The eighth consecutive “Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby” fundraiser for Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement in KY has kicked off its March auction with a very special hat up for bid that honors a horse racing celebrity, Zippy Chippy!
Described as “the most famous maiden in American horse racing history”, this dark bay gelding may have had a 0 for 100 record but his many adoring fans will tell you that he is living proof that not all winners finish first. To read more about Zippy, please visit the Zippy Chippy webpage.
It’s been a year full of surprises in our “Hats Off” fundraiser. This month we are delighted to have TV analyst at Gulfstream Park and former Miss Connecticut (2014-2015), Acacia Courtney joining our “Hats Off” team to model hats for us. Acacia modeled the spectacular “Zippy Chippy” chapeau at Old Friends’ satellite farm in New York, Old Friends at Cabin Creek.
Originally from Connecticut, 23-year-old Acacia Courtney has worn many hats during her 23 years! A horse lover ever since she was a little girl, Acacia grew up around horses and trained in the hunter/jumper and dressage disciplines. She is a graduate of Fordham University with a major in Communications (Journalism concentration). She is also a dancer, trained specifically in ballet, jazz/musical theater, and ballroom dancing. In 2011 Acacia founded the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization Racing for Home Inc. which is dedicated to retraining OTTBs for new careers after the racetrack. Acacia was Miss Connecticut from June 2014 to June 2015, and as a titleholder in the Miss America Organization she was an Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Acacia has worked for America’s Best Racing, HRN and currently Gulfstream Park Casino, covering racing events like the Kentucky Derby, the Dubai World Cup, the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and the Breeders’ Cup.
I recently got the chance to interview Acacia following her photo shoot at Old Friends Cabin Creek for the “Zippy Chippy” chapeau.
Sally: Acacia, welcome to my Hats and Horses blog! Old Friends and I are thrilled to have you join our “Hats Off” team this year, and I’m so glad I got the chance to catch up with you and ask you a few questions for this Q&A. Acacia, for those who are meeting you here for the first time, where were you born and where did you grow up?
Acacia: I was born and raised in Connecticut.
Sally: What is your earliest memory of a horse (or pony)?
Acacia: I remember going on a pony ride at a birthday party when I was very young, maybe around 5 years old. There still is a photo of it on our fridge.
Sally: Did you ride or own horses when you were little or as a young adult?
Acacia: Yes, I started taking riding lessons when I was about 8. I was also dancing and playing piano at the time, and had a very busy childhood! I did horse shows, studying hunter jumper and dressage disciplines. I leased a mare named Miss Kitty growing up, and the first Thoroughbred I rode was an OTTB named Siren, whom I absolutely adored. The first horse my family got (my mom rides as well) was in 2009 – an OTTB from Suffolk Downs named Palace Diva, and she’s still, and always will be, with us.
Sally: Acacia, you graduated from Fordham University with a major in Communications in December 2015. How long have you been a dancer and where did you receive your training? Were there any dancers who especially inspired you?
Acacia: I started taking dance lessons at 3 years old at the Hartford Ballet School. As I got older and more involved in dance, I started taking some lessons in New York City, and eventually studied at Steps on Broadway in the pre-professional program, as well as the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre schools. I performed and competed in ballet, jazz/musical theater, and ballroom (International Latin). I always loved watching Yulia Zagoruychenko, who became an International Latin world champion with her partner Riccardo Cocchi, and she was also a teacher of mine.
Sally: You were also Miss Connecticut (June 2014 – June 2015) during which time you were the Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals as a titleholder in the Miss America Organization and a top-15 semifinalist at Miss America. How did that all come about for you, and what was the experience like?
Acacia: I won Miss CT in my fourth year competing for the state title, and during that time, being Miss CT was pretty much my full time job. I took a leave of absence from college and traveled the state of CT speaking at schools and charity events, promoting the Miss America Organization, and serving as an ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. I would visit the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center on a monthly basis, and those kinds of days were certainly my favorite ones as Miss CT. Having the chance to spend time with those kids, and hopefully make them smile for just a few minutes, was the most significant part of my year. Their strength and courage never ceased to amaze me. I also promoted my own personal platform of the Monday Campaigns, focusing in on Meatless Monday and Move It Monday, targeting childhood obesity and the way we approach the concept of health. If even just one kid took something away from one of those school assemblies, then that was success in itself.
Sally: Acacia, since May of 2016 you have been working as a an on-air analyst at Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino as well as on the Horse Racing Radio Network. You worked before that with America’s Best Racing from January 2015 to March 2016 as a commentator and model for digital video production. When did you first know in your heart that you wanted to be involved in the world of horse racing?
Acacia: I always knew that I loved Thoroughbreds and that I’d want to be involved with them in some capacity. It was in college that I even realized I could make racing my career. I dove in head first and, not knowing much about the actual racing game at the start, I was lucky enough to have some great mentors whom I asked a lot of questions. I also taught myself quite a bit, researching things on my own that I might not understand.
Sally: I’ll bet you’ve met some pretty amazing racehorses over the years. Do you have any favorites? Do you have a favorite racehorse of all time, either living or dead?
Acacia: I always had a soft spot for Seabiscuit when growing up, as he was one of the first racehorses I really became familiar with. But, I never got tired of watching Zenyatta. She was always such a thrill.
Sally: If you had to pick your 3 favorite moments in horse racing, what would they be?
