2012-08-31 / Neighbors

Horse training is no part-time job

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Trainer Gretchen Athearn’s horse Devils Jet finished fourth in her race on Friday, Aug. 24 with a time of 2:01. Devils Jet was one of three horses Athearn had racing that day. “I can’t imagine working at a job all week long and then getting two minutes of satisfaction, but we do. It’s bizarre,” Athearn said. (Jack Flagler photo) Trainer Gretchen Athearn’s horse Devils Jet finished fourth in her race on Friday, Aug. 24 with a time of 2:01. Devils Jet was one of three horses Athearn had racing that day. “I can’t imagine working at a job all week long and then getting two minutes of satisfaction, but we do. It’s bizarre,” Athearn said. (Jack Flagler photo) Gretchen Athearn doesn’t have one particular secret about how to effectively train a racehorse. Scarborough Downs’ top trainer says each one of her 14 horses has a different personality, a different temperament and has to be handled differently.

“You have to keep a pretty open mind to me. You can’t say what works for one horse is going to work for another,” Athearn said. “It’s like people, you know, you have to be careful with what you say to some people, other people you can just blurt it out. It’s the same way with the horses. Some of them you can do whatever you want, other ones you’ve got to be a little more gentle with.”

Athearn’s horses are entered in harness races at the Scarborough Downs track Thursday through Sunday, but that doesn’t mean training is a part-time job. She said training and tending to the horses encompasses not only most of her time, but her family’s as well.

Her husband Mark drives all the horses Athearn trains, and her two sons, Matthew, 14, and Kyle 10, help by jogging the horses, feeding them, mucking stalls or performing whatever other small tasks need to be done. The family lives in North Yarmouth and the horses are stabled at the Cumberland Fairgrounds, where Athearn says they have plenty of room to roam.

Even on Christmas, Athearn said, the family doesn’t get a break. In the morning, rather than opening presents right after waking up, the Athearn family has to feed the horses first. Then, they can celebrate the holiday before going back to the fairgrounds to take care of the horses once again. Athearn said her family was able to take a vacation last year, but it was “nervewracking” being away from the animals.

Athearn became interested in horses at a young age. But unlike most 10-year-old girls, she was not all that excited when her father bought racehorses.

“I wasn’t hooked at first to begin with, because it was like all of a sudden we were going to the track instead of going shopping, or buying clothes,” Athearn said.

But over time, Athearn said she “got addicted,” and even though all the time at the track meant she had to sacrifice time with friends in junior high and high school growing up in New Hampshire, she had found what she wanted to pursue in life. Athearn attended the well-regarded State University of New York at Morrisville, where she received an associate’s degree in equine management, the only program of its kind in the country, she said.

Just before Athearn left for school, she met Mark, fittingly, at the track. Athearn said she trained a horse, Storm Legend, whom she said turned “sour.”

“(Storm Legend) did not want to do it any more, but I worked all summer to get him to the races. Right before I left to go to college, (Mark) drove the horse and he finished fifth with him.”

Asked if she and her husband have been able to pass down the love of harness racing to their children, Athearn responded they “didn’t have to.” The passion for the sport in Matthew and Kyle has come simply from being around the track.

“They put the work in to it and when they get the rewards from it, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like your kids scoring a touchdown,” Athearn said.

“To put all your effort and all your work into it and have your horse go and put it back for a whole week’s time into two minutes. It’s a pretty crazy thing. I can’t imagine working at a job all week long and then getting two minutes of satisfaction, but we do. It’s bizarre.”

In April, Athearn’s horse Fuzzylegsandall matched the track record in the 3-yearold gelding division with a time of 1:56. But on a recent Friday afternoon in late August, she is racing three considerably less experienced and less decorated horses. Pantra Baby Pantra and Devils Jet finish third and fourth respectively in their races, and AAJ, who she described as “not one of the better horses,” finished seventh in his race.

But despite AAJ’s struggles on the track, Athearn said her son Matthew has bonded with the horse in a way that no one else has been able to. Athearn said just as there’s no way to determine how any one horse will respond to a certain training regimen, her son’s friendship with an otherwise difficult horse also defies explanation. But that’s part of what makes her family’s business rewarding.

“He loves that horse. Nobody gets along with him except for (Matthew),” Athearn said. “He just loves him. I don’t know why.”

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