Graduate Spotlight: Cathy McNeeley O’Meara

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Graduate Spotlight: Cathy McNeeley O’Meara

By: Sarah Coleman

Featured image provided by: The Jockey Club


Cathy McNeely O’Meara, originally from Boones Mill, VA (where some episodes of Moonshiners was filmed, she points out), has long been an animal lover and avid equine enthusiast. Cathy was involved with horses from a very young age; her mother was a show-horse trainer and had Cathy in the competition ring at just 18 months old. Growing up, “I was always the guinea pig for new, green ponies and horses to make sure they were OK for the lesson programs and summer camps … I got a real appreciation early on for keeping my heels down and my eyes up!” she laughs.

When it came time for her to go off to college, Cathy specifically chose Virginia Tech as it had full herds (five species) that allowed for maximum hands-on experience. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Animal and Poultry Science and has since gotten an MBA in Information Systems from Sullivan University.

Though always passionate about the horses, it wasn’t until deciding not to pursue veterinary school that Cathy stumbled across KEMI while doing an internet search. She knew she wanted to work in the equine industry, but didn’t know in what capacity.

KEMI piqued her interest. Though Cathy and her mom had worked with many Thoroughbreds when they retired from the track, she had never dealt with them as racehorses. “I was excited to be trying something new” with the KEMI program, Cathy said. She looked forward to being exposed to many facets of the Thoroughbred industry through the program.


The Difference Between Racehorse and Riding Horse

During her time as a KEMI student, her favorite part of the program was “definitely the ability to work with horses daily. I was fortunate to be able to expand my knowledge of breaking and training with new techniques and methods,” Cathy says. “Even though there’s a different way to do things as this is a business not just a backyard farm [like she was used to], the experience was demanding, but also thoroughly enjoyable.”

Dealing with the frustration of being asked to do something differently from the way one thinks it should be done was one of the hardest parts of being a KEMI intern, Cathy noted. While that probably just has to do with being young, she acknowledges, it was extremely valuable to learn that “there is typically a reason why things are done a certain way at the farms and you should respect that–certainly ask why, as you may be able to offer a potential alternative, but also be understanding of the potential constraints that may also exist.”

This was an invaluable lesson that all KEMI students learn and it is one that has served Cathy well, both in her time in KEMI and in her professional career.

Placed on Pin Oak Stud, one of Cathy’s favorite parts of her time on the farm was morning sets. “Regardless of whether it was actually riding out a set or just long lining them, I love misty mornings at sunrise,” she explains. And there truly is nothing prettier than morning in the Bluegrass, working with Thoroughbreds!

Though “I found out that farm life wasn’t my thing, I found a great appreciation for the industry and understand that all parts are equally important,” Cathy explains. KEMI, like any other quality educational program, is just as valuable for showing students what they DON’T want to do, as solidifying what they DO want to do. Exposing students to all the facets of the industry allows them to hone in on what they enjoy and don’t care for, working to ensure that KEMI grads’ future full-time jobs are ones they are truly passionate about.

Cathy O’Meara at Pin Oak Stud during KEMI internship.


A Vast and Varied Equine Career Path

Though Cathy does not currently work hands-on with horses, she has held many fantastic positions in the equine industry. “Directly after the [KEMI] internship (Fall then Spring session), Pin Oak sent me to Kildangan Stud in Ireland for a breaking and training season. Upon my return, I worked a few more months at Pin Oak, then left for a racetrack exercise rider position at the Thoroughbred Training Center,” Cathy says. “Over the next eight years, I worked as a freelance and salaried rider, had my owner/trainer license for a few horses, legged up horses for others, did accounts management for various farms and associations, and even worked as a farm manager for a year (which ended up not being my passion!).”

Ultimately, Cathy landed at The Jockey Club in 2008, where she has been since. “I now am the Industry Initiatives Coordinator for The Jockey Club and Racing Officials Accreditation Program (ROAP). I coordinate the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summits and handle the day-to-day operations of ROAP. While I never saw myself working in a regulatory/advocacy environment, I thoroughly enjoy being able to work through the issues that face our racing industry to ensure a safe and prosperous industry for the future.”

