It’s 7am on a Monday morning in May, and my heart is thumping with excitement as I drive through the front gate of the Oklahoma track, the oldest operating horse training facility in America. Sure, I’d been to the Oklahoma on the guided tours before—but I’d forgotten what it felt like to be in such a historic place. In the peaceful early morning, when the air’s cool and the grass is still dewy, you can stand at the rail in awe, listening to the rhythmic explosion of breath as a Thoroughbred pumps its muscled body around the track. You walk on dirt paths that wind through a labyrinth of barns neatly arranged under towering pines and massive maples. During racing season, when the horses cross the street to Saratoga Race Course, traffic stops on Union Avenue and drivers can’t help but stare at the magnificent animals.
I got the invite to the Oklahoma from Georgie Nugent, one of 11 members of StarLadies Racing, a partnership made up of only women racehorse owners, who purchase only fillies (about five per year). Nugent, who lives a short walk from the Oklahoma, is similarly awestruck by what goes on inside its gates. She and I watch as sunlight and water droplets dance on the strong backs of three horses enjoying a post-workout bath. “I love this part—the steam coming off their bodies,” says Nugent. Soon after, I follow her to the barn of seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, who trains the partnership’s precious stock, and the stall of New York Charmer, a two-year-old dark bay. The young horse pokes her head, marked with a small white star, toward us. “She’s a sweetie,” says Nugent, patting her mane. “You fall in love with them, for sure. It’s like having one of your children race.” Nugent, who’s an environmental engineer, visits New York Charmer and Orra Moor, another StarLadies filly at Saratoga Springs, at least once a week before work.
While the number of partners in StarLadies shifts from year to year, this racing season, the core includes Nugent and Diana Ryan, both from Saratoga Springs; Barbara Lucarelli from Duanesburg; Mary Nixon from Louisville; Leigh Butler from Colorado Springs; and six other members hailing from places such as Florida, Georgia and Ohio. StarLadies was launched five years ago as an offshoot of Starlight Racing, a separate partnership founded by Jack and Laurie Wolf in 2000. In 18 years, Starlight has won 69 races (24 of which were Grade I), 3 Eclipse Awards and a Triple Crown, courtesy of Justify. (Partnerships own percentages of horses they acquire together.) With a few partners, Laurie launched StarLadies in 2013. “There are a lot of ladies who are in the horse business and who love horses, and I thought it would be fun to get a group of women together who have the same passion,” says Laurie. “What we do that’s a little different is, when you buy into StarLadies, you own a piece of all of them.” The Starlight partners purchase fillies at yearling sales at Fasig-Tipton in Lexington and Saratoga and at Keeneland, and that’s followed by a good deal of companionship, enjoyment and well, winning. In 2016, for example, the StarLadies partnership won 25 percent of its races, and the following year, 27 percent.
So what’s it like being a part of StarLadies? “I was attracted to StarLadies, because it was a bunch of very strong women who enjoyed the sport as much as I did,” says Nugent, who bought in last year. “I love everything they stand for…the female aspect, empowering women in horse racing.” The only female member of the New York Racing Association board, Nugent grew up riding but didn’t fall in love with racing until she moved to Saratoga a decade ago. A StarLadies member since 2015, Louisvillian Nixon worked on Thoroughbred farms and at yearling sales during her college days. She signed up after retiring as an exec at Yum! Brands, because she wanted to get back into horse racing and socialize with like-minded women. “Most of my career, I was pretty much surrounded by men,” she says. In Colorado Springs, Leigh Butler, an original StarLadies partner, has been a passionate racehorse owner for more than two decades. “I absolutely love attending the races, and StarLadies fillies run at the best, most iconic racetracks in the country: Saratoga, Belmont, Keeneland, just to name a few of my favorites,” she says. “Last year I was able to attend 22 races, including the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar.”
While StarLadies is certainly a business partnership—at the end of the day, racing’s about winning and making money—it’s also become a social setting for the mothers, grandmothers and career professionals who comprise it. The members get to know one another at yearling sales and training facilities, and then meet up at the racetracks during racing season. “We all join together and cheer on the horses together. It’s exciting,” says Nugent. Wolf concurs. “There’s not a get-together that we’re not laughing about something or raising a glass to cheer. Even though we don’t always win, we still have a good time.” In fact, many of the women in the partnership have become really close. “We have barbecues together, we get our kids together,” says Nugent. For Nixon, her participation in StarLadies helped draw in her entire family. In 2017, her husband and father-in-law bought into Starlight and its minority interest in Justify. This year, three generations cheered him on as he won the Triple Crown at Belmont Park on June 9. “It’s one thing to go to the races,” says Nixon. “It’s a whole different feeling when you have part ownership of a horse.” Watching Justify run “was so surreal, I didn’t even get nervous,” she says. “I just sat there like I was having some sort of out-of-body experience.”
The StarLadies partnership is all encompassing in the sense that its members not only own an interest in each horse, but also take part in the duties of a single owner—such as naming their fillies. Nugent dreamed up the moniker New York Charmer, while Butler came up with five names, including those of current runners Stainless and Makealittlemischief. It’s also educational. “It’s about having the opportunity to interface with an incredible trainer like Todd Pletcher,” says Nixon. “And the mentality of buying the horses. It’s a whole other layer of learning for me.” Donna Barton Brothers, a former jockey and NBC Sports reporter, is Starlight’s Chief Operating Officer, and is married to Frank Brothers, its bloodstock agent. “She is so well-versed in the sport,” says Nugent of Brothers. “When I have a question, especially from a business perspective, I’ll call her. The same with Laurie.” And perhaps most important to its membership, StarLadies has become a means by which to support other women in the horse racing community. “Maybe it seems like it’s male-dominated, but from the top to the bottom, we’ve got women that own farms, do breeding, do consigning, work the sales companies, are owners, trainers or assistant trainers,” says Wolf. “There are so many women in this industry. We’re here and we all know we’re here. It’s like the outside world doesn’t really notice that. We are trying to get that across to the next generation—helping them, giving them a leg up, giving them contacts.”
Here at the Oklahoma, it’s easy to dream big, with Saratoga Race Course so close by. The impact StarLadies has had on Nugent isn’t lost on her. “Here at the track, even if you’re a spectator or walking around in the backstretch or here at the barn, you’ll learn something new about this sport every day,” she says.
By the time I drive back out of the gate, I’m promising myself that I’ll return here for another guided tour. We’ve got family from Las Vegas traveling here for the races in August, when the horses’ bright-colored leg wraps hang on the fences and the air is sweet with the smell of hay. The Vegas people will love the tour. And I will, too.