By Jean Redstone
One talking trend lately, possibly because it’s an election year, is of glass ceilings coming down, breaking, as women move past long-defended barriers into top positions. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spectacularly busted a video glass ceiling at the Democratic Convention two months ago, for example.
But in the real world glass ceilings come down less flamboyantly, though arguably with the same historic importance.
When Mullica Hill horse trainer Kathleen (Kate) DeMasi is inducted this month (Sept. 17) into the Parx Racing Hall of Fame, she will be the first woman trainer so honored by the racecourse. Women trainers at Thoroughbred racetracks are more numerous than they used to be, with DeMasi estimating, “maybe there are about 25 percent now,” but the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame only lists one woman trainer, Janet Elliot, inducted in 2009, in the 61 years trainers have been honored.
DeMasi earned her spot the good-old-fashioned way, by being better for longer until her success was impossible to ignore. Her husband and partner in racing, Greg DeMasi, allowed himself a bit of brag on his wife.
“Being at the top of your field for a number of years, that’s what it takes,” he said. “Kate has been in the top ten in winners (first place) and money earned of all the hundreds of trainers stabled at Parx in the past, more than a decade,” he said.
Indeed, of the approximately 8,973 starts DeMasi has entered, she has some 1,188 first-place wins and about $25 million in purses on her personal scorecard. She has been a winner since she started her first horse in 1984 and it won.
But there is not an ounce of braggadocio in her outlook or her remarks on the broken glass ceiling. “I’ve been a trainer at Parx Racing for 30 years and when I got into this I never thought I would, I never thought about, being in the Hall of Fame,” DeMasi said. “It was kind of a surprise to me. It was an honor and I was taken aback. I am being honored among many of my male peers and the fact I’m a woman makes it nice.”
“Nice” is a pretty tame word and DeMasi added detail, perhaps to show she felt the impact of the induction in a broader scope. “It’s still a male-dominated world, but we’ve come a long way in 30 years since I got my license. I think more tracks will have women training and jockeying as they start making their way in.”
Kate and Greg DeMasi live at Pewter Stable, their farm in Mullica Hill, operating an extensive horse racing business. She trains 67 horses, currently, a huge schedule, and sprints her way from the various tracks where her charges run, from Parx in Bensalem, to Penn National and Monmouth.
She rises before the sun does, and from 5 a.m. to her afternoon or evening return she is in the middle of every action involving her racing horses.
“I am blessed with good people. (They) tell me any little problem or issue — all my assistants are in tune with the horses,” DeMasi said. “The time was I was very hands on with every aspect of the job and it was hard to transition to more and more management. But when you are in the administrative end, you interface with your workers to keep up.”
That depth of experience over a lifetime has given DeMasi a valuable skill in her line of work. She speaks “horse.” A horse informs her of important information she uses to facilitate its training and success.
“I can walk through a stable and see, say, this horse,” she explained. “I don’t like the way it looks or moves, maybe. So I say, ‘Take his temperature’ or “feel his feet (for heat, a sign of possible lameness).”
She watches the horses at their morning run when the sun comes up and looks for signs of trouble, improvement, attitude or ouchiness. Her job is to listen to the horse and seek to provide what it needs to succeed.
DeMasi’s experience goes all the way back to her childhood on her parents’ produce farm in Maryland. Her mother captained a Pony Club where, “I learned about horses, their care, riding. Back then, a lot of people got their exposure through pony clubs. There’s still a pony club in Mullica Hill,” she said. (Go to Delmarva.ponyclub.org for clubs in this area.)
“But my parents got into racing purely by coincidence. They bought their first mare. It was named Well Doon and was very pretty. It was also pregnant, which they didn’t know.” Well Doon foaled a number of racehorses, the most memorable of which was Perry Doon, “a pretty solid allowance horse.”
She notes the value of her early experiences, from a horse-struck girl reading all the horse story classics (“My favorite was Black Beauty”) to the chance to learn training and horsemanship from childhood.
“I’ve had a fortunate opportunity. I’ve always thought animals, especially horses, are an amazing and calming influence. Thoroughbreds … are an incredible, strong, capable horse,” she said. “I consider myself a spiritual person, and have found help comes when I need it and ask God. We always treat our horses the way we would want to be treated or our own horses treated. Horses have always been a central theme in my life.”
Greg DeMasi, on the other hand, was not a country kid. He grew up in South Philly, the son of a doctor who found relaxation at the racetrack and took his son with him.
When Greg graduated from Widener with a business degree, he took it to Delaware Park and worked in the track management offices. He also found he had a talent for spotting up and comers at the Thoroughbred auctions for young horses or the claiming races.
Kate and Greg met while she was training at Delaware and he “wanted a racehorse,” Kate DeMasi chuckled. “He was looking for somebody like myself, dedicated and with some experience, and not too expensive.”
Greg’s first horse was Pewter Collection, a mare racing in claiming cards (a claiming racer can be claimed for a minimum price – or more – set by the track.)
When Greg and Kate married in 1988 at the Phoenix Room of the Garden State Racetrack (no longer in existence), they settled on a 20-acre property of fields and trees and named it after the horse. They grew a two-pronged business. She trained and raced horses; he manages the farm and training business end and scouts Thoroughbred for their ancillary business – selling racing partnerships.
Not very well known in the investment world, but growing in popularity in the horse circles around show and race horses, a partnership is a group of investors who have individually bought shares in a horse. The idea is if you own 10 percent of a racehorse, you will receive 10 percent of the horse’s winnings.
This can be rewarding. Greg and Kate have raced, for example, a horse named Merry’s Honor that was owned by a partnership. In just one race two years ago he earned the owners a $75,000 purse (minus fees and other payments.) The horse was later claimed and the owners were paid their share of the selling price.
Or a partnership can be formed to buy a young horse, just starting out, like Nerai, a beautiful filly full of promise that Greg spotted at a sale. Nerai means “wish” in Japanese (from the “go” game, apparently), Kate DeMasi said. She is under training with Pewter Stable, a savings for investors who otherwise might have to find a trainer of her caliber.
Of course, while the winnings are distributed to the owners (who register with the tracks and then have all the privileges of owners), so, too, are the costs. These can include daily stabling fees, jockey fees, medical care, etc.
“I tell people this investment type is for disposable income only,” Greg DeMasi emphasized. “It’s a cheaper way to own a racehorse and it can be a fun thing to do with disposable income, but it’s not like a mutual fund. There are no guarantees.
The training and partnership businesses obviously mesh at Pewter Stable. Kate DeMasi said she considers herself “a determined but flexible person, thoughtful by nature, considering all options and a good business sense.” Then she added, “Greg is much more astute at the business side than me.”
But more than anything else, she said, she and her husband “have always loved the horses.” And that, of course, is exactly what it takes to be a Hall of Fame trainer.