West Point Thoroughbreds: What got you interested in horse racing?
Shanon Castagnola: You know those little girls that fall madly in love with horses from a very young age? I was that kind of kid. My family didn’t have a lot of background in horses and zero background in Thoroughbreds, but I had one of those loves that comes to you naturally. As a child, I’d beg my parents to stop any time we passed a horse, ‘Please, please stop,’ so I could try to get it to come over to the fence so I could pet it. We found ourselves on the roadside next to pastures pretty often.
WPT: So basically you’re one of those “horse crazy” girls who is living her dream.
SC: Exactly. We moved to Lexington from Eastern Kentucky when I was about 8 ½, and when we got there it was a whole different ball game, so many more opportunities to learn about horses. From that point I took riding lessons basically until I went to college, and then when I went to college since I was very busy and wasn’t riding any more, I found a summer job that allowed me to teach lessons at a day camp in Nicholasville. I was the horseback instructor there for three summers while going to University of Kentucky.
WPT: Did your college studies reflect your love for horses?
SC: Not really. I have a bachelor of science in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in Political Science.
WPT: So how did you transition to working in the Thoroughbred world?
SC: When we moved to Lexington, our house was two doors down from Ben and Jan Taylor. At the time, Joe Taylor was the manager at Gainesway farm and Ben and his brothers were building Taylor Made. As a kid, I had a great opportunity to enjoy the farm and be in that atmosphere. When I graduated from college in 1999, I interviewed with a television broadcast station and was kind of waiting to see if I was going to get called for an interview when the Taylors said ‘Why don’t you come work for us at the September sale showing yearlings?’
WPT: A very hands-on introduction to sales.
SC: For sure. It was my first time being immersed in that world, showing yearlings for Mark’s team that September of 1999. It was supposed to be this thing you do once in your life, good cash money, a new experience, but having worked the sale, I loved it. I fell madly in love with these beautiful animals and the really interesting people at the sales, the vibe and energy and excitement of it all. I really wanted to be part of that on a regular basis.
WPT: And you made it happen?
SC: When I left the sale there was actually a guy who had come through the barns a couple of times who offered me a job. I asked the Taylors, ‘is this guy okay for me to go work with?’ They said, ‘He’d be fine, but why don’t you come work for us instead?’ I came in on the ground floor doing research for them in November of 1999, not for the sales but more for client services. Then I moved over to the private side, working on the contracts for stallion shares, breeding seasons, collecting sales fees, transferring registration papers, things like that.
WPT: How long did you work there?
SC: Until 2008. I was looking for a change; I’d been there for a while and there really wasn’t a new position for me to go into. I was also pregnant with my second daughter and looking for a job that would be more flexible, something that wasn’t a 9-5 office type. I started thinking about what in the world I was going to do next. I knew I needed a new challenge but I had no idea what I was going to do.
WPT: What brought you to West Point?
SC: Well, obviously, Terry is pretty well-known in the industry; I’d seen him at almost every September and November sale that I’d worked for Taylor Made. My husband Steve and I were up at Churchill Downs watching horses train and the West Point saddle towel went by on a horse, and that started the conversation, I wonder if West Point needs anybody. The next day, Steve ran into Jeff Lifson during the spring meet at Keeneland and said, ‘Are you looking for anybody?’ and Jeff said, ‘As a matter of fact, we are!’ It all really fell into place.
WPT: So Steve is in racing, too?
SC: Yes, he and I own parts of a couple different horses, so in that way we’re active in the industry. He also works for Vinery and is responsible for new business at Vinery as well as serving as the director of bloodstock services.
WPT: So now you’re getting to experience the racing side of things.
SC: Yes, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity because I have this great background in the breeding and sales side of things, but I didn’t have the background in racing. It became like a 360 degree education.
WPT: Take us through a “day in the life.”
SC: It varies from day-to-day. I wouldn’t say I come in every single morning and have a complete idea of what I’m going to be doing. Things pop up here and there. First I go through and check all the emails that came in overnight and start working through the most urgent requests. Let’s say we have a horse running at Belmont on Friday, and a client says ‘I’m headed out to my horse’s race, can you assist me with getting seats?” At same time I could have somebody on the West Coast say “Shannon, my horse is running on Saturday, can you help me get a dining table there?”
WPT: So once they get to the track, if they’ve talked to you, everyone should be set to just have a good time and enjoy their horse’s race.
SC: Exactly. Confirming everything is my biggest responsibility so they don’t worry, they’re not concerned about if they’re going to have a spot, and it’s all very natural to go to the races and enjoy the experience. On the day of the race, West Point reps will jump in to make sure things go smoothly on-site, but I’m the one who has everything ready for them.
WPT: Tell us about some other client services you might provide.
SC: Well, if your horse runs in a stakes race, I might help you get a replica of the trophy that was presented. I’ll call a rep and say, ‘Hey, I saw this really great photo, it would be nice to send to your client,’ and work on getting it framed and sent to the partners who have ownership in that horse.
WPT: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
SC: It’s probably the same thing all partnerships face, the fact that tracks at this point aren’t really in the mind frame of wanting to help partnerships. For example, any track in the country, if you’re running in a race, might give you four seats for the day – maybe six. Saratoga won’t guarantee you any seats as an owner unless you have a horse in a stakes race, but our goal as a company is to make sure our owners are enjoying their experience – and part of that is to make sure they get to the races and have a place to sit.
WPT: Favorite part of your job?
SC: The list of what I enjoy about it is very long. One of my favorite things is getting to meet people face-to-face that I’ve helped over the phone. Since I work from Lexington, I don’t get to meet people in person all the time, but when I do, we’ve already developed relationships and here we are, kind of already friends. It’s really fun to learn more about our partners and share in their joy when something goes well.
Having the opportunity to just be in industry with a top-class organization is really special and important, as is getting to work so many people who are experts in their field. Another thing is just the fact that my day isn’t structured in a way that I do same thing over and over again. I never know exactly what’s going to happen when I walk in the door and start my day – I may have an idea of how my day is going to go, but one phone call starts me on a different path – and that keeps things fun and exciting.
WPT: Do you still go riding?
SC: I haven’t been in a while, basically since my younger daughter was born about 2 ½ years ago. I would love to get back into it, but in the meantime my oldest daughter, who is 6 ½, has started riding lessons – and that is pure joy, as far as I’m concerned. For her to be riding and starting to learn, and to be able to share that experience with her, is very much a family thing for us. My husband went out and got her first pair of riding boots, beautiful brown leather Ariats, and it’s so exciting that she might go down the same path that I did – I know how fun and wonderful that is.
Shannon can be reached at [email protected].