Acacia Courtney is a racing analyst and paddock reporter at Gulfstream Park, where she’s held that position since the first Saturday in May of 2016. And although she is currently 25 years old, she has plenty of worldly experience–from studying ballet at the Joffrey Ballet School as well as the American Ballet Theatre, to having success in beauty pageants (winning Miss Outstanding Teen of Connecticut in 2009, Miss New York City in 2013, and being crowned Miss Connecticut in 2014 which propelled her the the Miss USA pageant in the same year), and starting her own 501(c) (3) Thoroughbred aftercare program named “Racing For Home”.
Acacia started riding horses at eight years old, and by the time she was 17, she became concerned about what could happen to Thoroughbred racehorses after their racing career was over. So, she formed her own organization which has helped over 25 Thoroughbreds become retrained and sent on to new careers. There are currently six horses as part of Racing For Home currently, with two new recent additions.
While attending Fordham University where she majored in Communications with a Journalism concentration (as well as a minor in Theology), she started her journey in pageants. Since she went to school in New York, she was eligible to compete for Miss New York City, which is a precursor to the Miss America pageant. Since she also lived in Connecticut, she was eligible to compete there–ultimately being crowned Miss Connecticut in her fourth try. She would go on to place in the top-15 in the Miss America pageant. Acacia most recently competed in the Miss Florida USA pageant, where she again finished in the top-15.
Ms. Courtney was hired by Gulfstream Park to be an analyst and paddock reporter after hosting a Thorofan brunch as part of the Eclipse Awards in 2016, where she was approached by a Gulfstream Park Media Relations officer who asked her if she could handicap races. When she explained that, yes, she could do that well, she was given an audition at Laurel Park for a weekend and was subsequently offered the Gulfstream job. The offer was for the Summer and Fall portion of the Gulfstream meet, but she did such a good job that she was hired for the Championship meet as well.
I had a chance to speak with Acacia during the busiest week of her year, the week of the Grade 1, $1,1000,000 Florida Derby–where I asked her about her love for horses, ballet, pageantry, and handicapping.
Q: You recently competed in the Miss Florida USA pageant after being away from competition since 2014. What did you take away from this latest experience?
A: “I thought that I was retired from pageants for a while, but I was looking for something to kind of work towards. It was real personal journey for me. I certainly took a lot out of it–setting goals for myself and reaching those goals. It’s an experience I’m really glad that I went back to pageants for another year.”
“You’re surrounded by women that have a similar level of ambition that you do. That’s one of the greatest things that I’ve gotten from it–you’re surrounded by women who are bosses in whatever they are doing.”
Q: How did you land the Gulfstream Park job?
A: “I’m extremely fortunate, looking back through my career that I’ve often been able to meet some of the right people and be at the right place at the right time. I would never be naive enough to say that being Miss Connecticut didn’t open a lot of doors for me, because it absolutely did.”
Q: When did you start handicapping horse races?
A: “The reason I first started handicapping at Suffolk Downs is because I was going to the backside to get horses to adopt out, while working with Canter New England, and I would bring a trailer and that’s where Racing For Home started. I am the type of person that doesn’t like to be incompetent at things, so I felt really inadequate going there and not knowing where these horses were coming from or what their backgrounds really were. The first place I picked up a racing form was the Suffolk Downs track kitchen. I asked a lot of questions, but I picked it up.”
Q: How do you handicap races now that it’s your job?
A: “I’m a very visual person. I take pretty extensive notes on every horse that runs. I’m able to look back on my iPad and a lot of times I’ll see a horse’s name in the entry and I’ll be able to recall what they look like and what I thought of them last time out. If I had any pertinent trip notes, I’ll write those down as well.”
“I watch a lot of race replays, again taking a lot of notes through that, and following trends–how the track is playing, what jockeys are doing well, what barns are doing well.”
Q: What was your experience with ballet?
A: “Ballet was kind of my ‘other life’ before I ended up where I am. I really thought I was going to become a professional dancer, which a lot of people that know me think is ironic because I can’t really walk over my own two feet without walking into something or tripping.”
”I’m really tall, and I knew I was going to end up being in the back. As much as I loved dance and loved that life, I decided to go with something that I felt could let my voice be heard a little bit and that’s how I ended up working in tv and ended up going back to horses.”
Q: What does the future hold for you?
A: “My life is very fast-paced and I’ve been incredibly lucky up to now. I think working for the Stronach Group and being hired by Gulfstream has been such an incredible honor. One of the things I really love most is that my new ideas are encouraged and accepted. I feel like we have a lot of really good stuff coming up.”
“I would love to expand. It’s every girl’s dream to be a network tv star. We’ll see what happens. I’m really open to every opportunity.”
Q: Who do you like in the Florida Derby?
A: “I ended up going with Catholic Boy. I’ve been really impressed with how Strike Power is training coming into the race and I like him quite a bit. I decided to go with a horse that has impressed me not only in how he’s handled both the turf and the dirt, but I really liked that they shipped him in to Gulfstream last week and he had his work on Sunday which was in company. He’s really had a bit of a growth spurt, because I saw him as a two year old here running on the turf, then later at Saratoga.”
“I think he (Catholic Boy) is going to run really well this weekend, but I think he has a really big 2018 ahead of him. I’m gonna lay my hat on him—I think he’s gonna sit a good trip.”
photos courtesy of Acacia Courtney.