Her first job was working at a racetrack for a track veterinarian, and once she had the experience of working around the horses, she just knew that’s what she wanted as a career. Today, Pennsylvania native Erin McClellan is living her dream as a successful stakes-winning trainer, based at Penn National Race Course.
Growing up, Erin’s father was a dairy farmer in Lebanon County, and her family always had horses. “We had show horses and a lot of times, off-the-track thoroughbreds, and our vet at the farm was also a racetrack vet, and I worked with him. That was kind of my introduction to the racetrack at Penn National,” she explained. “After I was done working for him, I got jobs with other people, doing grooming, and I did gallop for a few years, but I groomed more than I galloped. It was good money, and I worked there through my college years at Lebanon Valley College.”
After graduation, she changed career paths and started working as a case manager, but after some time, she felt the longing to return to the track. “I missed the horses. It was an easy decision for me to come back to it.”
Training was never really on her mind. “I never thought I wanted to train. I actually thought I wanted to do layups, and I’m still intrigued by that, but training was a better option for me for earning a living.” At that time she was a single mom, and Erin wanted to be able to be her own boss. “I only had a few horses, and it was easier to get my trainer’s license and train, and come in later, then to work for somebody else and be there earlier in the morning.”
Building up her racing stable and achieving success as a trainer didn’t come overnight. “It was hard,” she admits. “It was very hard. One of the hardest things when you start is you want to financially be able to support yourself because nobody really wants to give you a chance. So I had gotten a couple horses myself, and then I had a friend that had a horse that wasn’t performing super well, and he just gave me a chance. There’s no other way to put it. He just gave me a chance. And we did okay with her! I just tried to build from that.”
While training, Erin supplemented her income as an auctioneer, working at car sales one day a week, and she was able to pay someone to help with her horses when she was unable to get to the track. “That’s how I survived,” she laughed. “Slowly people give you an opportunity, and I just tried to build it from nothing to something.”
Being a strong woman trying to break into the often male-dominated business of horse racing was a challenge. “It goes both ways. I think sometimes as a woman it’s harder to get respect. The flip side of that is sometimes people are willing to give you a chance because they have a soft spot for a woman, or there’s owners that really believe that women have more compassion than men, and sometimes I’ve had opportunities just because of that. I don’t know if that holds true, because I know a lot of men in this business who really love the horses, and do have a lot of compassion. But it’s what people think. I’ve had opportunities just because I’m a woman, and I think I have probably lost some because I’m a woman.”
Erin is excited talking about her stable, and is coming off a very successful 2021, earning over $1.2 million. This year, she’s looking forward to continuing the momentum at Penn National, and has many horses very special to her. “I have so much respect for the older warhorses, even though they tend to be at a lower level when I get them, and I really love those horses. Bess (Mineshaft-Brenda Leigh by Forest Wildcat) has been SUPER exciting for us! She won 8 races last year, she won at Parx one day when they had a large purse for an $8000 starter, and she’s just been super-consistent. She always shows up and has just been a really really fun horse! She’s not a super affectionate horse, but she’s really into her job and fun to train. Her main exercise rider is older and takes forever with her every day, walking her to the track really slowly and she stops and grazes coming back, and she’s just really happy. We’re hoping she can keep it up for this year. It’s hard for horses to maintain that kind of form for forever, but she’s pretty exciting right now.”
Other horses she’s got her eye on include a young horse New Hire (Lookin At Lucky – Gwendolyn – Lion Hearted). “She’s an Arrowwood Farm bred horse. She surprised us a little. She had some lackluster works, and we weren’t sure if she’d be a star, and we still don’t know where she’ll go, but she sure made an impressive debut here (February 11, race 7 at Penn National), and I’m pretty excited about her to see what she might be able to mature and do as she progresses, because she’s certainly going in the right direction.”
Pennsylvania-bred Hockey Puck (Well Spelled – Katydid’s Career – by Cat’s Career), a mainstay for the stable since 2019, was recently retired off his win on February 22nd. “I’m proud of what he has accomplished and all the people that have been part of his care since his double knee surgery two years ago,” she said. “We have really closely monitored his knees and overall well-being. For the first time, he came out of the race sore, and we knew it would be tough for him to continue to compete at the level he does. We made the decision to retire him. I’m grateful we have been able to offer him a happy retirement after all he has done for us. We all just love him.”
Erin works side by side with John Conner, after combining their stables several years ago. “It was really good for both of us. He’s my partner in life, and he’s taught me a lot, especially about claiming. He primarily finds the horses that we want to claim, because he’s very good at it, and our abilities compliment each other. We work really well together, and I guess we’re both the boss,” she laughed. “His son is Tyler Conner, and he rides most of our horses, and gallops for us too. It’s really great that he knows the horses in our barn so well.”
She’s extremely complimentary of the rest of the McClellan-Conner team, too. “They’re amazing. I can’t say enough. Valentin Lopez came to us about a year ago, and he’s groomed for Todd Pletcher and other prominent outfits at other racetracks, and he’s a hard worker; Pedro Bernal has been with us for a really long time and I rely on him heavily for a lot of things. Raul Carazas was with John before me, and he’s a really good groom; and we just recent added a fourth groom, Gustavo Carujo, who’s doing very well for us. We have three hot walkers, Sylvia Perez; Ismael Avila; and Juan Flores; and riders Rey Pinero; Kelly Carujo; Robert Hastie; and Dee Dee Cortes. Everybody works as a team. They’re a good crew! We couldn’t do it without them, and I just love them like they’re my own family.”
Racing year-round at Penn National, through all kinds of weather, poses some challenges to both horsemen and horses, but Erin and her team adapt and thrive through it all. “We’re tough!” she laughed. “I think when you race year-round like we do, you have to make sure that horses get a little bit of downtime somewhere, that they get a break. They don’t have a forced break by working through a meet. I think that’s important, and they tell you when they need one.”
“As for the weather, everyone hates it in the winter, but we put on our snow pants and we watch the weather. Our Penn National track maintenance does a fantastic job here, keeping us open, even when it’s not very good. We watch other tracks struggle with their track surface when the weather is bad, but our guys always have it together.”
Her favorite part about training? “The horses,” she says emphatically. “Horses were my first love since I was very young, and they still are. Sometimes, when you’re going through a bad spell, which everyone goes through, you can’t let the highs get you too high and the lows get too low, but the horses always keep you going.”
Erin offers advice to women looking to break into training. “Keep at it and don’t give up! It’s an easy game to let it get the better of you, but don’t let it. Be strong; smile a lot; make connections; and when people give you opportunities, be willing to make the best of them so that you get another opportunity.”
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