Eric DeCoster has it. That spark of his says something to the effect, I know where I am headed. DeCoster’s burning desire is to be an equine-industry sponge. When you talk to him, you realize, that this 20-year-old is wild about Thoroughbred racing, but with an inspired purpose.
Nowadays, it is refreshing, but not wholly unique, to meet young people that are on the make with their academic careers. What it really does is give the previous generations a sense that not all is lost, that there is something valuable that is being passed on. And most importantly, we should have faith that someone is there to grasp that relay baton.
Does it portend good things to come? It should.
Listening to DeCoster’s recent summer internship experience in the Racing Office of the New York Racing Association will get you charged up. It was the opportunity for the young man to roll up his sleeves, with pencil in-hand, and get to work.
Of course, as a literal student of the game, DeCoster is used to hitting the books, readying himself for exams, and listening carefully to lectures from a host of professionals. Back in May, he finished his sophomore year at the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program (RTIP), where all things related to equine sport are examined with an acute academic perspective.
Led by current Chair Robert Hartman, it’s been the pacesetter for decades in preparing the next generation of industry leaders. With an ever-expanding alumni list, chances are your local track has them around and that’s an asset.
DeCoster is from Iowa originally but he doesn’t come from a horse racing background at all.
“I started watching racing when I was 4 years old, and I was just hooked on it,” he said, “I think ever since then I have known I wanted to be involved in this business in some way.”
His parents, always supportive, backed him.
Coming to Tucson and enrolling at Arizona was a natural move, and the program, from the outset, exposes students to the wide-breadth that makes up this diverse industry.
A four-year Bachelor of Science degree leads to a variety of different outlets from racetrack management to working on the backside to anything and everything under the sun. DeCoster told me with zeal, “Robert and Phil [O’Hara] just hand us this fire to ignite our interests, and that paves a road for us, especially when it comes to summer internships.”
It was back at RTIP’s Global Symposium on Racing in December 2021 that DeCoster talked with alum Keith Doleshel. “I began to think seriously about working in a racing office after one of the panels, and I knew Keith was the Racing Secretary at NYRA. … It seemed like a great chance to make a connection.” Doleshel was supportive and a plan was hatched for the summer; Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course would be DeCoster’s temporary homes. Not bad.
There is nothing easy about working in a high-pressure, exacting environment like a racing office. DeCoster wasn’t there to make coffee. No, this was going to be an immersive experience, learning about how a racing product takes shape. “I worked for Wannamaker’s Auction and for trainer Ray Handal the previous summer, but this was a totally different opportunity … it was a five-day-a-week grind, but it was spectacular,” he said.
The NYRA Racing Office is a hub of activity at both Belmont and Saratoga, and DeCoster was immediately thrown into the deep end. He answered phones, met trainers, and checked and re-checked entries and the overnights. Proofreading the program was as important as editing The New Yorker, because it had to be right, every time. “There is a ton of pressure on this office, and you have to be meticulous with what you do, it is all about the little things” he said.
DeCoster wasn’t just behind a desk the whole time, both Doleshel and Frank Gabriel, senior vice president, racing operations, wanted him to stretch his legs, especially when he arrived at Saratoga. “They made me an Assistant Paddock Judge under one of the best teachers I could have, Patrick Davis, and it was just incredible to there with him every afternoon,” DeCoster said. The job was simple, make sure all goes well.
If you didn’t know, the paddock judge is tasked with making sure all of the entries have assembled on time, personnel are in place, and all the equipment is accurate. “We’re there to check everything, and if the stewards have a question, we get them the answers they need as soon as possible,” he explained. Post times are meant to be strict, but horses do not always cooperate, so communication is key when it comes to lining up for the post parade.
This becomes especially challenging because Saratoga has an expansive saddling area that is spread out. People and equine athletes are everywhere, plus you have a giant crowd that is brimming with excitement.
DeCoster checked for nose bands, shadow rolls, and blinkers, plus learned how Davis directs traffic.
“Horses can be bad actors, just like people, so you might have to hold one back for safety, contact the stewards and the TV people until you can get them out on the track,” he said.
Learning the ropes at such a storied venue was amazing, but it was about schooling under folks like Davis that was a true pleasure.
“Patrick let me call ‘Riders up!’ for a pair of Grade 1s, one of which was the Saratoga Derby,” DeCoster said, smiling. “I felt like this is why I am putting in the work … to make an impact.”
A three-time receipt of the Jockey Club of America’s Jack Goodman Scholarship, an award given to a current RTIP student, DeCoster is already back in Tucson. Ready to start his third year, he has a full schedule. “I have classes on laws and regulation, racing departments, bloodstock and racing animal management, and pair that deal with animal and equine nutrition.”
What a lineup.
With a memorable working summer at the NYRA Racing Office, DeCoster soaked up all the racing knowledge he could. It will come in handy. What it should assure those in the business, is that the future is bright as that racing baton gets passed.
Eric DeCoster and his fellow RTIP students will be ready, as the baton is passed.