From AQHYA to Head Racehorse Trainer
From AQHYA to Head Racehorse Trainer
By Andrea Caudill
Oklahoman Destin Heath didn’t grow up in horse racing, but the sport and its horses caught his interest early in life. As a teen, participating in the American Quarter Horse Youth Association Youth Racing Experience allowed Destin to explore and grow his love of horse racing. Today, he is the head trainer at the prestigious WinStar Farm at Versailles, Kentucky, and has been involved in the development of Thoroughbreds, such as Triple Crown winner Justify, and top horses Omaha Beach, Belvoir Bay and Songbird.
The AQHYA Youth Racing Experience was created in the late 1990s to introduce young people to the world of horse racing. For some, it is a true introduction to racing, allowing them to learn about how racehorses are cared for and the people the industry supports, allowing them to return home as ambassadors. For others, like Destin, it is a leg-up toward pursuing their dreams of working in the racing industry.
When Destin was young, his uncle had racehorses, and his parents had a house in Ruidoso, New Mexico, which introduced him to being around racing, as Ruidoso is the home to Ruidoso Downs. Indominable Hall of Fame trainer Jack Brooks also provided an introduction. The Heath family became friends with the Brookses, as Jack’s wife, Wynona, was Destin’s grandmother’s accountant.
“So every time I saw them at the races, Jack and Wynona were always very gracious,” Destin says. “They invited me to their barn to see everything. As a young kid, I just loved every minute of it. On summer vacation out in Ruidoso, I was getting up at 4 a.m. just to go to Jack’s barn and sit at the walking machine and help turn it on and off. I never had an official job, but the guys hung out with me and I loved every bit of it.”
Growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, Destin would find any family member he could to take him to nearby Remington Park in Oklahoma City so he could hang out on the track apron, as he was too young to be allowed into the building.
“I’d hang out on the track apron all day, watch the races, and just gradually going up and introducing myself to people, getting to know people,” he says.
That is where he met John Bell and Mark and Connie Barnes, who served as mentors for the developing horseman. Dee and Betty Raper invited him out to their Belle Mere Farm on weekends to help out and learn. It was Betty that suggested he participate in state and national youth racing experiences.
So he did. He attended youth racing experience events at Remington in 2003 and 2004, and then was invited to participate in the 2004 AQHYA National Youth Racing Experience, held that year at Sam Houston Race Park.
“That ended up being the greatest week of horse racing I’ve had in my life,” he says.
Trying to take in as much racing as he could in 2004, Destin drove to Dallas to see the best Thoroughbreds in the world congregate at Lone Star Park for the Breeder’s Cup. Then, he went on to Houston for AQHA’s Bank of America Challenge Championships and Youth Racing Experience at Sam Houston Race Park During that event, he shadowed trainer Eddie Willis.
“The biggest thing I feel like the Youth Racing Experiences did for me,” Destin says, “I had an equine background, I’d been around the front side and a little bit of the back side of the racetrack. But it gets you in those doors to meet people. To meet the guys who are in the trenches as the foremen, assistants, trainers, exercise riders. To meet those people to help guide you along the way.”
Along the way, Destin met Roger Daly and Laura Pinelli, the latter of whom saw the 16-year-old’s work ethic and put him in contact with American Quarter Horse Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.
“I went to work for Wayne for a summer,” Destin says. “It was the typical Wayne Lukas boot camp–(work) half a day, and the other 12 hours are up to you. But it turned into a semi-full-time thing for the next three years.”
Whenever Destin wasn’t in school, there was a spot open at Wayne’s barn to work.
An AQHA racing scholarship helped Destin fulfill his dream to pursue an equine business degree at the University of Louisville, which meant that he could work at Churchill Downs in the morning before hustling to class.
He graduated college in 2012 and went to work for WinStar in 2014. He first served as an assistant trainer for Richard Budge for four years. In that time, they guided Justify, Songbird, Forever Unbridled, Always Dreaming and countless other Thoroughbreds. When Richard retired, Destin stepped up.
Life As a Racehorse Trainer
As head trainer, Destin is responsible for managing horses at all points in their careers, from starting, to rehab, to bringing them back after a rest. He has about 150 horses under his care at any given time.
“It’s a big, big responsibility,” he says. “My big goal is to find a program that fits the individual horse.”
WinStar Farm offers a wide range of tools to help make the horses feel their best, from health equipment like vibrating plates to pools and a variety of places to gallop.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun, too,” he says. “I’m intrigued by the puzzle of a lot of horses. I’m always intrigued by what I have to do to get the next little bit out of one. I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in right now. It’s a lot of moving parts, it’s from sunup to well after sundown seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
While Destin has earned every bit of his position with hard work, dedication and sacrifice, the assistance from the racing world, from the experiences with trainers to school assistance to work training, made his climb easier.
“Opening that door through the Youth Racing Experience to meet the people was a big key for me,” Destin says. “But, as with everything, it’s up to the individual to keep those doors open. I always tried to dress appropriately, act respectfully, be on time, work hard and do right by not only the people I was shadowing, but the people I was following for a job. It helps to develop a reputation doing things like that, and that reputation will always precede you. It will always help or hinder you, so you always want to try to put that reputation to the forefront and do right.
“There is plenty of opportunity for the people who want to step out and actually do it,” he continues. “It’s an industry that is always looking for new people, and the individual just needs to want to learn and want to work, and it’ll usually work out for them.”
AQHYA National Racing Experience
The AQHYA National Racing Experience is held in conjunction with the AQHA Bank of America Challenge Championships each year, with the 2020 AQHYA Racing Experience slated for October at The Downs at Albuquerque in New Mexico. At the event, participants 16 years and older work one-on-one with an experienced trainer at the three-day Challenge Championships event.
Scholarships are awarded: $3,000 to first place, $2,000 to second place and $1,000 to third place. The scholarship winners are determined by each participant's cumulative scores, including their application, Racing Skillathon Contest results, interview scores and overall performance throughout the educational experience.
Learn more at www.aqha.com/youth-racing-experience.