by Chris Lomon
“Keep on truckin,’” is the only way Zackary Gray knows.
There have been times, both personally and professionally, when the young horseman from Malta, NY, has felt at his lowest point, unable to see much, if any, reason for optimism.
But when he is faced with such moments, the 22-year-old recalls the advice he received from his late father, words that have been echoed by another respected figure in his life.
They never fail to inspire.
“My dad, Bobby, it was about two years before he passed away, he told me, ‘Just keep truckin,’” Gray said. “He said whatever I faced, that I should never give up. And that stuck with me, and I’ve stuck by that. I’ve had a few down times in my life, but I always keep going.”
Gray’s association with standardbreds can be traced back to the days before he could walk and talk.
In fact, his first trip to the racetrack came not long after he was welcomed into the world.
“I’m a third-generation horseman,” Gray said. “I think I went straight to the barn as soon as I was born. When I was about 5, I started working with the horses and I jogged my first one when I was 8. It was one of [trainer] Jimmy Nickerson’s horses. I remember the moment. It was pretty cool, just that feeling of being behind that strength and athleticism. I was hooked from that moment.”
Seven years ago, when he was 15, Gray and his family moved to Saratoga when his father took a job in the stables of Heidi Rohr and Nickerson.
Wherever the horses raced, Gray was happy to be along for the ride, eager to lend a helping hand to his father in whatever way he could.
It was in New York when Gray started to sit in the sulky, but he was more enamored with the training side of the sport.
When his dad died in 2018, Gray continued his education in the industry and at the same time, intensified his pursuit of a harness racing career.
His rookie season, in 2022, was an undeniable success.
On April 15, he sent out his first winner, Star Of Terror, a bay son of Western Terror, at Cumberland Raceway in Maine.
Gray, who had moved to Maine from New York to kick-start his career, didn’t have to worry about a photo finish in his milestone victory, an emotional triumph that prompted thoughts of how his father would be proud of him.
“One of my best friends, Wil Dubois, he sent me the horse,” Gray said. “He won by 8 ½ lengths that race. I was really excited. At the three-quarter pole, he let him out and he was just flying. At the top of the stretch, I knew he was home free. It was pretty exciting. It was awesome.”
So too was the purchase of Cool Jack.
The bay son of Camluck holds standing as Gray’s favorite horse to date.
He recorded over $200,000 in career earnings and had nearly a dozen different owners, including Gray’s mom, Sheryl, over his racing years.
“[Trainer] Joe Facin told my dad, just before he passed away, ‘I’ll get your kid a horse,’” Gray said. “We bought the horse and two weeks later, my dad died. So, this horse is very special to me. This summer, he was racing at Plainridge and he snapped a pastern. We had to put him down, which was tough. I know I’ll never forget that horse. He was a cool horse. You could do whatever you wanted with him. You could ride him and he would just follow you around. You didn’t even need a lead shank on him. He was the best horse over. When you were feeling down and out, he always came through. He always found a way to battle back.”
Just like Gray always has.
His passion for horses and the sport he loves keeps him moving forward.
Control Tower, an 11-year-old son of Panpacificflight, also owned by his mom, is another favorite horse of his.
“I’ve always wanted to race at The Meadowlands and we had the chance to do that with him,” Gray said. “He finished third [this Jan. 22] in a race there and missed winning by just over a length. We came back to Saratoga in mid-February, and he won at 60-1. He’s such a nice horse. We’ve had him since December when we claimed him. He’s won almost $500,000 in his career and he has over 40 wins. He’s one of those ones that always tries hard, even when the odds seem to be against him.”
Currently, Gray runs a stable of a handful of horses, an ideal number for the time being.
While he might look to expand his operation, it certainly won’t be by much more than what he already has.
Goal-wise, the big picture for Gray comes in the form of a short-term viewpoint.
“I really like to take things day-to-day, maybe get a few owners and a couple more horses,” Gray said. “We would all like to win the Little Brown Jug, so that would be the ultimate dream. But I think five or six horses would be ideal. My mom is my biggest owner now and she is also my biggest supporter. She has always stuck by my side. She’s the best. I’m just happy to be where I’m at now.”
At a point where he didn’t always think he would be.
It’s why every morning he steps into the barn is a scene he never takes for granted.
“When they pop their head out and they are happy to see you, it always makes you smile,” Gray said. “The horses, all they have is you. It’s awesome to see them.”
After a rookie season that produced 23 wins and $103,339 in purse earnings, Gray will work to an even stronger sophomore campaign.
And he’ll do it, as always, through the lens of one day at a time.
“I look back to my first week of training and every horse I had finished last,” Gray said. “It wasn’t very good. I was ready to give up and my mom told me that I need to keep going. I worked for [trainer] Jaymes McAssey at Saratoga for three years and I called him up and said, ‘I’m ready to give this up.’”
And then Gray heard those inspirational three words his father had shared with him.
“Jaymes told me, ‘Keep on truckin,’” Gray said. “He told me to work hard and things will eventually pay off. The next week, I won three races. I heard those words from my dad and then Jaymes said it too. And that’s what we did.”