Acacia Courtney has been one of the fastest rising names in the racing industry. Her life experiences range from days as a young hunter-jumper, to performing as an experienced ballet dancer, to being crowned Miss Connecticut in 2014, and now a blossoming career in horse racing working for Horse Racing Radio Network and as an on-air analyst for Gulfstream Park.
Acacia was kind enough to take some time to give us some insight into her life, career, and goals.
You grew up with horses in your life, but what got you interested in racing? What career path did you originally have in mind when you entered the industry?
I had dreams of being a professional ballerina, but I also grew up riding horses, training in hunter-jumper and dressage disciplines. My mom is a very talented horsewoman and is the one who got me started. I actually stopped riding for a time as dancing took over my life, but I always knew I would go back to it.
I did when I was in high school, and worked with Off Track Thoroughbreds (OTTBs), starting a 501(c)(3) called Racing for Home, Inc., to help rehome OTTBs and give them a second career after the racetrack. It was in the track kitchen at Suffolk Downs that I first picked up a Racing Form and started to learn about the sport. As I started college, I thought I could work with horses (and perhaps at the racetrack) by becoming a veterinarian, but life had other ideas.
How did you get started in racing to set you on the path to where you are today?
I started out doing anything to get my name out there. When I was in college in New York and doing pageants, I would volunteer with the New York Racing Association’s community relations division, helping with charity events. I soon started blogging for America’s Best Racing, and then freelanced for the Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN) before I was hired by them full time right out of college.
It was being in the right place at the right time – emceeing the Thorofan brunch before the Eclipse Awards – that connected me to the people at Gulfstream who gave me the biggest opportunity yet.
Tell us a bit about your involvement with Off-Track Thoroughbreds?
When I rode as a kid, my favorite mount was an OTTB named Siren. Very few kids in the program wanted to ride her because she was fast and often tough to settle, but she had a ton of personality and I loved her. She was a challenge, and certainly made me a better rider. Jumping her in shows was always a thrill.
When I went back to horses, I knew that I wanted it to be with a Thoroughbred. They have so much intelligence and, more importantly, so much heart. I worked with CANTER (Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses) New England to find a perfect fit, and ended up with Palace Diva, a three-year-old chestnut filly being retired at Suffolk Downs. She was the one that got the ball rolling me and inspired me to start a nonprofit organization.
As an analyst for Gulfstream Park, what are some of your favorite and least favorite parts of your daily job?
My favorite part of my job – hands down – is that it’s never boring. Something new is happening every day, especially throughout the Championship Meet, when we have huge stakes races and Kentucky Derby preps. It’s amazing to see these top class horses in the flesh.
The summer is exciting with all of the two year old races, and trying to guess which one is going to turn into something special, like Three Rules or Gunnevera. I also work with wonderful people, and we laugh every day.
I’d say my least favorite part is that the work is nonstop, but that’s what I signed up for! I spend a lot of time prepping for each race day, and it can sometimes be tedious, but all that preparation is worth it to put out a good product.
As a handicapper, what are some of the things you look for in a horse before a race?
First and foremost, a healthy looking horse, good in coat and flesh. Then I start looking for the more detailed things: is he sweating a lot more than usual? Is he wearing front bandages today after not wearing them last time? Is he looking distracted, overly hyper, or lethargic? To me the mental part is just as important, if not more important, than the physical part. I try to spot little things in the paddock that bettors can’t see on paper.
What have been some of your most memorable moments at the track?
Watching Arrogate win the Pegasus World Cup has got to be right up there. We were all exhausted by the time the race actually arrived, but the good part about that is that all of the big work had been done ahead of time, and we were able to enjoy the day itself a bit. I remember standing in the Winner’s Circle next to my co-host Gabby Gaudet while watching the race, and all either of us could say was “wow.” I got chills. And it was all made better by being on hand for all of the activities leading up to the big race day.
Outside of Gulfstream, I have to say being there for California Chrome’s Dubai World Cup win was pretty special, and Chautauqua’s win in the Chairman Sprint Prize in Hong Kong was a thrill to see.
Who are some of your all-time favorite racehorses?
I’ve always had a soft spot for Seabiscuit. I had his Breyer figurine when I was young, and reading books about him really was what first got me intrigued by racing. His was a rags to riches story that was easy to love. I proudly call myself a Chromie, too, and loved that I was able to see California Chrome race in 2017 and that he came to Gulfstream for the Pegasus World Cup. A couple turf horses that I always love watching are Heart to Heart and the beautiful gray mare Hard Not to Like.
Who are some of the racehorses you have your eye on this year?
