“I thank my problem children for teaching me horsemanship,” said the freshly-minted trainer, driver and Racing Under Saddle participant.
by Chris Lomon
Problem horse? No problem at all for Sofia Zingale.
Her greatest challenge in horse racing also happens to be her favorite aspect of the sport.
It’s something that elicits a laugh, an admission, and finally, a logical explanation from the up-and-coming standardbred trainer.
“I have no idea where it comes from,” said the New Jersey-based Zingale. “I think, growing up, I was familiar with riding horses. When I was doing the riding horses, I didn’t have the money to buy the more expensive horses, so I always had the challenging horses. Years of taking in these problem children and watching them become awesome, and seeing a huge difference in them, it’s so rewarding to do that.”
An unabashed love of horses, along with a little geographical help, led her to become a licensed trainer in two years ago.
An accomplished Racing Under Saddle (RUS) trainer and jockey, Zingale was looking for a horse-related calling she could make a full-time career out of.
After nearly 15 years of ties to non-racing equestrian events, she moved to Delaware to ride for the Delaware State Equestrian team as well as get her college degree in biomechanics/kinesiology.
With Dover Downs less than a two-minute walk from her home, she decided to head down the harness racing path, literally and figuratively, to see if it would be a good fit.
It didn’t take long for Zingale to get her answer.
“Honestly, I needed a job when I was in college and Dover Downs was right across the street. It just fell into my lap. I never expected to be a harness racing trainer at all.”
But that’s what she would become.
She got to know Leigh and Tyler Raymer, who hired her to work in their barn. After the Raymers moved on from the racing scene, she worked for Joe Columbo and the George Dennis Stable.
Zingale also bought Hybrid Heidi, her first racehorse. It prompted her to earn her trainer’s license and go out on her own in May 2018.
Her rookie campaign yielded eight wins, nine seconds and four thirds from 52 starts. In 2019, she won eight races and posted 36 top-three finishes from 89 starts while nearly doubling her purse earnings.
A strong start to 2020 has been offset by uncertainties related to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have five racehorses and four riding horses that are all in training,” said Zingale. “It really hasn’t been that different. It’s the same for us – we really can’t change. I know a lot of people are giving their horses some time off, but I’m opting to keep them in training, but backing off a little bit, giving them some time to relax. We don’t know when the tracks are going to open, so I don’t want to give the horses too much time off and rush them back. I feel like we’ll have more problems if we do that.”
Speaking of problems, which of the current horses under her care present the greatest challenges?
“Out of the five racehorses, two (Egosnattitudes and Eza Oneknightstand) challenge me every day and one (Touch Mac) is a rehab with a 50/50 shot of returning to racing. Out of my four riding horses, three came to me because other trainers lost hope in them. Seeing these horses transform is the most rewarding part of working with them. They have taught me so much. They have taught me true horsemanship. It’s easy being a horse trainer of any discipline. Being a horseman is not as common to find, so I thank my problem children for teaching me horsemanship.”
Although she has fewer than 200 starts on her trainer’s resume, Zingale is enjoying the ride, in spite of the ups and downs.
There is, she offered, one big reason that keeps her coming back every day.
“Everyone loves winning, but I just really love being around the horses. Harness racing has allowed me to make horses into my career. I always wanted to do it with the riding horses, but I could never find a way to truly enjoy it and make a living from it. Harness racing has allowed me to do that. Now that I’ve brought the riding horses back in, it’s been really great to work with both disciplines. I’m able to use things from each discipline, back and forth. It gives me out-of-the-box ideas from both sides, which is great.”
And it’s also effective.
Egosnattitudes is a perfect example.
Zingale teamed with the 8-year-old trotting son of Great George Two (DE) to win a RUS MidAtlantic Trot at Rosecroft in 2018.
And yes, the bay gelding, sporting a few white hairs on his forehead, was a problem horse.
“I’ve had a little bit of success in RUS,” she said. “They did a series at Yonkers where they brought over a bunch of French horses. One of the horses that didn’t work out in their program, Atout De Fontaine – I call him “Frenchie” – I got to take him in. I won a race with him and that was awesome. But my favorite problem child, Egosanattitudes, has allowed me to have success in RUS and in harness racing.”
This year, the horse, bred and owned by Graham Grace Stables, has a win and a second from five starts. Last year, he went 1-1-1 from eight races, limited in action due to a hind suspensory tear. Vets had originally told Zingale he had a slim chance to make it back to the racetrack.
“He’s been a problem child his entire life,” she said of the horse who has been in her barn for about a year and a half. “And now he’s racing as a harness horse at The Meadowlands, and he’s doing amazing.”
The same can also be said of Zingale, who is understandably thrilled to have found her horse-related career.
Last summer, Brad Irvine encouraged her to get in the sulky, which led to her earning her harness driver’s license.
“He helped me out immensely by giving me qualifying drives and being an amazing mentor. In my four driving starts last year, I picked up a win at Pocono, and had two fifths. I can’t wait to start driving again this year.”
It’s an optimistic outlook that doesn’t let a tough result, a bad day or a difficult horse diminish her enthusiasm for standardbreds or RUS horses.
“The most challenging part is the money. It’s not always consistent. Unfortunately, these animals are not machines and luck has a lot to do with the sport. My horses are my children, though. Their health, well-being, and happiness are a priority in my stable. I truly believe that happy and healthy horses will take care of you. It might not happen when you want it to or need it to, but they will take care of you. I want my stable to grow under those circumstances. Love for the animal comes first.”
Especially the problematic ones.
“Obviously, winning is great. Making money is great. The problem children in my life make the winning moments amazing. Sometimes you don’t even have to win though – the small and large improvements made over time are just so rewarding to watch. I have a horse (Sadiq Hanover) who every single morning, without fail, when I arrive at the barn and slide the door open, sticks his head out of the stall and whinnies. I image that he’s saying, ‘Mom! You’re here! Good morning!’ It is the best way to start my day. I couldn’t imagine starting my day any other way.”