By Ken Weingartner — Growing up together in southeastern Illinois, Jazmin Arnold and Alesha Binkley were inseparable during their summers off from school.
“If you saw me, you saw her; if you saw her, you saw me,” Arnold said, laughing.
“We were together so much that we would take turns staying at each other’s house,” Binkley said. “Our parents were good friends and we ran around together at all the county fairs while they were racing. We would go to the carnivals, ride rides, go swimming, hang out all summer long. That way our parents didn’t have to worry about us too much.”
After graduating from their respective high schools, Arnold and Binkley went their separate ways. But last year, the two friends, now both living in central Ohio, reunited on harness racing’s amateur driving circuits. Arnold, in her first full season, won 23 of 59 races in 2019 and was named the National Amateur of the Year by the U.S. Harness Writers Association. Binkley won eight of 38 races.
On Saturday, the 25-year-olds both have multiple drives in the Great Lakes Amateur Driving Series at Northfield Park. The series, which began Dec. 7, concludes a week from Saturday.
“We would have never thought when we were younger that we would be doing this,” Arnold said. “I trained my first horse at 8 years old. She played a lot of sports. I played sports, too, but I was more into the horses. When her dad got her into the horses, she would jog a little bit, but she was never gung-ho about it like I was.”
Binkley, who played on high school and travel teams for softball, volleyball and basketball, agreed she had little interest in racing at that time. But after high school, she discovered she enjoyed going to the races and working around the horses.
“I always kind of thought about driving,” Binkley said, adding with a laugh, “I’m a professional sideline driver, I will say that. I critique everybody from the sidelines. So, I thought maybe I should try it myself.”
Binkley has worked for trainer Trent Stohler for six years. In 2018, Stohler encouraged Binkley to give driving a shot in the Ohio Ladies Pacing Series. Binkley won her debut and never looked back.
“I was hooked,” said Binkley, who won 10 of 20 starts her first year. “I was like, I want to do this all the time. I really love the adrenaline rush. A bunch of people say I’m so serious on the racetrack. At that point, I’m just trying to contain my excitement. I get so excited, I don’t want to overdo it, overdrive, or drive bad.
“Leaving the gate is probably my favorite thing. I just love flying out of the gate.”
Arnold was encouraged to begin driving by her boyfriend, trainer Adam Short, and given an additional boost from trainer Herman Hagerman. She was pleasantly surprised by her success.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” said Arnold, who competed at 26 different tracks last year. “It was fun for me at first and then it became very competitive. Once I got kind of rolling, I had a goal and I just kept on going. It was tough, it was tiring, but it was worth every minute of it.
“We’ll see where it goes. It was a goal of mine to win an award for driving, but I never knew how it was going to go or when it would happen. I don’t really have a plan for this year. I would like to succeed and go forward, but everybody would like to have everything.”
Arnold works with Short and also trains a 5-year-old female pacer, Knockout Queen, that she owns. Knockout Queen races Friday in the fillies-and-mares open handicap at Miami Valley Raceway.
“I’m happy having one horse,” Arnold said. “If I can have one and I can train her to my best ability and take care of her the best I can, that’s enough.”
As close as Arnold and Binkley are as friends, they are equally competitive when it comes to facing each other on the racetrack.
“We have to do what’s best for us to win,” Binkley said. “But if I get beat by her, I’m OK with it. Anyone else, and I’m kind of mad at myself.”
Said Arnold, “If I’m going to get beat by anybody, I’d rather get beat by her.”
On five occasions, Arnold and Binkley have finished 1-2 in races. Only a dead heat for win might be a more fitting outcome.
Ken Weingartner, for the USTA, is an HRI Harness contributor