High schoolers get taste of racing at Batavia Downs

Sep 7, 2012

Ready to jog

Ready to jog

 

Sonia Nevinger, a senior at Alexander, leads a horse named Micsexy. Jake Baumeister is preparing to jog the horse around the track at Batavia Downs.

Posted: Friday, September 7, 2012 12:00 am

BATAVIA — Sonia Nevinger has no qualms about tacking up a horse — putting its harness on and fitting the jog cart.

She doesn’t mind cleaning stalls, feeding the animals and sitting in the sulky, whizzing around the track at 30 miles per hour.

“I’m a hard worker,” she said at Batavia Downs this week, where she is one of five high schoolers who have been regulars this summer as part of a youth scholarship program.

The five students have been learning about horses and practicing for a race on Sept. 15 when $7,500 in scholarships will be up for grabs. Most the students already had some horse experience.

Nevinger, 17, of Alexander has been riding horses since she was 4. She is in a 4-H club in Wyoming County. She wants to open her own business as a horse trainer. She sees the youth scholarship program at Batavia Downs as a chance to learn more about her favorite animal, while also earning her some money to help pay for college. She plans to attend Genesee Community College to study business.

The first-place finisher of the race wins $3,000, with $2,000 for second, $1,200 for third, $800 for fourth and $500 for fifth.

Nevinger is paired with horse trainer and driver Mike Baumeister. To be eligible for the scholarship, students have to have at least five practice sessions with a professional horsemen. Nevinger was up to 20 by Tuesday.

“This is so much better than working as a cashier somewhere,” Nevinger said Tuesday morning at the track. “This has been an awesome experience. I just love this place.”

She enjoys working in the stalls and with the horses so much, she applied for a groom’s license, which she earned two weeks ago. She can now earn money helping in the barns.

The Downs started the scholarship race in 2010, wanting to draw some youths to the sport and encourage some of their friends to a race night. The Sept. 15 race will begin at about 7:30 p.m.

“It’s a great way to get young people involved in the game,” said Todd Haight, general manager of racing at Batavia Downs.

The event is a partnership of Batavia Downs, Buffalo Raceway, the Harness Horse Breeders of New York and the Western New York Harness Horsemen's Association.

Jamie Marshall, a senior at Elba, also is vying for a scholarship. She is learning the sport from trainer Jim Graham. Marshall has had about a dozen practice sessions with a horse named Murder. “I’ve just fallen in love him,” she said. “He is the sweetest horse.”

In the race and during practice, the professional horsemen also rides in the sulky and will grab the reins if there is trouble with the horse.

Graham said Marshall has been a natural at the track, showing athleticism and poise. She said she is used to animals. She rode horses for a few years and has been showing steer at the Genesee County Fair for about a decade. She doesn’t mind pressure. She was a starter on Elba’s girls basketball team that was undefeated and won a state title this year.

But that first trip around the track was something else.

“We were going really fast,” Marshall said. “It’s such a thrill.”

Marshall has learned to set up and take off the harness, bathe the horses and knows how to drive a horse, by pulling back to slow it down and pull to left or right to direct the animals in those directions.

Nevinger also has impressed Baumeister. His 22-year-old son Jake is a groom who wants to be a driver. Jake said Nevinger has fit right in among the horsemen.

“She has a lot of horse sense,” he said. “She’s not afraid of the horses.”

Other students in the scholarship race include Lindsay Hilburger of Notre Dame High School, who is working with Dave McNeight III; Jessica Levins of Batavia, who is paired with trainer Ron Beback Jr.; and Leanne King of Pembroke, working with Mike Pokornowski.