For quite a few years, Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs have not had a "woman's touch" on the race track. Female drivers have almost become extinct.
But if things turn out the way Jami Chatt (left) and Brittney Ohol (right) hope and expect, the close friends could change the landscape of the male dominated local racing colony very soon.
Being a regular female driver in Western New York has become extremely rare. There's been the likes of Maryann Sarama-Luce, Betsey Brown, Laurie McNeight, Cindy Stark Stevens and Anne Wheeler in years past who did have success, but since then, not much can be found on the distaff side of things.
Nationally, it hold true as well as Bea Farber and Jacqueline Ingrassia head the list of top women who have controlled the reins successfully, but after that, the pickings have been minimal.
Chatt (on left) and Ohol hope to change that. Both have been involved in the industry from an early age as each have come from successful families with long-time ties to harness racing on the Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. They know the sport and the hard work and dedication that goes along with it.
Their harness racing futures will be different though as Chatt and Ohol begin their journey. The two, however, aren't looking to make this a career full-time, but something for enjoyment at night. Education is first.
The 23-year-old Chatt is a graduate of Oakfield-Alabama High School and the State University of New York at Fredonia, where she graduated with a degree in childhood education. She is the daughter of Cherie Haslip-Chatt, a former driver on the Western New York circuit and granddaughter of Fred Haslip, a very successful and well-respected trainer-driver who raced at Batavia Downs and Buffalo Raceway from 1965 until semi-retiring in 2004.
Ohol is a 2011 graduate of Lockport High School, is currently attending Medaille College in Buffalo as a full-time student enrolled in Veterinary Medicine. She currently trains a four-horse stable. Her grandparents are Mike and Brenda Ohol who are still actively running a stable locally.
"I remember jogging horses when I nine," Chatt said. "Then when I was in the Rising Stars race (shown below in October) at Batavia Downs, my mom told Grandpa 'You know she's gonna love this too much to let it go.'"
Chatt said that her grandpa and mother, while not totally sold on the idea of her driving, have been getting her some guidance. "Grandpa has been giving me some tips already."
While Chatt is done with college. Ohol is just starting her college career as she is at Medaille in search of becoming a veterinarian. "I was sitting in the bike on my grandpa's lap since I was a little kid. I was born and raised on a farm and our whole family has been involved in racing so I've always had the urge to drive."
Ohol also has found that family isn't keen on her driving either, but also have accepted her choice to give it a try.
"My grandmother and mom...they aren't a big fan of me doing this. They are petrified of me driving," Ohol said. "My grandmother is scared to give me drives but I hope they eventually will. I've got to prove myself. "
But Ohol also has her priorities in order. "I don't want to make a career out of driving. I've got six years of college to go at least and my parents and grandparents are petrified of being becoming a driver, so I am kind of doing it on my own. My goal is to open a clinic, have my own stable and drive at night."
Ohol (shown below in Rising Star race) does have a young and upcoming star on the race track as her mentor, her boyfriend Dave McNeight III. "He's my biggest critic," she said laughing. "I've driven at fairs and qualifiers and my mom video tapes all my races and Dave and I watch the replays and he tells me what I could have done differently."
From there, after passing the test and you have shown your abilities to handle a standardbred and such, you can now drive in a qualifying race. The track judges must give you a certain number of "OKs" on your driving in the race and the horse must qualify at the set time standard in order to get that "OK". Driving the race with incident but not reaching the standard in time will not give you a satisfactory mark.
Once you accumulated enough "OKs", your pari-mutual "provisional" license will be issued. That will be kept until the full license is issued after the judges feel you've proven yourself in all areas of racing. This can be a long process as well.
"I hope to get my provisional license within two to three months," Chatt said, who has yet to start the quest for "OKs". "I will be qualifying some horses at Buffalo and hopefully I can race for real in the spring. I feel comfortable behind the horses and the gate so I think I will do well. I've done this all my life."
Ohol has already earned some "OKs" from the judges under her belt thus far in her young racing career and hopes to have her provisional license early in the meet as well. "I've driven in fair races and it's some tough racing there. I call it cowboy racing, so I've exposed to racing already. I just have to get some qualifying races and more OKs."
Chatt and Ohol are looking forward to the day when they compete in a pari-mutual race and taking on the boys.
"I want it to be driver against driver and horse against horse. But I do want to show the boys that I can compete and I would love to beat them deep inside," Chatt said with a devilish laugh. "You know the guys are looking at you as a 'girl' and won't want to lose to one. But they can expect respect from me and I hope I get the same."
And asked about the possibility soon of lining up against the likes of Jim Morrill Jr. and other top drivers nationally, Chatt exhaled and said, "They'll get my respect that's for sure."
Ohol said about being a female going against the men, "I look at myself as one of the boys. I've been around horses since I was little and know a lot of the guys. I not a girlie girl...I love playing with the horses, getting muddy so I am used to it. But some will look at me as a girl and will make it tough on me but I want to make a statement that I can race with the men."
She added, "I am gonna race against them but it's about the horse. I study the past performances. I look at the race and she what I need to do and how it will play out. I will be prepared."
She also said the "Rising Stars" race at Batavia Downs in October was such an exciting day for her. Chatt admitted she has watched the race "probably 100 times over" and that she was getting driving tips from others "before I even got back into the paddock."
Both admitted that taking on the challenge of becoming a driver has really taken a bite out of any free time.
Chatt said her day consists of "going to school to teach, then to the barn and then to the track." Ohol stated, "It's difficult...I am always busy. I hope to be switching to on-line courses next semester to give me more free time but otherwise it's college, the barn and then to the paddock."
Both ladies have their racing colors already to go. Chatt said she's going with the familiar blue and yellow scheme that her grandfather Fred Haslip wore. "I couldn't imagine wearing any other colors but his. I love him so much and that would be the way I'd like to show him.
And besides work and school, both have the responsibilities of taking care of the horses they own. Chatt is the owner of Miracle Lu Lu (shown below) while Ohol owns Xiao Xiang.
"I just love Lu Lu," Chatt said. "I get behind her and I am so comfortable. I know she'll get me around the track safe."
Ohol, however, is making sure fans will notice she's a girl. "I have hot pink and white. My horse, Xiao Xiang (shown under saddle with Ohol) always races in those colors so I went with it too."
For now, Chatt and Ohol will be racing in qualifying races. It hopefully won't take long. It will be great to see the pair ready to "battle the boys" sometime this spring and bring a new angle to the Western New York harness circuit and that's a woman's touch on the track.
Don't worry. The story isn't going to stop here. We'll be following the pair as they go up the ranks in earning their licenses and registering their first wins in a pari-mutual race.