Rob Pennington spends a lot of time preparing horses for the limelight, but recently received his own turn in the spotlight when he was named 2013 Groom of the Year in an annual competition sponsored by Hanover Shoe Farms and Harness Tracks of America.
A native of Marion, Ohio, the 33-year-old Pennington has worked as a harness racing caretaker for 17 years. He now lives in central New Jersey, where he is responsible for five horses in the stable of trainer Noel Daley. In addition, Pennington owns two retired racehorses that he shows in state and national competitions.
He also is a board member of the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of New Jersey and the Open Space Pace Committee and a volunteer with the Standardbred Retirement Foundation.
Pennington recently took time to talk with Harness Racing Communications' Ken Weingartner about his passion for horses.
HRC: How did you get started working with horses?
RP: It was a summer job. I was doing stalls for Delvin Criswell at first and then I started grooming some. He got me a groom's license at Scioto Downs when I was 17. That year a filly named Heart Ofthe Matter that was owned by Spring Haven Farm, she won the Tompkins-Geers (Stakes) when they had it there, and I was just hooked.
HRC: How did you end up in New Jersey?
RP: I started rubbing in '97 and I think I left in 2003. I went to work for Danny Collins and he went back and forth from Florida to Ohio. That's where I met Doug Miller. Then I went to work for him and we started coming here. After a few winters back and forth from Florida I wanted to settle down and get some roots somewhere, so I decided to stay in New Jersey. It's nice not living out of a suitcase.
HRC: What do you most enjoy about the job?
RP: The horses. I'm just having fun and enjoying the horses. When it becomes a job, that's when I'm going to stop doing it.
HRC: Have you ever considered training?
RP: I've thought about it before. I think it wouldn't be that hard for me to do that, but for me it's just not my thing.
HRC: Who is your favorite horse?
RP: My favorite horse of all time is a horse that I took care of when I was with Virgil Morgan, Pacific Challenger. He was a great horse. We won (five out of six races) and he got claimed at Hoosier Park. That was probably the saddest day of my life when that horse got claimed. He just had a wonderful personality. He would pin his ears and act like he was going to bite you, but then would just melt in your lap. He was just a really cool horse to be around.
HRC: How did you get started showing horses?
When I worked for Doug Miller, he encouraged me to show a mare in hand that he owned in the national show. She won the national in hand championship and I was hooked from there. I searched for a horse of my own, but I couldn't afford one at the time. Donna and Jim Marshall's daughter Kelly went away to college in Vermont, so they loaned me Treacherous Cat and he's an amazing horse. I showed him for a year. When I went to work for Peninsula Farm, John Duer gave me Valiant Lega C, who I still own. We showed successful all over New Jersey and the national level against Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. He's won me a lot. He's got a home for life. He's in my top five all-time favorite horses.
HRC: You also do work with the pleasure horse organization.
RP: Another passion of mine. The way I look at it, my whole adult life and career, these horses have fed me. So I want to give back to them. With feeding two of my own and myself, there's not a lot of money to donate. So I donate my time. With the SPHO, I got involved and six months later they created a points secretary position. I think I've had that position for getting close to 10 years. We plan the big national Standardbred show at the Horse Park of New Jersey. I also help with the banquet that we have for our awards. That's probably my favorite thing to plan.
HRC: Does it make you feel good to show Standardbreds in another light?
RP: When I showed Valiant Lega C competitively when he was younger, nobody could believe he was not a Quarter Horse. I had to show his tattoo, that's the only way I could get people to believe it. When somebody outside the (harness racing) business says ‘Wow, that's a Standardbred? We never thought they could show competitively,' it makes me feel good. It's getting pretty big. Standardbreds aren't just for racing anymore.--By Ken Weingartner/Harness Racing Communications