National Youth Racing Experience

AQHYA member Claire Lee shares her experience at the AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience.

“Hopped off the plane in DFW, with a dream and my dad in tow … headed for the plane to Altoona, am I gonna fit in?” “I land in Iowa for the first time, and to my right I see the Prairie Meadows sign … this is all so crazy! All these horses are so famous.”

A simple parody of Miley Cyrus’ “Party In the USA” describes how I felt on my first trip to Altoona, Iowa, for the AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience.

Did I forget to mention it was quite cold for this South Texas native? The rest of the youth participants and I met up at the hotel near Prairie Meadows racetrack, where we would soon be introduced to a new world. Wendy Davis, Director of the Racetrack Industry Program at the University of Arizona and volunteer educational coordinator for the National Racing Experience, and Kylynn Thomas, AQHA marketing and membership coordinator, lead our group throughout the four-day trip.

When we arrived at the racetrack Thursday evening, the bright lights from the signs lit up the night, and the racetrack and paddocks were immaculate. At first sight, I truly believed Prairie Meadows was magical. The first night in Iowa, we got a tour of track and watched the races. Even though we dined and watched some of the races from the glass box, I always will enjoy watching the American Quarter Horses race from the sidelines. When I arrived back to the hotel, I was too excited to sleep! Being the youngest on the trip, I think it was probably because of all my dessert. In the early hours of the morning, I would get to meet my trainer for the next days, Alex Wessels.

The next morning, before we left the hotel, each participant was handed a packet that had questions to ask our trainers to learn some of their feeding and training methods. Ms. Davis dropped off each participant in the barn with their trainer, and we spent the next three hours learning everything we could. Slowly walking into the barn, I did not expect my trainer to be a young, bearded man who immediately “showed me the ropes” about racing in the “Wessels barn.” I asked so many questions, which were eagerly answered, and met some of the “superstar” horses that would compete that night.

Around noon, we were ushered into an AQHA Racing Committee meeting and observed some presentations about racing. Dr. Benson, who is both an attorney and a veterinarian, spoke about the concentration levels of certain drugs in equines. I thought this was so awesome because I could combine my passion for the American Quarter Horse and my dream career as a prosecutor.

Another presentation I enjoyed was done by two stewards and jockey, G.R. Carter Jr. They spoke about trying to keep racing fair and clean by identifying “foul play” on the track; the stewards showed videos and explained inquiries. My dad and I agreed that since each race is 15 seconds or less, it would be too fast for us, and we would ask for an inquiry just to see the replay!

That same evening, I visited the paddock judge, veterinarian, clerk of scales and spoke Spanish with some of the jockeys who would be riding the horses for my trainer. I spoke with the track manager, who kept the track perfect all the time, and the cameramen who showed us kids the television room. When we visited the stewards’ room, using the knowledge from their earlier presentation, I was able to identify what to call an inquiry for. While meeting with the placing judges, I learned about how to pay out a “dead heat.” To end our Friday night, we walked to the test barn to meet with one of the veterinarians, who told us that horses needed to get “cleared” before anybody gets paid. We also met the starter and assistant starters, who were by the starting gates. It was so awesome to be able to see a race right by the gates, the hooves sounded like rolling thunder, slowly fading into the distance. 

The next morning, I rose before the sun because it was cold and rainy, also something a South Texan isn’t used to. When I arrived at the barn to shadow Mr. Wessels that Saturday, he immediately handed me grooming supplies and a sorrel filly; it felt good knowing he trusted me with one of his prized horses. While getting my long list of questions answered and, throughout the rain, I hand-walked racehorses. Little did I know that these horses would earn some cash in the stakes races that evening. The most exciting experience was to meet Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, the first female governor of Iowa, and take a selfie with her! I also took a selfie with AQHA President Ralph Seekins who is from Alaska, so he teased me about living in the “small state of Texas.” We then attended the Owner’s Recognition brunch, and I met with fellow Texan and Texas Quarter Horse Association President, Bob Gaston.

At 1 p.m., I was prepared for my interview and after the interviews, we retired the hotel for some “free time.” At 5 p.m., we headed back to Prairie Meadows, eagerly awaiting results. We ate and watched some of the earlier races before we would be in the winner’s circle to get awards.

Between races 5 and 6, we headed to the winner’s circle for the National Racing Experience scholarship presentation.My stomach was full of butterflies when the announcer called two names and they weren’t mine. When Ms. Davis held up the $3,000 check with my name on it, I couldn’t believe it. I had really won! Extremely thankful to my parents, the racing staff of both Iowa and Texas and, of course, AQHA racing, I walked in the winner’s circle for my check. That night, the “GREAT STATE OF TEXAS” was represented well, Zoomin Racer won a race and was bred by AQHA Past President Jerry Windham, owner and breeder Pete Scarmardo qualified his horse, Time for Wine, and placed second in the Distance Championships, and of course … me.

On Sunday at 3:30 a.m., my dad and I were eager to head back to our paradise called Texas. We arrived back to McAllen, Texas, at 10:30 a.m., check in hand, and were met by my mother, older brother and little sister. I was glad to be back in South Texas, where the Whataburger sign runs free, and so do the horses.