Written by Art Petrosemolo
Age may indeed be a state of mind. At least it is for 71-year old Standardbred trainer and driver Jacquie Ingrassia and her 85-year old husband-trainer Frank.
Hey, the couple admits they are a little bit slower than they were at age 60 with a few more bumps and bruises from their profession. But they show no signs of slowing down. They train 10 trotters at White Birch Farm in Allentown, New Jersey, and race three, sometimes four days a week, primarily at Harrah’s Philadelphia Racetrack in Chester, Pennsylvania.
Most days finding the Ingrassias is easy. From early light, they are at their White Birch stable or on the training track, running experienced horses or schooling young ones for their first race.
Jacquie doesn’t even want to guess how many miles she has logged in a training cart or on a racing bicycle on the training track, or her winnings or record against other horses at harness tracks from Maine to Virginia. Nowadays, Ingrassia Stable horses compete mostly at the Harrah’s facility where—with the help of the Pennsylvania Casino’s income—the purses are healthy and competition strong.
Jacquie, born in England, began working horses in Wales as a 15-year-old. She came to the United States in 1970 at 23. She worked as a groom and trainer for Tony Abbatiello at Five Points Farm (Colts Neck, New Jersey). Abbatiello saw Jacquie’s talent and sent her to Yonkers Raceway to campaign four horses. “We did OK,” she remembers, “and it is where I met Frank (a New Yorker working as a trainer with his brother) and that really changed my career path.” The pair married and opened Ingrassia Stables in Southern Monmouth County horse country. Jacquie and Frank have one son who does not work in the racing field but as a police officer in Maryland.
Describing their profession, Frank smiles and says, “It’s not work. It’s really a labor of love. You can’t be in this for the money.”
Harness racing has been an American sport since the mid-1800s. In Monmouth Country, New Jersey, Freehold Raceway ran its first races in 1830 and is the oldest horse racing track in the country.
The Ingrassia’s train trotting horses exclusively. “Trotters were the original harness racing horses,” Jacquie says, “and we breed them (trotters with trotters), raise them, train and race them. They are like family.” The couple are usually part owners of the horses they train and Jacquie drives.
All Standardbred horses either trot or pace. “The gait is not natural,” Jacquie says. “Horses have to be schooled.” A trotter strides with its left front and right rear leg moving forward simultaneously, while pacers move both legs on one side of its body at the same time.
Running a stable and campaigning horses is a 24/7 operation. Each horse does something every day. “We train veteran horses for their next race,” Jacquie says, “while the younger horses might jog or do some speed work in preparation for their first race.” The one-year-olds—called babies—need to be line trained with multiple reins so they learn to respond to steering with a bit in their mouth.”
For Frank, Jacquie and other trainers, a day can stretch 16 to 18 hours. The pair arrives at the barn by 7am and trains until early afternoon. If they have horses entered in a race at Harrah’s Philadelphia, a good 60 minutes away, they load the horses in their trailer and drive to the track at the proper time to be ready for the start.
It is a much longer drive to Chester than it was to Freehold less than 20 miles from the barn where the Ingrassia’s raced for years and Jacquie was a local star, according to Karen Fagliarone, Freehold’s director of racing. With harness racing, like thoroughbred racing, suffering from fan apathy and smaller purses, especially in New Jersey, many tracks have scaled back their number of racing days. That has caused the industry to shrink considerably.
Now, with preference for making race cards given to Pennsylvania bred horses at Harrah’s Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania venues, the Ingrassia’s buy, train and race Pennsylvania bred horses exclusively. Depending on the season and the races, Ingrassia horses may campaign in Maryland, Delaware, New York or other Pennsylvania venues. The couple may have to drive two or three hours to a track, race, then load up and return to the Allentown farm the same night. “You can’t sleep in the next day,” Jacquie says, “we’re back at the barn the following morning.”
The purse for a harness race is split among the owners of the first five finishers. Trainers and drivers each get five percent. It takes finishing in the money frequently to help run an active training stable when racing bikes alone can cost $5,000 to $6,000 plus barn rent, food, veterinary fees and transportation expenses.
The Ingrassia’s biggest win occurred in 2000 at Yonkers Raceway when Jacquie (known to her racing colleagues as Lady J) drove the couple’s trotter Goalfish, a three-year-old, to a win in the Yonkers Trot, the second leg of harness racing’s Triple Crown, with a purse of several hundred thousand dollars.
Everyone connected with the harness racing, like thoroughbred racing, feels the only way to keep the sport from fading away is an infusion of purse money, hopefully from the inclusion of casino type slots at racetracks. “New York and Pennsylvania tracks have in-house gambling,” Jacquie says. “We—like most everyone else—hope with sports betting recently ruled legal in New Jersey that some of that income will support Standardbred and Thoroughbred purses at Monmouth Park, Meadowlands and Freehold.
The Ingrassias tout the strengths and versatility of Standardbred horses. “They have long careers,” both explain, “either just racing (up to 13 years) or after as show horses, English and Western pleasure riding horses, jumpers, dressage and carriage horses. Many trainers give their horses away—if an injury shortens their racing career or they are ready for retirement—to loving new owners who keep them for years, they explain.
The Ingrassias have no plans to give up working with the horses they love. They both are the face of “age is just a number” as they continue to train and drive Standardbreds well past the time most people are putting their feet up on the couch.