Joey Putnam loving chasing the dream

The 22-year-old catch-driver, and son of veteran horseman Joe Putnam, was Indiana Fair Circuit Driver of the Year in 2019 and is just starting to come into his own in his fourth official year in the game.

by James Platz

Horsemen and horsewomen across North America are anxious to resume the 2020 racing campaign. Joey Putnam is just as motivated to return to the races, looking to build on the momentum of last year. The son of Indiana-based trainer Joe Putnam, this 22-year-old catch driver is eager to recapture the excitement of a 2019 season where he registered triple-digit wins in only his third season of competition, steered Rockin Nola to victory in Indiana Sires Stakes Super Final action, and led all drivers on the state’s fair circuit.

Although he was born into the racing business, Joey Putnam did not aspire to following in his father’s footsteps, and the trainer did not push him in that direction. Growing up, Putnam’s pursuit was baseball. Chasing that dream kept him busy during the summers, but as he moved closer to graduation, things began to come into focus more, and harness racing entered the picture.

“I always helped dad in the barn a little bit. I was just busy with sports, being a kid and playing with friends. I would jog a few and help out, but on the weekends, I was gone with travel ball,” Putnam said. “Junior year, that summer I got a lot of time in the barn and started training. I liked it, and I decided I was not going to go play baseball in college. I wanted to stay local with my mowing business.”

Upon graduation in 2017, he devoted more time to working in the barn, and told his father he wanted to drive on the fair circuit that summer. The learning experience began. Putnam’s first career win came in third start, steering U’ll Learn to victory over the fair track at Corydon, IN. The highlight was piloting Sum It Up, a veteran trotter from his father’s stable, to victory in the $12,000 Signature Series final during Jug Week at Delaware. He finished the summer with a 10-13-7 record in 59 attempts.

“There was no second guessing. I thought it was a tremendous year. It went better than I could have expected. I got a few pari-mutuel wins, that was exciting, and got to drive at several different tracks, and that helped,” the young driver said. “It gave me a lot of hope that I had some ability and hoped that I could keep carrying it. I felt I was in the right spot and making the right decisions.”

The 2018 season saw Putnam get more seat time as a driver. He won a Grand Circuit event at the Indiana State Fair steering Lily Grace to a half-length victory in her division of the Horseman Stake for 3-year-old pacing fillies. Putnam recorded 444 starts, winning 37 times, with 46 runner-up and 46 third-place performances. His purse earnings totaled $281,635.

“I drove good horses, mediocre horses, and some bad horses. I learned to put horses in the right spots, be a little patient at times when needed, especially on the big tracks,” he said. “I got more comfortable with the drivers on the track, and I didn’t feel out of place.”

The experiences of the previous two seasons prepared Putnam well for what turned out to be a tremendous 2019 season. On the fair circuit, the young catch driver made the most of his opportunities. He steered 61 winners throughout the summer – more than any other driver – to take the title as leading reinsman. Along the way, he scored a $20,000 fair championship with Tellawoman, a Tellitlikeitis filly he co-owned with his father and Michigan-based owner Mike Lee. He collected another fair championship in the fall with the Justin White-trained Kazans Power, a gelded freshman by Cherry Hill Park.

“The fair circuit was huge to me. What a year. I got great opportunities. The Justin White Stable, I drove a lot of power for them. We had a few of our own out there,” said Putnam. “I thought it was great. The first year I drove at the fairs I got a few drives. It just came together last year. People at the track are always watching the fairs and know what is going on. It was something I needed, and will continue to need to keep growing in the sport and working my way up. I love the fairs.”

Those that did not take note of Putnam’s success on the fair circuit could not help but see his work with Rockin Nola at Harrah’s Hoosier Park. After winning the Super Final as a freshman with LeWayne Miller at the lines, the Rockin Image filly returned to defend her title in 2019. Miller had a sophomore pacing filly of his own, and the conflict opened up the door for Putnam. As it turned out, “Nola” was the only charge from his father’s stable that he had not sat behind in competition.

“It was a big learning curve, especially driving Rockin Nola. I tried to tell myself there wasn’t a lot of pressure. I was driving all the other horses in the stable,” he said. “I just wanted to prove myself to not only our family and the owners, but to everybody else watching because everybody had their eyes on her.”

In his first time out with Rockin Nola, the pair scored a 1:51.2 victory, winning by a margin of one and one-quarter lengths. The filly won seven of 16 starts, with Putnam accounting for five trips to the winner’s circle. He was in the bike for the biggest as she successfully repeated with a two-length Super Final triumph. Last July, the youngest driver in the Hoosier Park colony guided Rockin Nola to a 1:49.4 victory and a place in the Hoosier Park records, as the time matched Wisdom Tree’s sophomore mark from a year earlier.

“She was awesome all year, but we ran through learning curves with her and learning curves with me,” the driver noted. “I was comfortable after the first few starts, but I knew we had to be on the board every week, at least I felt we did, because our filly was one of the best.”

Putnam closed out 2019 with 837 starts, nearly tripling his win total of the preceding season with 115 victories. Purse earnings reached $849,740, pushing his career earnings over the $1 million mark. He had been racing in Ohio over the winter, driving anything his father shipped while picking up limited opportunities. Putnam hit the board 11 times in 57 starts before the COVID-19 pandemic brought racing to a halt.

Currently, he spends each day working in the barn, helping with the stable that numbers more than 30 head. When he is not at the barn, Putnam focuses on the mowing business that he started in high school and still maintains. He is responsible for 17 yards and some landscaping work. Like everyone else, he awaits a return to racing.
“I’m very excited. I know it’s a tough time, and I hope everybody can stay afloat. I’m really itching to get back,” he said. “I like to stay busy all the time. You’ve got to chase it. You’ve got to chase the dream.”