Joey Putnam on trading diamonds for ovals and loving it

by Chris Lomon

Win or lose, Joey Putnam always steps up to the plate.

There was a time when diamonds, not racetrack ovals, were his first sporting preference. Now, slugging percentage and batting average have been swapped for win percentage and UDRS stats for the young driver/trainer.

And that suits the 24-year-old Putnam, son of veteran horseman Joe Putnam (a winner of more than 3,000 races as a driver and 1,300 as a trainer), just fine.

“I think I may have gone the right route,” he said with a laugh. “But two of my buddies, this summer, had their Major League debuts, one of the St. Louis Cardinals, Zach Thompson, and one for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Drey Jameson. They’re both pitchers, one is a lefty and the other is a righty, and now they’re doing it in the big leagues. That’s pretty awesome.”

Putnam’s connection with Thompson extends beyond baseball.

“We all played travel ball together, but when I had my first pari-mutuel win at The Red Mile, and Zach and his family were there in the winner’s circle because he pitched at the University of Kentucky. Both guys are really great people and they’re doing well with their careers.”

So too is Putnam.

After embracing the standardbred life, he began to dedicate more hours to working in the family barn. It was five years ago when he told his father he wanted to sit in the sulky on the fair circuit.

Putnam’s milestone first win came in his third start when he piloted U’ll Learn to victory at the Corydon, IN, fair track.

The big moment from that summer came when he teamed with his father’s trotter Sum It Up to take the Signature Series final during Little Brown Jug week.

At season’s end, Putnam posted 10 wins, to go along with 13 seconds and seven thirds, from 59 starts.

The strong start led to even more successes, including a busy sophomore campaign.

In 2018, Putnam earned a Grand Circuit score at the with Lily Grace, a daughter of Shark Gesture, in her division of the Horseman Stake for 3-year-old pacing fillies. In 444 races, the reinsman recorded 37 wins and earnings of just over $281,000.

It set the table for a sensational 2019, highlighted by 61 wins in the summer to earn him leading driving honors on the fair circuit. Victories included a fair crown with Tellawoman, a daughter of Tellitlikeitis he co-owned with his father and Mike Lee, along with a fall fair triumph with Kazans Power, a trotting son of Cherry Hill Park.

That same year, he teamed with Rockin Nola, a daughter of Rockin Image, trained by his father, for several big moments, none bigger than the night of October 11 at Hoosier Park.

Putnam guided the multiple stakes-winning mare to victory in her $270,000 Indiana Sires Stakes Super Final, a two-length triumph in 1:51.4.

“It was an awesome feeling,” he said. “To be able to drive a horse like that against top competition and come out with a win was a dream come true.”

He closed out 2019 with 115 wins and just under $850,000 in earnings.

What would Putnam do for an encore?

Plenty more.

In 2020, Putnam notched 110 wins and over $1 million in earnings.

Last year, the former baseball standout hit it out of the park, with a career-best 169 wins and over $2 million in earnings. In December, he was named one of three finalists for the U.S. Harness Writers Association’s Rising Star Award.

“I’m very happy with the opportunities that have come my way and I’m grateful for the chance to get to know a lot of good people along the way. Being able to juggle a barn of 40-plus horses with my dad – we have a great crew – and the [horse] shipping company I own, which is doing really well too, keeps me on my toes. I’m just thankful everything is going well and that it is all working hand in hand.”

Putnam isn’t bristled by busy days, long weeks, and his numerous racing roles.

He considers it all a labor of love.

“We’re in the busy part of the season right now. We have a bunch of yearlings to ship to the Lexington sales by the end of the week. And the Hoosier Classic, our Indiana Sale is coming up quick, and then we’ll start turning our attention to going to Florida for the winter. It’s been a hectic season all around, the Oak Grove meet started in May, and that’s kept me hopping, racing Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, which are the dark days at Hoosier. I was doing that and at our home track. The year really has flown by.”

Still, as it is every year and each race, Putnam will be pushing hard right to the wire.

Goals for the rest of 2022 and beyond are still at the forefront of his thoughts.

“I have numbers I want to hit each year. We’re down a little bit from last year, but there are some good opportunities coming up, so that’s what we’ll focus on. Long term, it would be great to be on the big stage. We develop or buy some of our yearlings who could go to the big stage, so that would be nice. I definitely want to win a Breeders Crown one day. That’s one of my big hopes. And maybe the Dan Patch because that’s in our backyard. I want to have the success everyone dreams of, but I want to be hardworking and a good person. That’s important to me.”

As for his best skill in the race bike, Putnam points to his ability to rise to the occasion on the big nights.

“I try my best every time I’m out there, but when the big money is on the line, I don’t overthink or feel the pressure. I make sure I’m fully prepared and I really embrace those moments to drive in the big races.”

Putnam also welcomes any chance to learn more about his craft.

Advice is always appreciated and often sought out.

“You never can stop learning, picking other people’s brains about horses, or even just seeing what other drivers do. Dexter [driver, Dunn], he doesn’t move when he’s in the lane. He’s able to sit so still, so that’s something I see and then I try to be quieter in the bike myself.”

Putnam also endeavors to enjoy any time he has away from the racetrack.

Opportunities to unwind are a near impossibility over certain stretches of the racing season, but when they do come, he takes full of advantage of them.

“Yesterday [September 25], I had my first Sunday off in a long time. [Driver] Atlee Bender and I, we rode bikes and played a little basketball. I’m not too good at basketball, but it was a good time. It was a nice, refreshing day. When I do get a bit of time away from racing, I like to head out to the lake close by and go boating. In the spring and fall, there’s a little bit of time you can find, and my friends and I will go to Kentucky and Tennessee and do some off-roading with our side-by-sides.”

When it comes to the racing side of his life, knowing that he’s found his personal field of dreams puts a smile on his face every day.

“I love what I do. Baseball was always the biggest thing for me growing up, but horse racing is everything for me now. I’m lucky with how things turned out.”