Equine Industry NextGen: Dixie Hayes, academic coordinator, North American Racing Academy

Dixie Hayes is the academic coordinator and instructor at the North American Racing Academy (NARA), where she teaches and develops the curriculum of the Horseman’s Pathway, which is the study option focused on hands-on care of Thoroughbreds. She grew up on the racetrack and received a bachelor’s degree in equine management from Midway College. Hayes has experience both on the track as a trainer and on the farm as a manager.

From your perspective as someone who’s had a lot of hands-on experience with horses, what are some of the biggest problems in the industry?

As a whole, what I’d like to see from the industry is better marketing to the public. We try to get the general public more interested in the industry, and one of the major things we see is that these horses have such short careers that people can’t really grab onto them. Zenyatta had a career of two to three years, and people kind of caught on to that … but they really latch onto the people. You always see it in the Derby; they have stories that go along with the horses and the people surrounding them, and people grab on to that.

A perfect example is Funny Cide [winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and a serious contender for the Triple Crown]. People really related to Sackatoga Stable. They were just a group of regular guys, and I think that’s something the industry is lacking — that ability to market to the general public, so there’s an interest outside of people like us who got into it for the love of horses. While they may like horses, they’re not going to get involved unless you give them something to become attached to.

It’s frustrating, too, how lax the regulations are, that we have people in the industry without a foundation of education they can build on, from a science standpoint and a management standpoint. [Beyond passing an exam to become licensed, there are no formal education requirements of trainers.] They’re not going to be vets, but they need to know the internal workings of the horse and how their decisions affect that horse long term.

I guess the other big one is working with other major organizations like U.S. Equestrian Federation, U.S. Equestrian Association, U.S. Dressage Federation to help the second-career Thoroughbreds. I think that’s great, and we need more working together from the Thoroughbred industry with those organizations.

If you were the racing czar, and you could do or change anything you wanted, how would you attack the marketing problem in particular?

I think the problem there is that you want to make sure the industry is put in a good spotlight, and there are so many people in this industry who truly do love horses. They’re here for the right reasons. But we need to utilize more social media, and we need to market more on a general public basis to give them something to attach to. I keep going back to that, but what is it that we can give them to help? Maybe a documentary on one of these kids [at NARA]. We have a girl here from the Netherlands; she moved here to pursue her dream of being a jockey.

We’ve got a young lady who came here to be a jockey, that was all she ever wanted to do, and she got on her first racehorse and froze. She was scared to death. For her that was really traumatic, but then doors opened. She’s now the barn foreman for Graham Motion, and they won the Kentucky Derby in 2011 with Animal Kingdom. Maybe something like that to help people see these kids and the struggles they go through … that might hit home with them. And it’s not just the famous jockeys and the trainers that are compelling, it’s the grooms and the everyday people in the industry. That’s why I like seeing people like Sackatoga Stable come out with a win in the Derby against CEOs.

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