In 2011, Remi Bellocq stepped down as CEO of the National HBPA to become Executive Director of the Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) Equine Program.
Bellocq was first drawn to the program when he realized that it could help alleviate the growing shortage of manpower in racing. By leading the BCTC program, Bellocq is now helping recruit young people to join the vital workforce in sport.
âWe have nothing in our industry that can predict what will happen with immigration reform at the federal level,â he said. âSo every year it’s the same challenge and we can’t count on this change. We have to fend for ourselves. We have the mechanism to prepare very good workers – well-trained domestic workers. “
The BCTC program began in 2006 as the North American Racing Academy. But when Bellocq joined the team a few years later, they realized their need to expand his scope from a jockey school to an equine career and a technical training program. Now called BCTC Equine, the course is the first and only such program at an accredited community college in the country.
Today, there are between 35 and 40 students in the program each semester. After two years of taking courses ranging from basic equine care to training theory, physiology and anatomy, students will earn an associate degree. Some students will earn a Veterinary Assistant certificate while others will choose to focus on breeding or racing. Those who take riding lessons will obtain a riding license from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission before completing their lessons.
Incoming students begin in a semester-long racehorse care lab, where they look after the daily welfare of the program’s 12 retired racehorses located at the Thoroughbred Center outside of Lexington.
âThe students bring them back from the enclosures, check the vital signs and feed,â Bellocq explained. âThey do everything that anybody in any barn is going to do, but we monitor and evaluate them. We check the list to make sure that not only do they clean the stall, but that they can do it within a certain amount of time. We make sure they can work efficiently and do whatever is needed if you are going to work for a top trainer. We teach according to current standards. “
To pass the riding course, students must first pass an advanced fitness test. Successful students attend daily training sessions led by Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor Dixie Kendall and Instructor Amy Heitzman. Before completing the course, students spend a few weeks working for a trainer based outside the training center before graduation.
âThere’s a lot of attrition because we’re tough,â Bellocq noted. âWe have pretty rigorous academic requirements and we will test them if they are late. But the result is that we have a good number of graduates who are working and who have progressed. We’ve put students in pretty high-end racing operations, including Mike Maker, Christophe Clemente, Michael Matz, and Todd Pletcher. “
The majority of students who currently take the exercise riding portion of the course, Bellocq said, are women. He underscored the criticality of industry acceptance of a changing workforce.
âEmployers, trainers and farm managers need to understand that our workforce is changing and we need to adapt to that,â he said. âIt’s not about whether women work harder or can’t handle the work men have traditionally done, it’s about accommodation and work-life balance. Lots of trainers pay better than they ever have, but if Amazon is paying $ 15 an hour with benefits, we have to get close, because he’s the one who is going to steal our employees, not a trainer in the shedrow.
Callie Witt, originally from Nebraska, is currently enrolled in the horseback riding portion of the program. Prior to attending BCTC, she galloped on several tracks in her original state.
âEver since I was little, I have always dreamed of being a jockey,â she said. âThe great thing about my parents was that I had to have a degree in something to fall back on, so I was very lucky to find this type of program where I can continue my passion for horses, learn to ride and still get a degree. . “
Witt recognized the challenges of working in this industry.
âYou have to learn to have thick skin. Not everyone will have the best things to say, but you have to keep your head, work fast and keep a positive attitude. Every day is hard work and you must keep doing it. “
Morgan Patterson is from Alabama and said she also learned several valuable lessons from her time at BCTC.
âI think my biggest problem is not thinking about it too much,â she said. âI want to micromanage everything, especially with my riding. But I feel like I’m learning a lot here. Someday I really want to travel and ride abroad.
Classmate Petula Randolph joined BCTC because she knew it was an optimal place to start working on her dream of becoming a coach.
âThere really is no better place to learn what we’re doing,â she says. âIt’s a great environment and less stressful than learning on the job. Here you receive a quality education and you know you are learning the right things. “
Randolph grew up attending races at her home track, Retama Park, and said she would like to return to Texas to someday win a top-level race.
âIf I could train a horse to race in the Sam Houston Ladies’ Classic, that would be pretty cool because Midnight Bisou won there.â
Bellocq said one of his favorite get-together with the students was their annual trip to Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week for a tour of the backstretch, where students have the opportunity to chat with some of the top trainers.
âIt’s pretty telling for them,â he said. âAll these superstars will say the same thing, ‘You’re not going to make a lot of money up front, you’re going to work crazy hours and you really have to pay your dues. But if you have the passion and love what you do, you can rise as far as you want in this industry. It’s really inspiring for our students because they don’t hear it from their teachers, they hear it from the people they see on the racing news all the time, and it carries such weight.
As the program continues to grow, Bellocq enjoys seeing his work come to fruition as graduates excel in their careers in all facets of the industry.
âWe have a group of alumni that will come together for a big barbecue every year during Keeneland and it’s great to see them all compare their grades on the people they work for,â said Bellocq. âFor our graduates, we have an excellent network of internships and mentorships. We have stellar employers who say, “Look, just send me a good student and I’ll always have jobs for them.” And that’s a very good testament to our program.