NARA opens doors to Thoroughbred racing
It’s 7 a.m., the start of a new day in Barn 30 at the Thoroughbred Training Center on Paris Pike, the home of the North American Racing Academy (NARA). Beneath the glow of the lights, the barn is buzzing with activity with students going about their morning chores. Stalls are being cleaned, as old straw is being removed and replaced with new straw for bedding. Feed tubs and water buckets are being filled, and hay is being placed in the corner of the stalls. Horses are being hot-walked around the barn, while other horses are bathed, groomed and placed back in their stalls. Meanwhile, there are horses being ridden out on the track or out on the big field behind the barn. If all goes right for NARA students in Barn 30, then within two years they will have the knowledge and skills to go out and begin to fulfill their lifelong passion of working with horses in Thoroughbred racing. NARA has mostly been known as a school where students can learn to become jockeys. However, today, NARA is also known as a school where students can learn about other possible careers in the Thoroughbred racing, such as becoming grooms, exercise riders, assistant trainers, barn managers, bloodstock agents, and more. NARA was originally created by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who worked with Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTS), which is part of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, to create one of the premier Thoroughbred racing academies in the United States, if not the world. “I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am to be part of the first racing academy in the United States,” said McCarron in his bio on the BCTS website. “As odd as it may seem, although the United States offers one of the best breeding programs and conducts some of the finest racing in the world, it’s racing industry has never had a formal training program for professional riders.” The school was originally known almost exclusively as a jockey school, and McCarron was the lead instructor who taught students the ins and outs of how to become successful jockeys. Today, some of those students are elite jockeys riding at some of the biggest, most prestigious tracks in the United States. As time passed, however, a new curriculum or “Pathway,” was needed for students who could not make it as a jockey, but still wanted to work in Thoroughbred racing. McCarron explains the evolution of the school. “The seed (for NARA) was planted when I went over to Tokyo in 1988,” said McCarron as he walked around Barn 30 early one morning last November. “I was invited to speak in front of the jockey school there, and I came away from that experience very impressed. They were not just teaching the kids horsemanship skills, but it was an academic program. Kids of high school age I think they started … and then go for three years. “I really enjoyed my visit there and I learned quite a bit,” he continued. “That just planted the seed. (Then) two years later, (as) I was lying in the hospital (after a racing accident) … with two broken legs and a broken arm, I had time to ponder. And, I went back to that idea and my curiosity as to why we (the United States) never had a school.” Upon his retirement in 2002, McCarron worked on the movie “Seabiscuit” for about eight months, and then was hired as general manager at Santa Anita Park, which he did for about a year and a half. When he decided to leave Santa Anita, McCarron wrote a letter to Nick Nicholson, who was president of Keeneland at the time, and expressed his interest in moving to Lexington and opening up a school. “He (Nicholson) was kind enough to set up a meeting with a bunch of influential people here in Lexington in the racing and breeding industry,” said McCarron. “We bounced ideas off of each other, and the first move I did was I wrote a letter to Dr. (Lee T.) Todd (Jr.) at UK (University of Kentucky) asking if he would be interested in starting an equine program, and he said, ‘No.’ “So, (I next) wrote a letter to Dr. Michael McCall, who was president of KCTCS (Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which Bluegrass Community and Technical College is a part of) and he invited me for a meeting with his chancellor and his vice president, and they authorized myself and two of their staff members in the workforce development area to send us over to London. “So, in 2004, we flew over to London to look at the British Racing School and the Northern Racing College. We spent a couple days over there touring those facilities and came back with a bunch of ideas. Then, Dr. McCall gave the go ahead to hire staff to draft a curriculum and two years later (in 2006) we opened our doors.” While NARA might have started as a jockey school, in a very short time it was clear that another curriculum or “Pathway” had to be created for students who wanted to work in the Thoroughbred industry but couldn’t become a jockey. “We knew going in that not all of the kids going through the Jockey Pathway are going to be successful at riding Thoroughbreds because