Just when she thought she was out, they pulled her back in

Sophie Norton was looking to try other equine pursuits away from standardbreds when SUNY Morrisville equine program teacher Kerin Warner showed her she was meant for harness racing.

by Chris Lomon

Sophie Norton was looking for a way out. That was until, much to her surprise, she found her way back in.

It wasn’t that she had anything against the idea of working in the standardbred industry. Instead, the then teenager originally from Delaware was focused on pursuing a long-time passion in a different equine arena.

“So, it’s kind of a funny story,” said Norton. “I kept trying to get out of it. I started with the HHYF (Harness Horse Youth Foundation) and did that for a couple of years. I came from riding horses, and I wanted to keep riding. When I started showing a bit more, I had to make the decision to leave the youth foundation camp and focus on the show horses more often. And that was it until I went to college.”

Soon enough, plenty of things would change for Norton after she her acceptance into the State University of New York (SUNY) at Morrisville, a public college with two locations (the other is in Norwich) in the Empire State.

Her original post-secondary gameplan altered course before her first day of classes.

“I went to Morrisville for Equine Science,” she said. “I was going to do the rehab and thoroughbred programs, but they got rid of the thoroughbred program. I decided not to do the rehab one, which meant I had to find something to do. The first time I ever went there, it was for a tour, and I was looking to speak with someone about the thoroughbred program. Kerin Warner, who teaches the standardbred side, came out and said, ‘You can talk to me instead.’ I told him I wasn’t really interested in harness racing, and I didn’t think it was for me. He looked and me said, ‘Okay. I’ll be seeing you in class anyway.’ I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

Fast forward to one year later, and Norton, now seated in Warner’s class, quickly recalled that conversation.

She also remembered another thing the two had discussed when they first met.

“Kerin said he heard that I was in the youth foundation and to please come and jog a horse in the summer. He had my number, and he would call to remind me. One day, I said, ‘Okay… I’ll come to the races.’ So, I went, and I never left.”

For the past three years, Norton has plied her trade in the standardbred world, a jack-of-all-trades horsewoman who has indeed found her happy place.

Working in the Vernon Downs’ barn of Michelle Warner, wife of Kerin Warner, Norton’s daily duties include a little bit of everything.

“Kerin still teaches at the college, so I’m with Michelle, doing whatever I can to help. I’m Kerin’s second trainer, so Michelle and I work hard to keep things running smoothly when he’s teaching at the school. We have about 25 horses right now. I’ll clean stalls, rub on horses, paddock. I also drive, just qualifying drives for now. A few more starts and then I’ll start my pari-mutuel driving.”

Having that variety in her role, where each day is different than the next, resonates with Norton.

“It’s nice not to have redundancy in what you do. It’s not where you come in, clean five stalls, rub on five horses and then go home. You don’t truly know what every day will turn out to be.”

One certainty is her relationship with a particular horse.

Norton developed a close-knit connection with Bet Big On Blue, a 6-year-old son of Muscle Hill—Honorable Daughter, right from the start of her harness racing career.

She was handed the reins of the bay trotter immediately but wasn’t told why.

“I’ve taken care of him for three years. He left us for a month, came back and now he’s racing again. We rehabbed him twice, and he’s stayed sound for us. The story with him was the first night I came to the races, Kerin handed me the horse and said to take him for Lasix. I took him, and I didn’t know at the time that the horse had a reputation for being hard to handle. Kerin said he didn’t expect me to come back with him, but we did. I was none the wiser. I was just happy that I had made a new friend. He walked beside me the whole time with his head on my shoulder. I came back with him and told Kerin he was fine. He said, ‘Well, he acts bad for me, so he’s your horse now.’ And he’s been mine ever since.”

The horse with a dozen wins over 77 career races is one of many reasons why Norton is happy to be where she is these days.

Goals and aspirations within the sport are never far from her thoughts.

One day, she hopes to run a modest stable of her own, campaigning a small group of pacers and trotters that will see her in the driver’s seat.

“My long-term goal is to be a full-fledged trainer on my own, and I’ll probably drive my own. I’m not looking to be a catch driver. I’m working towards that with Kerin and Michelle. I don’t think I have any specific short-term goals. I’m learning all that I can now.”

That education extends beyond the barn and the racetrack.

When she’s not plying her trades, Norton is in the classroom, albeit virtually, studying creative writing, with a concentration in fiction, at SNHU.

“I’m a full-time student, online. I do about five hours of course work each day after I get home from Vernon. Five hours after that, I go to bed and start my day all over again.”

All of it happy trails, she offered.

For the person who had once wanted out, Norton is thrilled to be back in, and back in to stay.

She very much looks the part of a serious horseperson.

“My driving colors are royal blue and grey, with Colombian blue trim and yoke stripes on the top. It’s more or less the same design as Kerin’s, except that his are red and white, and mine are blue and grey. I really like the way it looks.”

The same can also be said of a sport and a career that at one point she never envisioned.

“It’s funny how things worked out, but it did. And I’m really happy about that.”