by Victoria Howard
Harness racing desperately needs fresh young blood to help keep the sport alive — a dedicated, enthusiastic, and enterprising new generation to regenerate what, at one time, was the fastest-growing sport in America.
I remember the days when you needed a reservation to dine in the upscale clubhouses at Roosevelt, Brandywine and Pompano Park.
Sadly, every year another harness track closes its doors. Attendance and handle is rolling down a spiral tube due to the opening of casinos. Accusations of cheating and chicanery in the sport of silks and sulkies cast a pall over the industry.
But luckily, there is hope, for there are some young people who have grown up in the business who refuse to step aside and watch our sport dissipate. One of them is Jessica Hallett.
Harness racing and horses have run through Hallett’s blood since she was born. Her maternal grandfather, Bruce Aldrich, Sr., was involved in the business as a trainer/driver for 59 years — right up until the day he died. (The day before his death Aldrich had two winners at Monticello)
Linda Aldrich, Bruce’s wife, helped her husband run their stable for 30 years as a trainer and groom, until she died in 2001.
Hallett’s mother, Michelle, was also born into the sport and has been in the business for almost 52 years as a trainer, owner, and groom.
John Hallett (Jessica’s dad) started going to the track at the age of six in Saint John, NB. When John was older, he began working under trainer/driver Wally Hennessey learning the trade. Currently, John trains and owns a stable of 10 horses racing at Tioga Downs.
So it is no surprise that John and Michelle’s daughter, Jessica, is actively involved. Although she doesn’t own any horses of her own, she said she has mentally adopted all the horses in the stable and one day would like to become a licensed owner — just another title to add to her long list.
“I help with the grooming and paddocking,” Jessica said. “As a kid my job was to handle the water buckets and feed tubs, along with my brother, Jonathan (not currently involved in harness racing.) I’ve always helped with setting up and taking down barns between Florida and New York.
“I mostly act as the runner in the paddock; getting horses off the track after the race, strip and bathe them, wash the equipment, and cool them out in between my other jobs.
“My other jobs include white tagging and blood testing after each race for Tioga Downs, washing the bikes after the races, taking pictures, and now, drawing program sketches of horses on the track.”
And if that wasn’t enough, this ambitious, talented young woman recently began writing for several racing publications.
“I started writing for Harnesslink in 2017. I wrote several articles for them between 2017 and 2021 — topics ranging from trainers, drivers, grooms and horses, to current events like the pandemic.
“From 2018 to 2020, I worked as a USTA Youth Delegate where my biggest events involved working at the Hambletonian in public relations and media.
“At the Hambletonian in 2019, I wrote several short stories about various topics I photographed — one being a contestant in the hat contest who was a long-time race fan.
“In 2018, my story about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was published in several locations including, Hoof Beats, Harnesslink, Standardbred Canada and Harnessracing.com.
“The story was rewarded honorable mention in the feature-writing category of the USHWA 2018 John Hervey Awards for excellence in harness racing journalism.
“My second publication in Hoof Beats was an article on the long-time relationship between my dad and Wally Hennessey.
“I currently work for Standardbred Canada. My job involves a mix of my own writing, editing, coding, photo editing, and publishing.
My article “From Pompano to Tioga and Back During the Pandemic” received honorable mention in the USHWA 2021 John Hervey Awards for excellence in harness racing journalism.”
Her greatest memories in the sport are too many to mention, but Hallett says she has been blessed.
“People in the business come from all walks o life. They bring their stories and experiences and it’s hard not to learn from each one. It’s the same with the horses. I remember every horse our family had, their names, personalities and quirks.
“Each horse had their own nickname and their own individual attributes that made them who they were; such as a horse that was about to train but decided to take his shoe off and hold it in his mouth,” Jessica said, laughing.
“And another one who ate corn on the cob while laying down with the cob between his front hooves – like a person
“And I’ve made my own wonderful memories, like becoming track photographer at Pompano Park and going to the National Standardbred Horse Show winning a national title.
“Also, writing for Hoof Beats and Standardbred Canada, to starting my own art business through harness racing.”
Along with her busy schedule, Jessica graduated a pre-medical honors student in May 2021, double majoring in biology and behavioral neuroscience with four minors. She’s not only a pretty face and an avid horsewoman, but she’s one smart cookie.
With what was once her home – Pompano Park – closing its doors this year, the Hallett family will re-locate their stable to Saratoga to start a new chapter in their lives.
“The closing of Pompano Park has been devastating to all affected. It is all I’ve ever known in my life. It was where my parents started their own stable, and although a major chapter of our lives has closed, we are trying to be optimistic.
“Pompano Park was doomed to this fate from a ball that started rolling long ago. If track announcer Gabe Prewitt couldn’t stop that ball with all he had done through promoting, social media, betting engagements and more, I don’t believe anything or anyone could have stopped it.”