And though she’s not currently working hands-on with the horses, Cathy acknowledges that KEMI provided her with the foundation she needed work in her role with ROAP. “The hands-on experience and networking, which began through my internship, was the stepping stone to my next endeavors. Without it, I would not be working in the racing industry.”


Always Keep Learning

KEMI can be tough, especially if students come in with preconceived notions about horses or the Thoroughbred industry. Cathy’s best advice? “Plan to work hard and keep an open mind. There are different ways of doing things and most people want to do it ‘their way.’ Even though I [came into the program] with lots of hands-on experience, I still learned a tremendous amount.”

Cathy encourages KEMI students to keep an open mind when they’re involved in the program, as there are myriad positions in the racing world, not all of which involve training or management. “Just because one area [of the equine industry] may not interest you, keep networking and trying new areas. Hard work is key and respect for your managers is paramount. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and always keep learning,” she advises.

Graduate Spotlight: Jordan Blair

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Graduate Spotlight:

Thoroughbred Racehorse Trainer Jordan Blair


A Family Affair

Born in the Bluegrass, Jordan Blair has been a Thoroughbred racing fan practically since birth. Well versed in all facets of the industry, Jordan attended his first Breeders’ Cup in 1988 at Churchill Downs. His mother, Debbie, worked for the organization as the Vice President of Customer and Event Services. Because of her role with Breeders’ Cup, Blair was very aware that there were many ways to work in the racing industry and that not all of them were hands-on with the horses.

But hands-on is what Jorden preferred: To earn spending money as a teenager, he worked for the Keeneland sales for consignors like Taylor Made, as well as for Bluegrass Thoroughbreds and Pin Oak Stud. Jordan also worked for Gainsborough Farm and Dromoland Farm throughout high school and college.

After graduating from Tates Creek High School in Lexington in 1999, Jordan attended the University of Kentucky (UK), where he studied Agricultural Economics and Horticulture Science; he chose the Big Blue Nation for multiple reasons, including in-state tuition, the easy transition to college from home, its top-notch ag college and the fact that “I’ve always been a huge UK sports fan!” says Jordan.

A Lucky Find

After graduating from UK, Jordan went to Mississippi State to get a Master’s Degree in Agribusiness Management. It was while he was in grad school that Jordan stumbled upon the Kentucky Equine Management Internship (KEMI) program.

Required to complete an internship to finish his MBA, Blair found the KEMI program online and was immediately intrigued: “I was sold [on it] as it was in my hometown and I was anxious to graduate!” he explains. Jordan applied and, once accepted into the program, was placed on Pin Oak Stud in Versailles.

Home to a stallion roster that includes Broken Vow and Alternation, Pin Oak encompasses over 1,300 acres and cares for broodmares and foals in addition to its stallions. The farm is owned by Josephine Abercromie, a staunch supporter of both the racing industry and the local community—both of which Jordan was, and continues to be, passionate about.

“I learned many things at Pin Oak, including the ins-and-outs of operating a breeding farm, organizing broodmares and their cycles, weaning babies and handling stallions,” Jordan says. “General Manager Clifford Barry also taught me how to work smarter and to pay close attention to details. He was a strong mentor of mine.”


Making His Own Way

While Jordan received vast amounts of hands-on experience while working at Pin Oak, he also enjoyed the classroom and lecture portions of KEMI. He greatly appreciated the ability to be exposed to great professionals who worked in every facet of the Thoroughbred industry.

Once graduated from KEMI in 2006, Blair worked some additional sales, then got a full-time position in the front office of Ben-D Farm in Walton, Ky., where he worked for 2 years as office manager, taking care of accounts, booking mares to stallions, working with sales companies and consignments. He was also hands-on with delivering foals and prepping yearlings. After his time at Ben-D, Blair changed gears and became an assistant trainer, working under such notables as Mike Maker, Michael Ewing and Kenny McPeek. After eight years, he struck out on his own.

A Solid Foundation

Jordan’s time in KEMI helped prepare him for what real life in the Thoroughbred industry is like. He strongly recommends that anyone looking to work in the Thoroughbred world complete the program; he notes that KEMI helped him understand that “there aren’t many ‘jobs’ in the equine industry–it’s more of a lifestyle: [There are] Not many days off.”

