Jen Perkins took over the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Association this year as Executive Director. She’s a fixture around the winners’ circle on every race day and has provided astute previews and recaps of key races on the Association’s website. This season the Canterbury Quarter Horses had arguably their best meet with the largest purses ever seen in Minnesota and more trials for major stakes than ever. We were able to spend a few minutes with Perkins and get her “In the Paddock”.
MWPR: How did you get into the racing business?
Perkins: I’m from Utah originally and we’ve been breeding, riding and involved in horses for six generations. I grew up riding and around the track. My grandparents had several really slow quarter horses when I was three or four so some of my earliest memories are at the track. My mom and grandpa were big racing fans so we’d watch the Kentucky Derby together every year. I picked y first Derby winner when I when I was eight so I got hooked on the actual handicapping side of it [horse was Sunday Silence].
We lived about 2 hours from Wyoming Downs growing up so my mom and I would go up. She taught me how to bet, would place my bets for me and that’s when I really started handicapping and getting into the sport.
MWPR: When did you know that horses would end up being your career? Did you ever think “I want to be a doctor” or something else or was it always horses?
Perkins: I grew up on the horsemen’s side of the business and I really didn’t think that it was for me so I went to college, studied other things and then my mother called me one day.
“I know you love racing and still follow it. Did you know that there is a school you can go to for horse racing?”
I was 28 and I changed everything. I went to the University of Arizona and went to the graduate program, the Race Horse Industry Program. That’s where I really got started. I went there and started working in the industry.
MWPR: The RTIP students get a lot of opportunity to intern. Where were your internships?
Perkins: I worked at Sam Houston Race Park, which was great. I’m still in touch with people there. I worked in the racing office, I took entries, I got to shadow every position at the track but I actually spent most of my time in the mutuels office learning about simulcasting.
I liked getting to see a little bit of everything. I really loved working in the racing office, meeting all the horsemen, taking entries. I was the horsemen’s liaison in the afternoon and got to deal with all the people coming in.
MWPR: You finished up your program, graduated – then where did you go?
Perkins: My first gig out of school was with the American Quarter Horse Association. I was working with them my first year in school and when I graduated they said there was this new fan education program they wanted to start up and we want you to be one of the first members. The plan is to send you out to tracks, teach people how to handicap, set up tables, answer questions, handicapping seminar, paddock previews, the whole bit.
It was very, very part-time but on the weekends I would travel. I came up here early on, Lone Star, Fairgrounds, Los Alamitos, you name it. Every big Quarter Horse track. So I actually did that for about five years. It was really great: the people I go to meet; the connections I made; a lot of one on one time with people; handicapping – it was really a dream job.
I was there for five years and then got a job with the AQHA as Director of Racing, was there for a year and then got to come up here and do this job.
MWPR: How did things fall into place to get this job?
Perkins: When I first got to Tucson for school one of the first people I met was Andrew Offerman [currently Canterbury’s Director of Racing]. He told me all about Canterbury and then, to be honest, I’m not sure I had ever heard of Canterbury.
In 2010 I got to visit as part of the AQHA fan outreach program and I really liked it. I liked what was going on up here and the people. I moved actually moved up here in 2013. I went back to school at the University of St. Thomas and got my MBA. I was working at home for an Advanced Deposit Wagering company, BetAmerica, and I’d come out here for fun on weekends and finished up school.
MWPR: What were you expectations coming into the Executive Director job here?
Perkins: I really didn’t know what to expect. I had known Kelvin Childers [former ED] for years. He was one of the first people I met when I first started with the AQHA so I was familiar with all the work he had done. I had met Rosemary Higgins [her predecessor as ED]. I got along really well with both of them and I was familiar with all the groundwork they had done to get this program where it is.
I have relationships with a lot of people with other breed organizations in Oklahoma and Arizona so I’ve seen what other breed organizations have done and I was excited to see that we had a really good foundation and room to grow with what we were doing with the website, social media and programs. So basically I inherited a great foundation and room to grow.
MWPR: Your first year is in the books. How did it go and what are you looking forward to doing next year to keep growing?
Perkins: The first year was a real learning curve for me because there were things I knew about but not all the work that went on behind the scenes to get it done. A lot was getting to know how all the events, the programs, the races all worked here. Now that I have that under my belt, I think we can make it bigger and better.
I’m excited to start recruiting in September. I’d like to get more horsemen up here, I’d like to make the Futurities even bigger, We had a record purse for the Mystic Lake Northlands Futurity of $167,600 this year and I think we can keep growing that and the Minnesota Breeders’ Futurity. I’d like to keep growing the Challenge program. Las year was the first year we had the Merial and the Bank of America here I’m really excited about the fact that the horse that won the Challenge here last year won the final – and of course I’d like to see that happen again this year. Maybe we could get another Challenge race and grow that program.
I’d like to grow our events as well. I think our annual celebration was a great event and I’d like to grow that event: maybe more awards, more publicity and make that a bigger event.
MWPR: What are your thoughts on Quarter Horse breeding here in Minnesota?
Perkins: That is definitely our biggest area of opportunity. We have a board meeting this month and that is one of the biggest items on the agenda. We’ll be brainstorming as an organization on how we can expand that.
The first step there is to get the word out. Raise awareness. People don’t really understand how easy it is to have a Minnesota bred and I know that they don’t understand the money and awards are available when you have one. The last couple of years the Minnesota breds we have are good. They’ve been very competitive. In fact last year it was a Minnesota bred that won the Mystic Lake Northlands Futurity against open company.
I think what we have is really good but we need to get the word out. If you want to get involved I, personally, think I it’s hard to know where to get started and we need to make that easier.
MWPR: Speaking of that, how does Canterbury’s Quarter Horse meet compare in terms of purse structure to the other Quarter Horse meets in the country?
Perkins: I think that we are more competitive than people think and people just don’t realize it yet. The word of mouth is starting to get out there, we’re building awareness and people are starting to get it. I think we’re very competitive. If you come here from Remington Park, race here and then go to Prairie Meadows, that’s a really smooth circuit. We’re on par with, if not ahead of, the other quarter horse meets that run in the summer. I think people are starting to see that and that it makes sense. I don’t think five or seven years ago that you could say that and that’s why it was so hard to recruit and get people up here. But now people come up and see the purses and realize that you can have a good summer.
The horsemen that come up like the way they are treated and, what they really love, is when they come and watch the races there are actually people on the apron. They say “I love Prairie Meadows and I love Remington, but it’s just not like that there.” It’s exciting, they like that and it’s a good reminder of why they do what they do. That’s a nice recruiting tool.