As a fellow “youngster” involved in the sport of horse racing, I wholeheartedly believe that the sport should start to rely heavily on the interest and engrossment of younger generations, as we are the ones who will continue to help facilitate the sport’s success in the next 15 to 20 years. Although most of what we witness now is the older crowd training, owning, watching and wagering, there are those special “millennials” who are intricately involved behind the scenes, unbeknownst to many. I wish to expose those like myself who wish to have their voices heard and to be known among the many that will continue to help the sport thrive.
Justin Sodano is one of those voices.
At just 20 years old, Justin possesses a wealth of knowledge of horses and the racing industry. Justin grew up around standardbreds all of his life, as his parents ran a harness racing stable out of Showplace Farms in New Jersey. Justin was engrossed in horse racing from the time he was born. Justin has a strong resumè, as he has worked for a plethora of well-known trainers, including his father, Nicholas Sodano, Linda Toscano, and one of the world’s leading harness trainers, Jimmy Takter.
Justin has felt nothing less than honored to have worked with such talented trainers and to have learned all he has, but something else began to peak his interest as time went on: Thoroughbreds.
Justin recently moved to Long Island, New York to be near family, and he ended up not too far from Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack. One day, Justin ventured onto the backside of Belmont and was in awe of the beauty and maintenance of the backstretch and stables. He ended up at the barn of top female trainer Linda Rice and spoke to her assistant trainer, who has former roots in Canadian harness racing. Justin asked if they would be willing to teach a life-long harness kid how to put on a saddle and give him a “leg up” into the thoroughbred world. That day in January 2017 proved to be the start of a wonderful opportunity for Justin and his wish to be involved in thoroughbred racing came true.
“My switch over to thoroughbreds was a combination of a lot of factors. Unfortunately, in recent years, the harness racing industry has seen decline and as much as I love it, I want a life-long career racing horses, and I’m not sure that harness racing will be able to provide me with that. It is hard for me to want to put all of my chips on a very uncertain hand. I grew up in awe watching the NBC broadcasts of the Triple Crown races and the Breeders Cup. The fans, the atmosphere at the big races, the prestige, and the monumental handles all greatly overshadowed harness racing. Although my family was involved in harness racing, I became an avid follower of thoroughbred racing around the globe and found myself wanting to be involved, too.”
Justin has worked with thoroughbreds for a few months now, so I was curious to know his take on what makes these two breeds unique in his eyes:
“What I love and will miss the most about standardbreds is the horses themselves. A majority of them have great dispositions, are robust and have good work ethic. They can handle tough training programs and racing their hearts out week in and week out and still enjoy doing their jobs daily.
What I admire so far about Thoroughbreds is how naturally athletic they are. The way they cover ground so easily and effortlessly over grass or a deep dirt track is truly impressive. It seems even the lower class or lesser bred horses are all willing to go forward no matter what, because their mindset has been bred to only know to run.
I also admire how easy on the eyes they are. Smaller heads and sleeker bodies than standardbreds, they are like 1000-pound Greyhounds. I love the variations in colors and different markings, as standardbreds come in mostly plain bay or with little “chrome,” as they say.”
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Justin also discussed the training programs for each of the breeds and concedes that they differ greatly:
“Consensus in the harness world is lots of jog miles, at least two training trips a week, days off on post-training, and on Sundays. Thoroughbreds will work 7 days a week, but not nearly as hard. They jog or gallop a mile to two miles max, and will breeze anywhere from 3 to 6 furlongs full speed. You have to walk a fine line with how hard you can train a thoroughbred, as they are a touch more fragile than standardbreds. It is all about finding balance and treating each Thoroughbred as an individual, finding their niche and maximizing their spirit and will to compete in their monthly races.”
Justin undoubtedly has a lot to contribute to the thoroughbred racing world. A lot like me, he is a young person trying to make a name for himself in the industry with his passion and commitment to the animals and the sport. I asked Justin what advice he has for other young people who would like to become actively involved in the sport:
“My advice is to stay humble, work hard, show up early every day and do not put yourself above doing any kind of work in the business to climb the ladder. You have to be passionate about this game and these animals to be successful. Getting up at 7 days a week at 4 AM is not for those who do not truly love their career. Be prepared for long days, disappointment, rough stretches and heartbreak at times. But the good runs, the wins, and just being around such incredible animals make it all worth it. I haven’t experienced winning a classic stakes race yet, but when I do, the chase for that win and everything that came before it will absolutely be worth it.”
Some of Justin’s long-term goals include becoming an assistant trainer for thoroughbreds like he once was with Standardbreds, and to be like his father, Nicholas Sodano, and one day train a successful barn of his own, although it is not the breed and sport he always thought it would be. He promised his father he would fill his shoes, and he knows his father will be content whether he ends up training standardbreds, thoroughbreds, or even quarter horses.
Justin, there is no doubt in my mind that you will be as successful as you wish to be. Thank you for sharing your experiences and passion for the amazing sport we all love, and thank you for being another young voice that the sport so desperately needs (and be sure to remember me when you are a top trainer and win your first stakes race!). 😉