So what pieces of advice does Jordan offer potential incoming KEMI students? “Understand that you’ll start at the bottom, learn and work your way up. Be prepared to work hard and keep your ears open. You won’t see the benefit of mucking stalls and raking shedrows until you’re in charge of that sort of thing. Pick up as much knowledge as possible in the short time you have there. Go above and beyond what is expected–that is what sets you apart from others.”

And what was the hardest part of KEMI? Learning how to balance work and course work, Jordan says. Now married with a child of his own, KEMI helped Jordan learn how to balance multiple important priorities, as well as the importance of networking, and keeping close contacts inside and out of the industry.

Jordan still keeps in touch with other KEMI grads and he even does business with a few. He believes very strongly that KEMI provides a valuable service for the industry: “It provides good people for the farms during and after their internships; it also provides an ‘in’ for these students [those passionate about Thoroughbreds] who wouldn’t know any other way of going about entering this business.”


The Secret to His Success

So, is there one key to Jordan’s success? Not really. “It’s all been based on very hard (and smart) work, and the contacts I’ve made and kept over the years. I am always learning and always open to new ideas,” he says. “There is so much more to running a business than knowing how to deal with horses, and I’ve learned many lessons by making mistakes. I’ve had some very hard times, but by persevering and not giving up, I’ve been able to grow my stable.”

Now married to business partner Jordan Springer, Jordan focuses on racing client horses at Turfway, Ellis Park, Churchill Downs, Indiana Grand and Kentucky Downs. Jordan has trained stakes-placed Silver Magnolia and allowance horses including Craving Carats, Patrick’s Day, Oatfield and Gift Receipt.



Graduate Spotlight: Carrie Gilbert: You Get Out What You Put In

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Now a prominent fixture in the Thoroughbred industry, Carrie Gilbert grew up a track rat in Fairport, N.Y., before moving to the Horse Capital of the World and immersing herself in all things equine.

Starting ‘Em Off Right

Having grown up riding hunter/jumpers and showing on the Arabian show circuit, Carrie Gilbert was immersed in the show world as a child. However, she got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing at the tender age of 6, when her great-aunt brought her to Saratoga Race Course for the first time. Carrie knew then and there that she was wanted to work horses—and not just horse: racehorses.

Carrie went to the track every summer after that, spending days on the backside and going to the races. Her aunt worked part-time as a betting window teller on weekends, so she would take Carrie with her and drop her off on the backside, where she would spend the entire morning. From there, Carrie would walk to the Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and then head back to the track for the afternoon races.

Right Where She’s Meant to Be

The time spent on the track solidified Carrie’s conviction that she was meant to live in Kentucky, so immediately upon graduating from high school, she accepted a groom position at Lane’s End Oak Tree division. She jumped in head first, learning how to groom and the ropes of how a first-class Thoroughbred farm operated.

Carrie first became aware of the KEMI program after only two weeks in the Bluegrass, when students came to Lane’s End Oak Tree for their short course, which is a series of orientation activities KEMI members take part in as a group. The short course is designed to help students get acquainted with the expectations of the KEMI program, learn about job opportunities for graduates and get a general overview of the components of the Kentucky Thoroughbred industry.

The KEMI students happened to be at Lane’s End to hear lectures from farm employees on how they manage their operations and to see the farm in action. Once the tour had left, Carrie’s manager, Callan Strouss, encouraged her to apply for a spot in the highly competitive program even though the deadline for acceptance had passed by just a few days. “The rest is history!” Carrie laughs.

Immersion In the Industry

As she was brand-new to the Bluegrass, it would have been understandable if Carrie was plagued by a nerves before entering the KEMI program. But when asked if she was anxious, Carrie said she wasn’t at all—she was simply excited. “This [program] allowed me to meet people my own age working in similar positions who also had a passion for all things equine. The opportunities to learn, grow and network appeared endless!”

When asked what her favorite part of the KEMI program was, Carrie couldn’t narrow it down to just one thing. “Honestly, I really enjoyed everything about it. I thrived on the lectures and guest speakers; I was thrilled to be able to attend clinics, symposiums and the monthly Farm Managers Club meetings.”

