Co-Owner, Siena Farm, Paris, KY
Since the beginning of time, humans have pigeonholed each other by race, religion, gender and wealth, which has resulted in discrimination. There are many pathways that can and must be taken to reduce systemic racism and prejudice. But I see no pathway to eliminate latent discrimination; humans will always pigeonhole.
There continues to be systemic racism in all sports and in American society. Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans and Muslims continue to bear the brunt of latent discrimination and prejudice.
In the early days of our sport every ethnicity, gender and skin color succeeded at the highest level of the sport–jockeys, trainers, breeders and owners. Ironically, our sport is less diverse today than it was in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Diversity is important. It goes hand and hand with the American Dream's set of ideals that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” Diversity allows everyone an equal chance to live a life of dignity and hope. My life experiences make this fight for diversity very personal.
My dad came from Catania, Sicily. He was an intelligent, hard-working plasterer, but most importantly, he was a family man. He and my mom raised six kids in a two-bedroom flat in a blue-collar town outside Boston. I get emotional every time I think about the obstacles and indignities my parents suffered so their kids could have a better life.
My mom did her shopping at Filene's Basement. Until I was 18, I thought “Imperfect” was a brand name.
My dog Duke and I walked to school each morning with my friends. My attendance was very spotty, but upon graduation Duke was given a perfect attendance award. I only got into Northeastern University because my high-school principal, Mr. Collins, pulled some strings. He thought I was “a diamond in the rough.” It certainly wasn't because of my attendance record. That simple act of kindness changed my life.
I was a subway commuter, two hours each way. Yet when I graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering, I couldn't get a good engineering job. Was it because of discrimination, or were other candidates better than me? It didn't matter. I had to adapt and move on, first as a math teacher at $3,600 a year, then joining my brothers in starting a construction company.
As we grew, I delved into other opportunities. But when I approached one of the biggest banks in Baltimore for a loan, I was turned down. Too blue-collar and ethnic.
I found alternative financing. Years later, I was that bank's biggest customer. I hadn't suddenly become less “blue collar and ethnic.” Rather, the bankers understood that if they wanted to keep market share, they had to deal with me. You've got to scramble and find work-arounds when prejudice blocks your path.
After a while I started looking for a new challenge. My dad and his buddies were regulars at Suffolk Downs and I caught the racing bug early.
So I flew out to Lexington–the epicenter of Thoroughbred racing. Thanks to Tom Biederman, I spotted a rundown, 225-acre cattle farm in Paris, KY, and re-built the place into Siena Farm.
At Siena Farm, my partners David Pope (Polish-American), Nacho Patino (Mexican-American) and I (Italian-American), understand from our life experiences how important it is to give employees and their families hope and dignity. We're fighting the diversity issue from the bottom up.
David's immigrant grandparents worked in coal mines, on railroads and bottling plant lines. His dad joined the Air Force, then took factory night jobs while his mom worked at a credit union. They made sure their kids were well cared-for and well-educated. Today, his siblings earn their living as a cartographer, a teacher and an advertising/media buyer. David worked his way through the University of Akron, earning an accounting degree. He started his racing career with Airdrie Stud in Midway, KY, and has set high goals for Siena Farm.
Nacho came from Mexico, where he helped in the fields as a kid in exchange for vegetables to feed his parents and seven siblings. Their mode of transportation: horses. He slept on the floor until he was 15. The next year, Nacho set off for the U.S., and after a harrowing journey crossed the Rio Grande. Eventually, he joined his uncle in Kentucky, who got him a job on a horse farm.
Nacho started as a groom. He eventually ran a boarding and sales prep business, then served as assistant farm manager for Stonerside Farm. In 2008, he joined Siena Farm as farm manager. Within a year, he was promoted to co-owner and general manager.
All three of us are living the American Dream.
So are others on the farm. Our employees are a melting pot of hardworking men and women intent on providing a secure future for their families and raising healthy, confident children who can succeed in school, college and life. Of the seven college-age children on the farm, six are undergraduates and the seventh received a full scholarship to Eastern Kentucky University but decided to join the Navy.
Education is an important tool in the fight for diversity. Back at my alma mater, to pay back Mr. Collins's simple act of kindness Michele and I started The Torch Scholar program which gives full scholarships to first-generation college students. Torch Scholars are “diamonds in the rough,” who come from families living on the edge. Most are minorities…African-American, Asian and Hispanic.
During the interview process, applicants are asked how they would react when, inevitably, they face discrimination, be it racial, sexual, religious or ethnic bias. We want to see if they understand that prejudice isn't going to disappear. What counts is how you handle those uncomfortable, cringe-worthy moments. Don't let it get you down or destroy your ambitions. Find ways to navigate around them. “Keep your eye on the prize.” Always move toward your goal.
The effects of diversity go well beyond the people directly helped. There is a ripple effect that radiates out and affects other people. Siena Farm “kids” and Torch Scholars are prime examples.
Opportunities in the equine industry are endless. As we expand diversity in our sport, the success of people drawn to our sport will be solely dependent on their tenacity, adaptability and skills. If we wait for racists to change their minds, we'll be waiting for the rest of our lives. In the end, determination, smarts and peak performance are what will make all the difference in racing.