W. Springs native owns Ness Racing, trains race horses in TampaJamie Ness goes from minor SD tracks to major success in Florida.
By: Candy DenOuden, The Daily Republic
Kentucky jumps to most people’s minds when they think of bigtime horse racing. South Dakota? Not exactly. That didn’t stop Jamie Ness, a Wessington Springs native, from discovering the sport. Ness, 38, said he started going to races as a child in Fort Pierre and Aberdeen with his grandfather, L.A. Larson.
“After that, our family kind of got involved,” he said. “It’s a sport that kind of gets in your blood.” Ness, who now lives in Odessa, Fla., said his dad started training horses from Wessington Springs, then eventually moved on to bigger racetracks in Nebraska and Canada. A love of horses and “the thrill of competition,” he said, fueled his own interest in the sport.
Ness said he followed his dad through the circuit, while also earning a business economics degree and a journalism minor from South Dakota State University. He got a job at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn. In 1999, he decided to buy a couple of horses.
Fast forward to 2013, and he’s managing his own stable, with 120 horses and 50 employees. Ness Racing has won Tampa Bay Downs’ past six training titles and recorded 395 wins in 2012.
“We started from a small farm in Springs, kind of started with nothing,” he said. “We started small and got big.”
Joking that he didn’t like the hours that went along with his journalism experience, Ness said he now puts in even longer hours.
On a typical day, he gets to the barn about 4:30 a.m., gets done working with horses by about 10 a.m., and then goes to the races in the afternoon. After attending races all day, it’s time to take care of the horses again.
“It’s a busy day,” Ness said. “You might, maybe if you’re lucky, get done at 7 or 8 o’clock.”
It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t make it back to South Dakota very often. Like the farm animals he grew up taking care of, race horses don’t take a holiday from needing care and attention.
“The thing about training horses, it’s 365 days a year,” he said. “It’s a tough life, lot of training.”
Tough, but not a burden.
“It’s not a job for me. It’s what I like to do,” he said.
Ness said his family always had horses, even before racing, which ignited his passion to work with the animals. He said his farm background helped him prepare for the long hours and hard work his profession requires.
“I’m very fortunate to have grown up where I did,” he said. “You learn hard work and you learn responsibility, and I take that to work every day with me.”
Those qualities, he said, were vital to breaking into the horse racing world, which Ness described as “very niche.”
“It took a lot of work. It was tough to break in,” he said. “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”
Not only is it a competitive and close-knit world, it’s expensive. Little by little, though, Ness said he was able to get better horses, and with better horses, win better races. Winning better races gets people’s attention. “We got better and better every year,” he said. “It’s like any sport: The better you do, the more successful you are.” Now he has horses at tracks in New York, Miami, Arkansas and, of course Florida. Last year, the stable brought in $7.5 million in winnings. “We’re content where we’re at, and always striving to get better,” he said. His grandfather didn’t live to see his ascent into the ranks of top racehorse trainers. “I know if he were still around, he would be proud,” he said. He said his father no longer works in the horse racing world, either, but family is still a part of Ness’ work. He said his cousin, Cory Jensen, is his “main assistant.” Jensen oversees a division of horses at Oakland Park in Hot Springs, Ark.
“He’s a big reason for the success we’ve had. We’re more like partners,” Ness said. “When you work with your family, they’ve always got your back.”
Jensen, an Alpena native who graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University in 1999, agreed.
“Working with family, you really have a trust for each other,” he said. “Me and Jamie are a lot alike. … He knows I’m going to do the right thing for the horses, for the people I work with.”
While Jensen acknowledged they occasionally “butt heads,” he credits Ness for helping him succeed.
“He’s got his way of doing things, I’ve got my way of doing things, and they both work,” Jensen said. “I learned a lot about what to do from Jamie.”
As an assistant trainer at Oakland Park, Jensen said he takes care of 16 horses, which involves feeding and grooming, and training for races.
“It’s kind of like being a track coach,” he said. “You’re trying to get your athletes fit and ready to go.”
Ness describes his responsibilities similarly, also likening his job to that of a coach. “It’s almost better to be the coach than the athlete,” he said. And, like coaches, Jensen and Ness said watching their horses race and improve is a big part of what keeps them motivated.
“It’s the everyday thrill of competition and the agony of defeat, and we get to experience that a lot,” Ness said. He and his wife, Mandy, who is a former jockey, plan to keep experiencing it.
And while Ness may be dominating at Tampa Bay Downs, he has no plans to let up. “It’s hard to the top, but it’s harder to stay there,” he said.