Behind the scenes at Oaklawn Park
The 114th live racing season is well underway at Oaklawn Park, set to run through April 14 on a Thursday to Sunday basis.
According to Oaklawn’s website, Oaklawn Racing & Gaming has been one of the premier thoroughbred racetracks in the country since 1904, best known as the home of the $1 million Arkansas Derby. This month, we sat down with Jennifer Hoyt and Lynn Chleborad, two women who are instrumental in Oaklawn’s behind-the-scenes operations.
These two women of Oaklawn put in tireless hours, often unseen, to ensure live race days go as planned and meet — and exceed — guests’ expectations.
Hoyt has been the media relations manager for Oaklawn since 2011, her primary responsibility being to get the word out about Oaklawn to the media. She also oversees Oaklawn’s notes writer, gives out daily barn notes, writes news releases and oversees Oaklawn’s website and social media presence, including Facebook, Twitter and
Instagram. In addition, Hoyt helps to coordinate Oaklawn’s “Dawn at Oaklawn” program, which gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look into the goings-on at the racetrack. The program is hosted every Saturday morning by Nancy Holthus.
“The good thing about my job is that my day-to-day duties kind of change,” she said.
Hoyt’s entire career has been spent in racing and she has been involved in several different capacities.
After graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Equine Science, Hoyt got her start at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., when she was offered an internship there.
“If you put it on a dart board, I can pretty much rope off all the connections I’ve made dating back to that one position at Turfway,” Hoyt said. “It’s kind of funny, in a roundabout way it helped me get a job (at Oaklawn) because David Longinotti, the director of racing, and I have worked for a lot of the same people and have followed a very similar path in our careers.”
Even earlier than that, Hoyt said she started riding horses around 5-6 years of age and, though she doesn’t come from a family of horsemen, her father began taking her to the track, which quickly became “just something we did when I was growing up,” she said.
Having gone to college in Kentucky, Hoyt credits Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, Ky., as being her No. 1 top favorite track and said Keeneland reminds her a lot of Oaklawn.
“Keeneland is kind of where I got a lot of experience as an exercise rider and it’s where I went to college and just going back there, it’s unique in that it’s a lot like Oaklawn and the people in Lexington love horse racing, they support horse racing, and there’s always big crowds, always great racing. Obviously, I love Oaklawn, but Keeneland, there’s just something special about it,” she said.
Hoyt met her husband, Rolly, through racing in 2001 and the two were hired at Oaklawn as media relations manager and media relations coordinator. Rolly has since moved on to become a reporter and producer at KTHV-TV Channel 11 in Little Rock.
When asked what she most loves about her job at Oaklawn, Hoyt said, “Getting the stories out about Oaklawn. Finding that story that I think is unique and then being able to sell it to a writer or a reporter and taking that story to the public. For example, we had Mildred Smith here, she was Oaklawn’s first female mutuel teller and we honored her because it was her 100th birthday, and I was able to sell her story to Channel 4 and the package turned out really well. I love being able to tell people about racing and get them excited about racing.”
In this sport, it sometimes feels like the crucial parts of horse racing are what happens on the track. Horse racing is a complex sport that requires the involvement of many people, though, and part of what gets the horses across the finish line is what happens in the months leading up to that moment.
That’s where trainers like Lynn Chleborad come in.
Chleborad grew up around horses but graduated from college with a degree in business with an emphasis in accounting. It didn’t take her long to realize she was in the wrong field.
“I didn’t want to sit behind a desk. If you know me, sitting behind a desk wouldn’t be my thing. I do a lot of books, but I like to be behind the horses,” she said.
And the rest is history.
They say practice makes perfect, and with over 30 years of experience in horse training, Chleborad has almost reached peak perfection in her craft, though her humbleness would never allow her to admit to that.
She began training in 1985 and received her license to train Thoroughbreds in 1987. She started out in the world of racing in Nebraska at Ak-sar-ben Racetrack (Ak-sar-ben is Nebraska spelled backward) where she went to work for Herb Riecken, one of the top trainers there at the time.
“He taught me the ropes of the Thoroughbred industry. I’d always done show horses before — I used to gallop, exercise the horses, and I used to show horses, so I knew a lot about it already. I knew how to break horses and do all of that, so I could gallop the Thoroughbred horses. I did that for a long time, so I understand a lot more than people that have never been on a horse. I understand what the exercise riders go through.”
Ak-sar-ben closed in 1995.
Fast-forward 33 years and Chleborad is now among the top trainers on the Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Iowa racing circuit. She spends four months per year training horses in each state.
“It’s kind of lucky that it worked out this way because you get to go north in the summer and south in the winter,” she said.
Chleborad has been training at Oaklawn for 22 years.