of the difficulty involved,” said McCarron. “It takes a very specific skill-set to be able to ride a Thoroughbred effectively and successfully. So, not just talent or skill, but some of the kids get too big, others get scared after they crash and burn a few times. “So, I knew going in that I wanted to have a program established that is going to cover all the bases for them, you know. So, if they did become infatuated with working around horses and then wanted to remain in the industry in some capacity, then they would have the tools and the knowledge available to them to be able to learn the skills necessary.” Remi Bellocq, executive director for equine programming at BCTC-NARA, who began working with McCarron and NARA about four- to four-and-a-half years ago, continues the story of how the Horseman’s Pathway was created: “It became clear to me pretty quickly that we were being defined in the industry as the Chris McCarron jockey school,” he said. “I sat down with Chris, and I said, ‘You know, we’ve got to work on that,’ and, of course, he agreed 100 percent. “... At that point, we both agreed there are a lot more kids out there available to come and enroll if they know they can do that. … So, we embarked on helping re-identify, or rebrand, the school as a workforce academy that can offer options to either riding students (Jockey Pathway) or non-riding students (Horseman’s Pathway), but who want to work in the racing and breeding industry.” The process took some time, but today, Bellocq believes, “… We’re starting to get to that point where we’re known as much as a workforce academy as a riding school.” As to how NARA is now structured, Bellocq explained, “We offer all of the students, whether they’re riders or horseman, a one-year certificate or a two-year associate’s degree in equine studies. That’s the foundation that we build on.” According to Dixie Hayes, program coordinator and lead instructor for equine studies at NARA for the last five years, all students, whether they are in the Jockey Pathway or Horseman’s Pathway, will take a general equine core. “The first hands-on class that’s required is the race horse-care lab,” said Hayes. “Some people shy away from that class if they’re not interested in Thoroughbreds because of the name. But, it’s very general. (It includes) everything you need for an entry level position in any equine industry. ... (Students) have to get an ‘A’ in that class to move onto any other hands-on classes, whether its jockey or horseman option.” In addition, students in the Horseman’s Pathway will take classes such as an introduction into the horse racing industry, equine anatomy, physiology, nutrition, lameness, health and medication, business and legal practices; all general type equine classes. They will then move on to classes in Thoroughbred sales and management, and training principles and practices. “So, they kind of get a look into all different aspects of the industry,” said Hayes. “My goal is that they get exposed to as much as possible, so that they can, hopefully, figure out, before they graduate, at least option one of what they want to do in the industry, and they have a little bit of experience. Then maybe a fallback option as well.” Upon completion of the Horseman Pathway, another thing that has helped NARA is the number of students it places into internships. “Our Horseman’s option has been very successful,” said Hayes. “We’ve probably placed (in internships) about 90 percent of our graduates, and of those graduates placed, they’ve been hired out of those internship opportunities. “…I think (intern opportunities) are one of the things that’s really helped us, in terms of bringing in more students. … And, we’re seeing a lot of our students, within six months of graduation, moving up to management level positions.” Students from NARA have earned positions at such places as Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, Joe Sharp Racing, Michal Maker Racing, the Kentucky Horse Park, Taylor Made Sales Agency, Timber Town Stable, and more. “So, the placement rate is very high. The program is very rigorous. We do have probably a lower retention rate than some other programs, but that’s because we’re extremely hands on, very rigorous, trying to get these students prepared for their careers.” In explaining the success of NARA’s graduates, McCarron said, “The kids (from the Jockey Pathway) have won over 4,500 races, so, they’re doing very well. … But we’ve (now) got kids that are assistant trainers and foreman and grooms and exercise riders and so forth that went through the Horseman’s Pathway.” Two examples of successful NARA students who graduated from the Horseman’s Pathway are Chelsea Heery and Aaron West. About Heery, McCarron explains, “I’ve got a girl named Chelsea Heery who has been working for (trainer) Mike Maker for a while now; for a few years. And, (she) started out as an exercise rider, and then he eventually moved her up to foreman, and she hired one of her former classmates as an exercise rider. So, she’s got a lot of responsibility and she’s making us proud.” As for