While it might seem like the last thing KEMI students might be interested in doing after working long hour on the farm is go to class, Carrie related that the weekly lectures are actually very well received. “They give you an opportunity to catch up with the other interns in the program; to swap stories and hang out, which I think is important as farm life can get busy and rather tiring–having friends in the same situation is good to have.”

As the goal of KEMI is to completely immerse students in the program, Carrie also go to see firsthand the ins and outs of an industry she knew she had always wanted to be involved in. “To be able to handle, care for and help raise some of the best equine athletes in the world was priceless,” she explains. “You form relationship with the management and staff on the farm along with the veterinarians, farriers and so many more key figures who can you can easily call upon in the future for just about anything.”

Carrie has a long list of key people who were mentors during her time in KEMI, all of whom she still considers mentors and friends today. When asked who had an influence on her and whom she still keeps in touch with, Carrie elaborated: “I would have to start off with Callan Strouss and Curt Ramsey [manager and assistant manager at Oak Tree] both of whom I worked for as a KEMI student and still work with daily today. My mentors included Garrett O’ Rourke, Jackie Smith [both at Juddmonte], Sandy Hatfield, Tom Evans, Mike Owens, Bill Wofford, Kim Ramsey [now the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club executive assistant] and Shannon White, the KEMI director when I was a student.” Dr. Kevin Pfeister, farrier Duane Raglin and Oak Tree foreman Jo Josey and Terry Frymen are additional people whom Carrie was able to meet and learn from during her time enrolled in the KEMI program—and people she still considers friends today.

You Get What You Give

Like most life experiences, students have to be fully invested to get the most out of the program that they can. “This is a program that the more you put into it, the more rewarding it is,” explains Carrie. It’s also a program that “even if you decide that the Thoroughbred industry isn’t for you, you’ve gained so much knowledge and firsthand experience, which can be taken and applied to any breed, anywhere!”

Carrie knew that, for her, remaining in the Thoroughbred industry was non-negotiable. Once she graduated from the KEMI program in the spring of 2001, she enrolled full-time at the University of Kentucky to obtain her Equine Business degree. At the same time, she began working for Flaxman Holdings part-time (30 hours a week) as an office administrator, managed a polo barn for a local Lexington polo player, and worked all of the major sales in both Kentucky and New York (we said she was driven!).

“Once I completed school, I began working for Flaxman Holdings full-time and also took many side jobs and volunteer opportunities, and I accepted board positions in varying associations, clubs, and organizations in all facets of the Thoroughbred and equine world. My husband and I opened and ran a boarding/breaking farm with part of the focus on rehabbing, retraining and selling off-the-track Thoroughbreds, which we thoroughly enjoyed.”

After 5 years of intense careers and passions, Carrie and husband Randy decided to reprioritize where they spent their time and began a family. Today, Carrie has been with Flaxman for 16 years and her job has evolved into the role of Racing, Sales and Stallion Coordinator. “The job is a smorgasbord of duties, including some of my favorite aspect of farm photographer and traveling,” she explains.


 Never Stop Learning

While Carrie’s background is vast and varied through her own dedication to deepening her experiences in the Thoroughbred industry, she feels very strongly that her time in KEMI placed her on the path to success. “The exposure to top management, veterinarians, farriers and specialty fields broadened my education and my network within Kentucky, the U.S. and abroad. Just being exposed to Thoroughbred lingo, pedigrees, veterinary terms, conformation exams, radiographs, racing and technology … prepared me by increasing my knowledge base and hands-on experience.”

While Carrie recommends applying for KEMI without hesitation, she offers students—or anyone interested in the equine industry—one key piece of advice:

“Nearly everyone you will meet in the industry started off as a groom on the racetrack or a farm. It’s a ladder you must climb–and you must start at the bottom. This industry is one where it’s vital to learn as you grow. Ask any manager in Central Kentucky, and they will all say they are still learning, and they see new things every day. You learn by working, seeing and doing … you must put in the time, effort, dedication and open-mindedness–that will get you furthest in the industry. Don’t expect after a 6-month internship that you’ll be at the top of any ladder. The more time you put in, the more marketable you become.”