Obviously this past week’s Preakness made many people take more note of Classic Empire and Cloud Computing, and I honestly do believe Always Dreaming can come back later this year and be successful in some of the top stakes still to come. But (and I admit I’ve been a bit skeptical of him all along), I really thought Classic Empire’s Preakness performance was huge and perhaps the most impressive, and I can’t wait to see what else he does the rest of this year.
As far as turf goes, I think Yoshida is going to be a force to be reckoned with.
What is your favorite racetrack and what track would you wish to visit?
Working at Gulfstream has been both an honor and a challenge, and it’s never boring. It’s the only track I’ve strictly worked at, so I know I’m a bit biased, but I really have loved being part of all the big events there. Top of the list of tracks I want to visit has to be Ascot.
Who are some people you admire and look up to in the industry?
From a reporting side and also from a women in racing side, I’ve always looked up to Jeannine Edwards and Donna Brothers. Obviously both of these women have different styles and bring different attributes to their work, but I admire the way that they each speak and hold themselves on air. That confidence is something I try to bring to my own reporting.
I’ve been lucky to have some great mentors that helped me learn more about the game as well as get my foot in the door. The entire HRRN crew – Mike and Michelle Penna, Anthony Stabile, Jude Feld and everyone we worked with – has been so supportive from the beginning. I was used to being the one who was interviewed, and Mike really taught me how to be the one conducting the interview, forming thoughtful questions that evoked interesting responses. I learned a lot more about handicapping sitting next to Anthony every day, and he always made me feel comfortable asking questions, which I think is so important. Additionally, Pat Cummings (Hong Kong Jockey Club) has been an amazing source of advice all throughout my career, and has helped me to go to places and make connections I never thought I would.
Working this winter at Gulfstream with Gabby Gaudet and Ron Nicoletti was great because we all challenged and encouraged each other, and I think it’s great to be able to genuinely admire the people you work with.
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You were named Miss Connecticut of 2014 and a top-15 semifinalist in that year’s Miss America pageant, which is an amazing accomplishment! Can you tell us about your pageantry career and what you liked and didn’t like about it?
Of course there are many negative stereotypes about women who compete in pageants, but truthfully it has opened so many doors for me. I won Miss Connecticut on my fourth try for the state title, and made it my full time job for the year because I wanted to get as much as I could out of it. I traveled the state speaking at events and working with charitable organizations, and that taught me so much about working with people of all different ages and from all different walks of life. I was also an official ambassador for the organizations charitable partner, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, and those visits to the hospital and fundraising events were my favorite things that I got to do.
In addition, being Miss Connecticut helped me to realize a lot about myself, and it gave me a platform to speak about things that I’m passionate about. Certainly, what I don’t like is being judged by someone before he or she even has met me (in a positive or negative way) because of my pageant involvement, but I always see that as another opportunity to prove myself through my own work ethic and abilities.
What are some goals you would still like to accomplish in your career?
Throughout my time as Miss Connecticut, something I always said was, “I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve peaked.” I hope that I am constantly reaching and striving to be better and achieve more. I’ve learned so much along the way, but I know I still have a long way to go and am always learning. I don’t really know where the future will take me, and I think right now my biggest goal is to make each day better than the last.
I’m happy where I am and proud of how far I’ve come, but I’m far from done.
What are some things you enjoy doing on your off time?
With my background in dance, it is something that will always be a part of you. When I first moved to Florida, I missed dancing so much, and soon found a studio with adult ballet classes, and that’s become the place where I can shut my brain off for an hour and a half and just focus on the movement. I also enjoy the beach (though I don’t make it nearly as often as I should even though I live in Florida!), and vinyasa yoga.
Time spent with good friends and a glass of wine should never be underestimated, either.
What are the challenges you see being a woman in the racing industry?
I think it all depends how you approach it. I don’t expect to be given anything extra or cut any slack because I am a woman that works in a stereotypically male-dominated industry. I also don’t expect to be held back or doubted for that same reason. I have a lot of responsibility in my position at Gulfstream, and I like it that way. I do sometimes feel like I need to prove myself before I am respected (especially when I first got in to racing), but I feel that my work ethic and accomplishments do that for me. I don’t ever want anyone to feel that I “can’t” do something, just because I am a woman.
With that said, what advice would you give to women starting in the industry?
To look at the opportunities and not the boundaries. When I was in college and when I was Miss Connecticut, I would tell everyone I met what my career ambition was. You never know who you’re going to meet that can help you, or put you in touch with the right person. Focus on building your own brand and on taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.
Acacia Courtney has a face, a style, and a contagious smile that make her instantly recognizable to the horse racing world, and her passion for the sport and Thoroughbreds is evident in her day-to-day life. It was a such a pleasure and opportunity to learn more about this amazing woman and her career!