It is not often that trainers handle both harness and Thoroughbred horses. In fact, it is challenging for a lot of horsemen and horsewomen to make that transition of working with both types of equine athletes.
For nearly 40 years, Francis Raia II has made a career of training both harness and Thoroughbreds, well as driving the trotters and pacers at various tracks.
One of those moments occurred Aug. 18 when Raia was in the sulky – the two-wheeled cart – driving T’s Electric at Saratoga Gaming and Casino. Within the next 24 hours, he was hoping to saddle his 4-year-old filly homebred Renninas Rose at Saratoga Race Course.
However, a small physical setback for Renninas Rose forced Raia to scratch from the last race on Aug. 19. That would have been his first Thoroughbred runner since December 2018 and his first Saratoga in nearly two years.
“I have no luck,” Raia said while shaking off the disappointment. “I would get a horse ready for a race. I would train them. I would have a rider on them once a week, then something would happen.”
While it can be frustrating for the 64-year-old Raia from Mechanicville, he has learned how to manage these situations based on his experience and extensive family background in both Thoroughbred and harness racing.
His 90-year-old father, Francis Raia Sr., played an integral part by purchasing a 20-acre farm with a third-mile track in Tolland, Conn.
At the farm, Raia learned how to jog harness horses at nine years old. A year later, his father brought him to Foxboro Raceway for a summer job through driver Irving Foster by caring for four horses at $5 a day.
During the summer when he was 14, Raia worked at Belmont Park for his idol Phil Horn Jr. before coming to Saratoga where they were stabled on Clare Court. In the evenings, Raia crossed Nelson Avenue to the harness track to watch the races.
While Raia was learning how to care for and handle horses, he really wanted to be a jockey. His desire of becoming a rider stemmed from his uncle John Raia, who was a successful jockey in New York and Florida, and at one time, he rode the 1958 juvenile filly champion Quill early in her career.
Approaching his last year at Tolland High School, Raia needed just two credits to complete his high school diploma. Because he had an opportunity to ride in Florida, Raia made a proposal to the superintendent that he could complete the all of the required classwork outside of school.
“I told the superintendent that I had a shot to ride and wanted to go now,” Raia said. “He let me do it as long as I got the work done. I went back to high school and graduated with my class and I never went back.”
Once the superintendent agreed on the proposal, Raia went to Calder to gallop horses for Nick Gianos Jr. in 1975. At that point, his uncle John Raia had stopped riding, but he was also getting other riders from Hialeah Park.
“There were riders who came from Hialeah to work horses at Calder,” Raia said. “My uncle picked me up in the morning to gallop horses. I would sit on horses 10 a day for time.”
While Raia was learning how to ride through galloping horses, his dream of becoming a jockey started fading because of his growing body.
“I was close to getting my license of being a jockey at Calder, but I was too heavy,” he said.
Rather than staying in Florida, Raia came back to the northeast and worked for the late veterinarian Dr. Albert “Doc” Grass of West Brattleboro Harness, was training and driving horses at Saratoga, Vermont and New Hampshire, in fall of 1976.
During his time with Grass, Raia became familiar with the northeast harness circuit and eventually made his own career in training and driving horses going into the 1980s for the next two decades between Saratoga and Foxboro.
Raia had good horses, including Mountain Jester who once held the Saratoga Raceway record for a gelding before being retired with 14 honors in 1989. However, he knew that ride could not last forever since many of his owners passed away and it became a challenge finding new owners.
“I had as much as 30 heads where I would drive 5-6 races a night for about 20 years,” Raia said. “I was doing good, but all of my owners had passed away. It’s hard to replace them.”
By 1997, along with training and driving Standardbreds, Raia went back to working with Thoroughbreds across the street with his first horse being Jr. Lord, a gelding who was easily outrun at Saratoga and Belmont. After purchasing Jr. Lord for owner Helen Casson, Raia sent the horse to Finger Lakes under the guidance of Robert Attanasio where the gelding won his only race.
Over the last 23 years, Raia has picked up Thoroughbred winners at small circuit tracks like Finger Lakes and Northampton Fair. One of his multi-winners was Shrewd, a horse he bought at Finger Lakes before owner Nick Barone brought the horse
With very little success from Shrewd competing in West Virginia, Raia convinced Barone to bring the roan gelding back to his barn. After working with Shrewd for two months, Raia confidently brought him to Northampton where he won two races with his first one by a nine-length margin.
“He was taken from me and brought to Mountaineer,” Raia said. “I told him to bring him back. I know what I have to do for the horse. When I brought him to Northampton, I told the owners that we are going to win for fun and they laughed at me. He won by the length of the stretch.”
Today, Raia is working with a small stable of his filly Renninas Rose and three Standardbreds – his “old class horse” T’s Electric, stakes-placing Fifth Son and hopeful pacer Jack Rock. Like many owners and trainers, as well as drivers, Raia is still chasing the dream after four decades.
“It’s the dream,” he said. “I could never let go of the dream. I’m always waiting to get the big one.”