Hillbilly's galore At Jackson's Virginia farm
May 20, 2020
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Amanda Jackson is a registered nurse who works in the recovery room at Saint Francis Medical Center in the Brandermill section of south Richmond (Va.) by day, and is a Standardbred horse trainer/breeder/owner on other parts of the days, evenings, weekends and holidays when she is not working.
She has been active in Virginia's pari-mutuel harness racing circuit since 2008 when her Hillbilly Haven Farm came into existence. The 14-acre property in Burkeville is adjacent to a 120-acre Standardbred farm her parents own. A series of dirt paths snake through the woods and connect the two farms together, which are accessible by durable golf cart or harness jog cart, including horse. A three-eighths mile training track is situated between both.
Jackson, whose family relocated to Burkeville when she was young, was born in Hurley, Va. Even though they didn't race horses at a pari-mutuel circuit then, horses were part of her upbringing.
"We used to get Standardbreds after their racing career and break them to ride and re-sell them, and keep some of them," she said. "In the mountains, under saddle races are really popular especially in places like Jamestown, Tenn. There is a great market for that believe it or not."
Her interest in racing began when one of the horses they had showed good pedigree and history.
"I reached out to Dr. Charlie Dunavant, who was President of the Virginia Harness Horse Association, to see what he thought. It all started from there. He got the ball rolling and got me going in the right direction. From that point I got a trainer's license and have been doing it since. With Doc's guidance, I bought my first horse named Take You There from a friend of Chuck Perry's and he won right away. It stuck with me immediately."
Her husband Randy was a conductor for Norfolk & Southern Railroad at the time and didn't have a backround with horses so the business started out with Jackson and her father, Tim Dotson. When the family moved to Burkeville, people in town referred to Tim as "hillbilly" since he came from the mountains. That nickname carried over to the farm moniker and to the name many of her horses have as well, from earlier years until today.
Randy has a trainers license now so between the trio, Amanda's son Adam and Tim's wife Sharon, it's become a family affair. "We do it together," she said. "We divide up duties based on who is working when. We get the horses going, get them jogged and clean the stalls. One day last week, Randy had to work early so I got my son up at 6 a.m. to help get two horses ready that I jogged before work. It is a collective effort."
Al and Katherine Smith are longtime harness owners and fans, and know the Jackson family well. Two of their retired horses, Tom Bruce and Firm Fatale, are enjoying their golden years at Hillybilly Haven.
"This family truly loves their animals and take incredible care of them," said Katherine. "They would do anything they could to help you out. I remember when Tim decided that Tom and Firm, as senior members of the farm, didn't really like eating from a bucket or ground feeder. So, he cut some trees from the place, treated them, and sunk the six foot sections into the ground to make waist high feeders for the oldsters so they didn't have to bend so far."
Hillbilly Camtastic and Hillbilly Heartache have each won a Virginia Breeder's Championship at Shenandoah Downs. Hillbilly Hardtimes won a Maryland Sire Stake final in 2012. Jackson has high hopes this year for a 2-year-old colt named Hillbilly Nite Shift. Her father has a filly the same age named Hillbilly Fantasy. And her best horse to date has been Hillbilly Desire.
"We have a whole list of names that could follow the word Hillbilly so when it's time to register a new horse, we run down the list and see what fits best. It makes the naming process fun," she said.
As a 2 year old in 2011, Hillbilly Desire was three-for-three at Colonial Downs before finishing third in the Breeder's Championship. In 2012, she went four-for-six there, set a lifetime mark of 1:52 and went on to win the 3-Year-Old Filly Pacing Championship. In 2013, she went three-for-five at Colonial. Over those three years, the daughter of Real Desire was 10 for 15, had three runner-ups and a third. The lone out-of-the-money finish came in a distance race carded at 1 1/4 miles. At retirement after the '14 season, Hillbilly Desire had 20 wins from 58 starts and $108,323 in purse earnings.
"She is the name and face of Hillbilly Haven Farm," said Jackson. "She is still here, is an active broodmare and will die here. This will always be her home. It was very difficult to break her and very hard to get her to the races. She just gave you a thrill every time she raced. She liked to stay in the back of the field and come to the front late in the race. This may be crude to say, but because of her racing style, I felt like throwing up every time she was on the track competing!"
Jackson's favorite race memory also involves Hillbilly Desire, but it did not occur in Virginia. In 2012, right after winning the Breeder's Championship, she took her sophomore pacer to The Meadows to race in a $16,200 fillies/mares Preferred race.
"She was an outsider there," recalled Jackson. "There was an attitude among folks there that horses coming from Colonial were overrated and would never do well there. It was a horrible rainy night and the track was sloppy but she ended up pulling the upset. Dave Palone drove her and she went from last to first. It was a great win."
Even though Al and Katherine Smith didn't own Hillbilly Desire, Al quickly developed a fondness for her.
"She and I go back a long way," he said. "My 'crush' on her started on Sept. 16, 2011. That was the day she made her first lifetime pari-mutuel start and I had a $20 win ticket on her as she went off at 20-1. I watched every one of her races during her career and visited her often on the backside when she was racing at Colonial. We even purchased her first foal from Hillbilly Haven, and I still believe 'Desire' is one of the most beautfiul and talented pacing mares I have ever seen in person."
At Saint Francis Hospital, Jackson normally works three days a week, 12-hour shifts though she is on call other times.
"I work in the recovery room so if you wake up from surgery, it's very possible I'll be the first person you see when you come to," she said.
With less surgery occurring during the covid-19 pandemic, Jackson helps out wherever needed now.
"It's been difficult the last few months. I check patients in, take covid patients to ICU, take people's temperatures before they come in, and help deliver personal protective equipment wherever it's needed. Some days we have as many covid patients as Chippenham Medical Center. This has been quite an adjustment to the medical field."
Aside from work, horses remain her passion.
"It's great to be able to look back and realize you helped make a horse what it is," said Jackson. "You raised and broke the horse, saw it from its first day of life then got it to the track to see how good it could do. It's a huge accomplishment and very rewarding. We are a very small time operation here but are very lucky to be able to do what we do. My husband and I both have careers outside of horses which brings income in to help fund the whole operation."
Jackson will compete in the Virginia Breeder's Championships this fall at Shenandoah Downs.
"I have high hopes for both my 2 (Hillbilly Nite Shift) and 3 year olds (Hillbilly Kisses)," she said. "The 2 year old is keeping up tit for tat with the older one. I've had very few 2 year olds in training that have been able to do that. He's got my juices flowing again. I'm pumped up."
The fall racing season in Woodstock is scheduled to run in September and October. This will be the fifth season there since the Virginia Equine Alliance invested $800,000 in a track surface renovation/upgrade in 2016.
"It's a really good half mile track," said Jackson. "It has held up well and showed some good miles. I don't think people give it enough credit. It's also wonderful to see people standing trackside. The fans in the stands are so enthusiastic and cheer when horses turn for home. The whole atmosphere is great." (Darrell Wood)