SARATOGA SPRINGS – Most people who grew up in the region are at least familiar with horse racing, as the Saratoga Race Course is a local institution.
Some people go from casual fan to astute observer, while others, like Paul O’Neil, fall in love and get involved in the game. O’Neil, along with his wife of 32 years, Patricia, went on their first date together to the harness track in 1983, fell in love, got married and became standardbred owners in 1992. Since then, O’Neil estimates, the couple have owned more than 100 horses and have won somewhere around 500 races.
“My wife married into it,” he said. “We met, and I asked her out on a date to the harness track the next night and she said yes. That night, she told me she really liked it, and that’s when I knew she was a keeper.”
O’Neil is the general manager for four Agway stores, while his wife is retired. The pair spends much of their free time watching any of their 10 current horses race at Saratoga, and also preparing and gathering information about horses they might purchase at auctions.
O’Neil has become a fan of all horse racing in general.
“I am a fan of both (standardbred and thoroughbred) breeds,” he said. “We love going to both races together and my father, he was a fan, too. I grew up in Valatie, where a lot of people own horses, and my dad used to take us to the races occasionally. I even met one of my best friends through being an owner.”
Currently, O’Neil uses Dan Hennessey and Gary Levine as trainers for his horses. While some owners take a hands-on approach, O’Neil said he tries to stay out of day-to-day operations.
“Our trainers, they’re the pros,” he said. “We want them to conduct it how they see fit, that’s the deal. If something happens and we have to call a plumber, I don’t watch over his shoulder and suggest things he should do.”
On Friday evening at Saratoga Casino and Raceway, O’Neil and his wife have a horse named Godiva Feelster entered into an $18,000 purse open race, which he described as a “big deal.”
If his horse should win, he and his wife will earn half of the money, meaning they’d take home $9,000.
O’Neil said the camaraderie he feels when hanging with his group of owner friends at the track is a big part of why he loves the whole aspect of being an owner. He also added that his sense is that the local community knows just how much of an asset horse racing of all kinds is here.
“We all have a friendly rivalry,” he said. “Obviously we all want to win, but we get together and support each other. It’s a real good time.”
O’Neil said that if he had to give advice to anyone considering getting into standardbred ownership, it’s that they should speak to and get to know someone in the business.
But that’s not the only advice.
“You cannot have a fear of disaster,” he said. “You can’t be afraid to lose money, because that can happen. But really, you need to get a pro involved, because someone who knows the business is going to be the best help to you. I was once told by someone in the know that you have to stick with it. It’s a sport that is all peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys.”
Hall of Fame Inductions
Kelly’s Noah, a bay colt by Dream Away out of Canaco Kelly, was has been inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame, along with Dr. Richard Frank.
Kelly’s Noah was foaled in 2006 at the Harvey family farm in Duxbury, Vt. Owner/Trainer Jim Harvey works the talented gelding on his farm track, starting each year in March or April, as weather permits, patiently training him down for the his first Saratoga start in mid-June.
Dr. Frank was raised in Goshen. He attributes growing up near the Goshen Historic Track and what is now the National Harness Hall of Fame, helping to develop his interest in horses at a young age.
He graduated from Cornell University in 1963 and started practicing as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 1964. Early in his career a good deal of his work was at nearby Monticello Raceway. He was introduced to Saratoga as his clients would race here while Monticello was on break, and in the off season.