This year’s North American Racing Academy’s (NARA) Outstanding Graduate, Chelsea Heery, knew very little about horse racing when she applied to NARA. She was born in New Jersey and grew up in West Virginia. Heery said she always loved horses and even owned a couple of them. She worked on a horse rescue farm and rode horses that were available for adoption. Then, the summer before her high school freshman year, she began galloping horses at a farm in New Jersey. She began looking online at horse racing and other equine videos. That’s when she learned about NARA and saw that hall of fame jockey Chris McCarron was the lead instructor.
When she first came to NARA, Chelsea thought she would become a jockey, but as she got into her class work she changed her mind when NARA remade itself into a racing and breeding industry workforce provider and not just a jockey school. Heery enrolled in NARA’s Horseman’s Pathway, which focuses primarily on the care and training of horses, while still taking riding classes to acquire additional skills.
“I decided I wanted to learn all aspects of the horse industry,” she said. “I want to gallop horses for as long as I can and then move into being an assistant trainer.”
This spring, Heery has been living her dream as an exercise rider for trainer Mike Maker during the Keeneland meet. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, she was offered a full-time position with the team. Assistant trainer, Joe Sharp, who is Heery’s immediate supervisor, said she had a great work ethic.
“They learn a lot at the school, but you really have to get out here and live it, work with the people, work with the horses...that’s irreplaceable,” Sharp said.
During the Keeneland meet, her day began at the barn at 5 a.m. and she was on her first horse by 6 a.m. She galloped horses until about 10:30 a.m. and then went home to shower and change before the races began. She accompanied horses to the paddock and walked them until they were saddled and the jockey climbs aboard. Although she enjoyed getting to know the horses she worked with, she said she had to remind herself that racing is a business and that she couldn’t get too attached to the individual horses because they sometimes are sold.
She said her experience with NARA and her internship at Keeneland were even better than she’d hoped. She credits the instructors and staff for her success and all that she’s learned, which she said prepared her well for her new job.
“It’s so amazing,” she said. “I wake up every morning excited to come to work. It’s an indescribable feeling to be on the track galloping horses.”
Her advice for anyone considering applying to NARA: “Don’t consider it. Do it.”
Since its launch in 2006 NARA has seen 51 of its 82 students receive their licenses and join the equine industry workforce after preparing for careers tailored to the care, training and riding of racehorses. Twenty are currently active as professional jockeys competing at tracks across North America.
Originally launched by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, NARA is now part of BCTC and remains the most successful accredited career and training program offering one-year certificates and two-year associates degrees in support of the horse racing and breeding industries.
Find out more about the NARA Program at BCTC.