by Victoria Howard
Not every woman is lucky enough to have been raised around horses or born into a harness racing family. Some were introduced through a friend or acquaintance — and that’s all it takes to make it their passion and lifetime career.
Today, women in the sport make up a large percentage of owners, trainers, caretakers, veterinarians and drivers. There are some male trainers who prefer to hire only women as caretakers for “girls are calmer, have more patience, and most horses just seem to prefer having a woman rub their legs and feed and bathe them. Can you blame them?” one male trainer said recently, laughing.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule for the more hard-to-handle or stubborn horses may need a tougher approach such as a man’s touch, but, in general, a female groom, such as Melissa Dekiel, is in high demand.
Born in Hamilton, ON, Dekiel was in her early 20’s when one evening while dining with friends she was asked if she was interested in travelling and re-locating to Indiana to groom horses at Hoosier Park Raceway.
“I had nothing really holding me back at the time so after discussing it with my mother I decided to try something different, and said yes,” Dekiel said.
“That was the beginning of decades working for some wonderful trainers, living in different states, and becoming a ‘surrogate mother’ to many, many horses.
“I’ve worked for trainers Johnny Schoffner, Walter Callahan, Ron and Jimmy Otto, Jim Pantaleano, Virgil Morgan Jr., Bud Hatfield, George Napolitano, the late Norm Dessaurault, Peter Blood, Brian Hauck, the late Marc Aubin, Marcus Marashian, Norm Parker and Dirk Simpson.
“Each and every trainer I worked for has influenced me in one way or another and taught me many things.
“I always walk into a barn on my first day and pretend I don’t know anything. It makes it much easier to acclimate to the way that specific barn is run. There are always different things to do to make a horse better.
“I will say that my time working for Marc Aubin was the most influential for he taught me how to manage a barn without realizing he was teaching me.
“He was one terrific man and trainer and harness racing lost one of its greatest when Marc passed last year.”
Dekiel said she has loved each and every horse she has cared for, but her “special ones” were Frank Bytes, I’ll Beach Ya, Victory Park and her current favorite, Max’s Beast.
“I used to get really attached to my horses. They all have different personalities — which people who don’t work around these wonderful animals may know — but they do. Each one is unique and I have never come across two that are the same.
“They are just like humans, as they have feelings, temperaments and a mind and soul. It kills me when I hear people say, ‘He’s just a horse. He doesn’t understand or remember you.’ Racehorses are not mechanical machines. They are living, breathing, creatures that have a heart and feelings and should be treated as such.
“I’ve learned (the hard way) not to get attached to horses that are in claiming races for they could be gone without warning sometimes. But no matter how much I tell myself not to get attached, I always do.
“I’ve never taken care of any world champions, but when I worked for George Napolitano it was really fun. We won a lot of races and I was thrilled when we put a new lifetime mark on my favorite trotter, Frank Bytes, in 1:56.4. That was the first time I ever did that and I felt like a proud mama.
“And I also loved working with George Napolitano Jr. for he pushed me to start jogging my own horses.”
Presently, Dekiel works for Tim and Pattie Crissman in Smyrna, DE taking care of five horses.
“Right now we are racing at Dover Downs and when Chester and Harrington opens, we will be racing there for the summer.
I really love my job working for Tim and Patti. I’ve been there for over one year now. They treat me like family, I get to travel, but thankfully not too far from home for I have two teenage sons. I’ve got some really nice horses I enjoy racing and taking care of.
“Tim and Patti nominated me for ‘Groom of the Year’ in Delaware. In 20 years of working in the business, I’ve never been nominated by an employer before, so I feel blessed, lucky, and feel like I’m already a winner.”