Acacia: 1) Obviously watching American Pharoah win the Triple Crown live is a moment I’ll never forget. It was also the first and only year (so far) that I have attended all three Triple Crown races in a year.
Acacia: 2) The Pegasus World Cup is something I feel so lucky to be a part of. My favorite moment from it was not exactly the race itself, but right before when the horses were in the walking ring. I watched California Chrome and Arrogate right in front of me with the electric crowd while analyzing the race, and I got chills like I’ve never felt before. 3) I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a bit over the past couple years, and watching California Chrome win the Dubai World Cup live was really something amazing to see.
Sally: Was there anyone who especially inspired or helped you along the way in your career?
Acacia: I’ll always be grateful to Mike Penna from the Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN) for giving me a shot on air in 2015 when I was new to racing. The whole HRRN team has been influential, especially Anthony Stabile, whom I worked closely with on the radio and taught me a lot. Now I’m lucky enough to work alongside Ron Nicoletti and Gabby Gaudet every day, and I think we do a good job of inspiring each other.
Sally: Do you hope to continue your work as an on-air analyst or do you have an idea about some other kind of work that would truly be your dream job?
Acacia: I love working as an on-air analyst and really enjoy being on TV. I’m not sure if it will forever be horse racing or even sports, but I’m loving what I’m doing right now and couldn’t be happier with where I am.
Sally: Acacia, I understand you are living in Florida now. What are you doing there, and how does life in the Sunshine state compare to New York or Connecticut?
Acacia: I moved to Florida when offered the on-air handicapper position at Gulfstream Park. Obviously it’s much different than the Northeast, and while I don’t miss the snow, living down here was certainly an adjustment. I love where I work and it has been tremendous experience. NYC in general is much more of a fast paced city than Hollywood, FL, but we’re definitely fast paced at the racetrack.
Sally: Acacia, you wear so many different hats! If you could have “the perfect day”, what would it look like to you?
Acacia: I’m a workaholic, so I feel weird when I have too much free time on my hands. But, any perfect day is spent with good friends and family, and probably with good food and wine too.
Sally: Acacia, our new hat up on the block for the March auction is the “Zippy Chippy” chapeau which was one of the hats that you modeled at Old Friends. Had you ever been to Old Friends before, either in NY or in KY?
Acacia: Yes I had been to both before.
Sally: Had you ever met Zippy before?
Acacia: I saw Zippy on my first visit to Old Friends in NY. When we found out that he was there, that was one of the main horses we went to see.
Sally: How did the photo shoot go?
Acacia: The shoot was a lot of fun. Zippy loves his mints and was pretty well behaved! I was armed with treats for him, and though he was a little slobbery, we had a lot of fun. It was pretty cool to do a shoot with him, as I remember watching him race at a New England fair when I was a kid.
Sally: Did you get a chance to meet any of the other retirees while you were there at Old Friends Cabin Creek?
Acacia: I did, the volunteers there were nice enough to give a quick tour. It was especially great to see King Congie, who had only recently made it to Old Friends after ending up in an auction house. It was so nice to see that he had found a safe and loving forever home.
Sally: Acacia, I have to tell you that you look GREAT in hats! Have you always been a “hat person”, and where is your favorite place to wear a hat?
Acacia: Thank you! I think the Kentucky Derby and big race events are definitely the best place for a hat. On days when I am running around at the track working, I will usually opt for a fascinator instead.
Sally: I am sure that people are going to be inspired by your support of Old Friends. Why is it important for us to support these retired T’bred athletes, and do you have any suggestions for how people can get involved and participate in helping the retired racehorses?
Acacia: I think we owe a lot to theses horses, who have given so much to us. They have provided entertainment and, for many, a livelihood during their time on the racetrack, and Thoroughbreds always give their all in whatever they do. It’s up to us to make sure that they get what they deserve when their time on the racetrack is over. There are many wonderful organizations that provide retirement or retraining for OTTBs, giving them the chance to even start a new career jumping, working as a lesson horse, as a companion animal, or any other number of options.
Sally: You have done so much for retired racehorses yourself with your nonprofit organization Racing for Home Inc. that you founded in 2011 which is dedicated to retraining OTTBs for new careers after the racetrack. Can you tell us how that all came about?
Acacia: I wanted to be a part of ensuring that OTTBs were cared for once they left the racetrack, and I had always loved and admired Thoroughbreds. As I mentioned, they have so much heart. Since its start, Racing for Home has worked with and found new careers for 20 OTTBs. It’s on a small scale, but I’m sure it has made a difference to those that we have worked with.
Sally: Acacia, thanks again for helping us with our Eighth Annual “Hats Off to the Horses” auction series with the “Zippy Chippy” chapeau. We are really fortunate to have you on board this year as part of our “Hats Off” team!
And to my readers, please enjoy this slideshow of photos from the “Zippy” photo shoot with Acacia at Old Friends of Cabin Creek, a special treat from photographer Connie Bush of Tiger Eye Photography.
And to my readers, thank you all for visiting us today at Hats and Horses!
About the “Zippy Chippy” Hat Auction:
The “Zippy Chippy” auction hat is currently up for bid on EBay. Bidding ends Saturday, March 11th at 8 PM EST.
Note about Photography: All images that are shown here without credits have been provided with permission from Acacia Courtney.