Aaron West, who will graduate in the spring and whose main interest is in the breeding/bloodstock area of the Thoroughbred industry, instead of an internship, he is going to be the first NARA student selected for the International Federation of Horse Racing Academies scholarship. West is from Little Rock, Ark., and while he was in college playing soccer at a private school in Arkadelphia, Ark, which is near Hot Springs, he became interested in horse racing after he and some friends went to the races one day. He enjoyed the races and went many more times while in school. After graduation, he worked in Little Rock at a few jobs, including teaching for a year, and working for some non-profit groups. But he also stayed involved in horse racing as a fan; going to the races, and going to the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup. Then, one day, he came across a story about how a student from NARA won his first race. His initial thought was, “What’s the North American Racing Academy?” Long story short, “I looked it up and then a few years later, here I am,” he said. “I moved up here last August and started school.” West was one of those students who came to NARA specifically for the Horseman’s Pathway. “I didn’t really have any desire to gallop on the track, or ride or anything,” said West. “I don’t have any equine, (or) horse background. I remember the first day when we went out to get horses, and I’m just trying to figure out how the halter goes on a horse. I’m just looking at this thing (halter) and thinking, how in the world …?” Soon, however, West progressed through the curriculum and became one of the school’s top students, which helped him earn his way into a new scholarship program. “It’s going to be a scholarship program-mentorship where you’re going to have the opportunity to go for two months to a country of your choice … and work under someone,” explained West. “And, I was fortunate enough to be selected for that opportunity. … “So, sometime next year … I’ll get to spend two months in Ireland.” Hayes then explained how the program works. “We (NARA) are the U.S. representative for IFHRA (International Federation of Horse Racing Academies),” she said. “And, each school, each academy, throughout the world… gets to select one student to send out on the internship. “We had multiple applicants, but Aaron was our selection. And, it was kind of exciting for me because, Aaron, being our selection for this first opportunity at this scholarship, (is) not a rider. (So, he is), representing our Horseman’s Pathway, with a primary interest in bloodstock and training.” As to where he would like to work in the future, West’s interest is to work as a bloodstock agent, or in sales, buying and selling horses, or doing stallion nominations at a farm, possibly helping to select and choose matings for stallions. Ultimately, however, if the opportunity arises, West hopes to give back to NARA. “I think it would be amazing, long term, to come back (to NARA) and be involved in the program,” said West. “I taught school for a year and I really enjoyed teaching. (And) I think for me to just having this opportunity in this school, what it’s going to provide me the ability to do that I would have never had otherwise, I think it would be awesome, in some capacity, to be able to give back eventually to other students who may be like me, who didn’t grow up around horses, that grew up in the city and whose parents never went to the races or anything like that. … I’m sure there are plenty of other people out there like me that love the industry, that love horses, and that love racing. And, I think, that would be really awesome (to come back and work at NARA), too.” West’s success, and the success of all the students at NARA, all came about thanks to McCarron, whose came up with the idea for the school because of a speaking engagement in Japan, and to his career in Thoroughbred racing, one of the most prestigious in the sport’s history. It was a career in which he accumulated 7,141 wins and earned $263,985,905; won two Kentucky Derbies (Alysheba (1987) and Go For Gin (1994)); five Breeders’ Cup Classics (Alysheba (1998), Sunday Silence (1989), Alphabet Soup (1996) and two with Tiznow (2001, 2002); and too numerous to mention awards, which culminated with his induction into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1991; his first year of eligibility. Then, upon his retirement, McCarron decided to give back to Thoroughbred racing by creating NARA, a school that gives students the knowledge and skills they need to become the future workforce of the sport. As he was ending his morning at Barn 30 this past November, substituting in for Bellocq and Hayes who were away on a business trip, McCarron took a moment to look back on what NARA has meant to him in terms of all his career achievements. “Incredibly. Incredibly (fulfilling),” he said. “I am every bit as proud of this school and its accomplishments as I am of my riding career. Every bit.” For more information about NARA go to http://bluegrass.kctcs.edu/NARA.aspx or call (855) 246-2477.