that, but we also got to meet celebrities of the racing industry, trainer of Thoroughbred Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh, Bob Baffert, and California Chrome (TB). (Yes, the California Chrome.) We attended the AQHA Racing Meeting, where we saw members discuss the current issues that face the racing industry today and contributions to solving those problems, while ensuring the integrity of racing and our beloved American Quarter Horse.

In short, the AQHA National Youth Racing Experience was one I will never forget. Learning from many of the top professionals in the industry is an opportunity that should not be passed up. There is not only history that accompanies the industry, but I also believe the people who make up the industry make it so genuine. I had the true sense of family throughout the experience. I understand how family is vital to succeed. Our trainer, Elena, told us she learned from her parents, and now she and her husband teach her son about the industry. Many generations of families can be found in our great American Quarter Horse industry.  Even though the racing industry is completely different from my experience in the show performance arena, the common thread is family and how we all have our part and work together; it really shows how a team is essential to victory.

I am proud to say I have learned so much after this experience. It seems so surreal to see the actual people in the magazines or on television and how encouraging they are to the youth of our association. I would encourage youth members to take advantage of racing programs to broaden knowledge and networks and continue to promote the American Quarter Horse.

See you on the track!