According to Oaklawn’s website, her runners have earned over $1 million each year since 2007. She was leading trainer in 2009 and 2010 at Prairie Meadows in Iowa.
She celebrated her 1,000th career victory at Oaklawn on March 14, 2014.
“I’ve had over 1,000 wins in my career. If you figure 20 years at 50 wins a year, that’s 1,000. I quit counting after 1,000. I’d like to get to 2,000 but I won’t live that long!” she said. “I just love the horses. You only do one thing in life that you like, and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do what I love.”
As for her training techniques, Chleborad said that first and foremost, each horse has to be treated as an individual. “You don’t want to put them in a box,” she said.
“It’s like people — all people are different and if they treat me one way and treat you the same way, well, we might not like that. It’s the same way with horses. Some horses like to train a lot, they’ve got a lot of energy and you have to train them a lot, and then some horses you don’t want to train them a lot because it takes all the energy out. You’ve got to train each horse to their potential,” she said.
Chleborad and her team train seven days per week, with one of those days being a “walk day,” which means light exercise and resting for the horses.
Her ability to look her horses in the eyes and individually read them is a testament to her experience as a horse trainer, and Chleborad said sometimes she even wakes up in the middle of the night with “aha moments” when it comes to training her horses.
“I like to look in their eyes, I like to get the best out of them that I can. I’ll wake up in the
middle of the night and it will just come to me, what I need to do for a horse. And then I do it and it seems to work — I know that sounds strange but it’s true. I get up in the morning and I go, ‘I know exactly what that horse needs,’” she said. “I like to get the most I can out of each individual, whether it be a stake horse or a low-level claimer, because each one’s doing the best that it can. Of course, if you have a stake horse there’s more money involved, but it gives me great pleasure to see a low-level claimer get to the winner’s circle, too, because, you know, they are doing the best that they can and I’m proud of them, too. That’s my thing, I like to be proud of each horse.”
Though she has lost count of how many horses she has trained in her career, favorites that stick out in her mind are Chanel’s Legacy, a graded stake horse who won the Martha Washington Stakes in 2017, American Sugar, who won the Dixie Belle Stakes in 2013, and an Indiana-bred Filly named I’m Workin’ On It.
The positives far outweigh the negatives in her career, but some of the challenges Chleborad has faced over the years include keeping up with each state’s racing rules and having to deliver bad news to her horses’ owners.
“Inevitably, sometimes the horses become injured and the hardest job for me is to call the owner, which I do immediately because that’s the way it is, and tell them that their horse is injured. The worst thing to do is flat out tell an owner that their horse is just not fast enough because they’d rather hear that their wife is fat than that their horse can’t run. That’s a true story, too,” she said.
For individuals hoping to one day follow in her footsteps as a horse trainer, Chleborad said important qualities in a trainer must include honesty, good communication skills, and the ability to accept defeat.
“You better be able to take defeat, because only one horse wins. But here’s the deal, you don’t like it so you want to improve and you want to try to be the best that you can. You want to win. That’s the point of it — you don’t want to get beat, but you’re going to get beat so you have to be able to think about, ‘What can I do so this horse wins?’
“You need to be able to have good rapport with owners, too. I think communication with owners is a real key essential to the process. And it takes a lot of time to talk with the owners, but, you know, they’re the ones that pay the bills and I think that they deserve to know what’s going on with their horses. I have people that have been with me a long, long, long time and I think honesty is a big, big, big factor. And you better know your horses. I’m a hands-on trainer and I can tell you by going through the horses and looking at them which one’s right and which one’s not. After a while you just know,” she said.
Chleborad has an entire team that travels with her from track to track. One of her trusty sidekicks is Wendy the barn cat.
“We have to make sure she goes along with us,” she said, adding that Wendy keeps mice and other stray cats and animals out of the office and stables.
Chleborad said Wendy is around 16 years old.
“She’s very territorial. We tried to get a couple kittens and she would have no part of it. She actually ran away. Then, finally, I just said, ‘OK, I’m not having any more cats until she’s gone because she’s the queen,” Chleborad said. “She’s a good mouser. She gets spoiled.”
During her downtime, Chleborad said she takes care of the book work and enjoys reading racing forums, relaxing at home, and, generally, not talking to people after 8 p.m.
“After about 8 p.m., it’s like, I hope nobody calls because this is my downtime,” she said, laughing. “But other than that, I like to watch the horse races on TV and I like to go visit horse farms. I like to go to horse sales and that keeps me busy. Read the horse catalog, go to horse sales, talk to people about horses — I think I’m just too horsy. I’m a horsy person.
“I do have to say, out of all the racetracks I’ve been to, at Oaklawn, when we come, the people are always really happy to see us and it’s so fun. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re back!’ It’s just a wonderful place to come to.”