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19 September 2023

Amplify goes Racing to School

Annise Montplaisir is Executive Director and Co-founder of Amplify, a US-based initiative that seeks to support horseracing industry education, mentorship and career opportunities for youth and young adults

Recently I played a real-life game of tetris, maneuvering boxes and suitcases into the back of my car. I was preparing to drive back to Lexington, Kentucky after a summer spent conducting educational programming at Saratoga Racecourse in upstate New York. Across the street from my rental home, students were gathering outside an elementary school for their first day back from summer vacation. Teachers, parents and students crowded around the front steps of the school, as pumping music blared from speakers. When it was time to begin class, the teachers clapped and cheered their students through the front doors, celebrating the school year ahead.

Observing this party-like first day of school caused me to reflect on a unique programme I had the opportunity to audit earlier in the summer, called Racing to School.

Striving to be first rung on the ladder

To offer some context, I am the co-founder and Executive Director of Amplify Horse Racing, a nonprofit organisation promoting education and careers in the Thoroughbred industry to youth and young adults across North America. We strive to become step-one for young newcomers, parents, and teachers to engage with the industry. We do this by amplifying existing horse programmes for youth, developing new ones like our career-oriented mentorship programme, and creating in-person and virtual ways to interact and learn.

Incorporated in 2020, Amplify got off a step slow due to the coronavirus, but gained momentum in 2021 and 2022 through a partnership with the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP) Foundation. Just this year, Amplify hired its first two full-time staff members. While it is first of its kind for the North American Thoroughbred industry, Amplify is not unique globally as a national industry youth organisation. This is what motivated a fact-finding mission I embarked on in June.

Creating the best of all worlds

The name “Amplify” derives from our goal to shine light on the multitude of amazing youth programmes in the Thoroughbred industry, and to fill gaps with new ideas. We do not want to overshadow existing initiatives, but rather identify collaborative opportunities and promote the exchange of ideas. We follow the same mentality when it comes to our growth and development. Why reinvent the wheel when there might be a programme in existence somewhere in the world that we can learn from?

I heard about Racing to School through a global networking organization called Together for Racing International (TfRI). During its formation, TfRI gathered several horse racing nations (Australia, France, Ireland, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to share their ideas, challenges, and frameworks for youth education, community engagement, and workforce development. TfRI has since served as a catalyst for growing pony racing globally, the development of an international Sister Cities exchange programme, and a roadmap for my travels to England and Ireland.

Engaging all the senses

Since Amplify’s inception, our board has grappled with the challenge of reaching educators. For every educator you reach, you can impact 10-30+ students. However, for us, traveling from school to school giving classroom talks is not feasible with such a small staff. Besides, how do you inspire students without the most inspiring aspect of our industry – the horse? Racing to School has perfected this equation: reaching educators, impacting students, AND including the horse. How? By bringing students to racetracks.

Racetracks are sensory experiences: organic smells of grass, dirt, horse, and manure; bright colours on jockey silks and race-goer attire; sounds of hooves clopping down the path from walking ring to track; the roar of voices and blaring announcer as the horses race down the stretch; and the feel of a race card tightly wadded in your palm as you urge on your chosen steed. Racing to School incorporates this sensory experience into their curated racetrack field trips for primary and secondary school students, which I audited on a sunny day at Sandown.

Itching to wear some famous colours

We began the day by gathering in a room at the racecourse – a group of around 30 students, three educators, two Racing to School staff members who would guide the students through the experience, plus Chief Executive John Blake, who extended the invitation for me to attend. And then there was me, just as excited as any of the students.

Jockey silks were passed around for students to wear (I probably would have worn them too had I been offered) and we split into two groups to rotate through the day’s activities. Each component of the tour correlated with the classroom subjects-based Racing to School workbook. From morning through the afternoon, we calculated jockey weights and equipment, measured the walking ring, observed the arrival of horses to the racecourse, and stood next to steeplechase fences. Students even had their own foot race right on the course, before cheering on horses in the first two races of the day. By the time we wrapped up, students had received lessons in math, reading, art, biology, and physical education, all by spending a day at the races.

Natural ingredients

I recently watched a video clip about a mother who snuck broccoli into her toddler’s mac ‘n cheese by telling her it was green sprinkles (I believe sprinkles are called “hundreds-and-thousands” in the UK). Racing to School is the mac ‘n cheese AND the broccoli – a learning experience rich in immersion with horses, green grass, sunny skies and all the other things racing fans love about racing, but laden with the school-based takeaways that teachers need to instill in their pupils.

Through Amplify’s work with racetracks like Churchill Downs, Keeneland, and Saratoga, among other industry partners, our impact on youth grew into the thousands this year. This was in part through collaboration with existing events, along with new initiatives that we spearheaded ourselves. By 2025, my ambition is to partner with more tracks, and to have exponentially increased our reach among the population we serve. Maybe we can even achieve an impact of 16,000 students, as Racing to School did in 2022.

Racing to School calls itself “The charity that inspires young minds,” and they’ve done that in multiple ways. By inviting Amplify to their event at Sandown, Racing to School allowed me to learn by observing, and thus determine how Amplify can create a more cohesive system for educating youth about the Thoroughbred industry on the other side of the world.

Reverting to last week’s tetris game that I won against my car (I successfully packed a bicycle, four suitcases, three tubs of work supplies, polo equipment, three boxes of randomized items, five plants, and a cooler into my aging Toyota Rav 4), and the back to school party taking place across the street. Someday, I hope that Amplify can perfect our pathway for classrooms in that school to visit a racetrack for the first time, and for that racetrack to enrich the lives of those students.

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