Trenton, NJ — Growing up in Hackensack, N.J., there weren’t many horse farms around, but there was a racetrack five minutes away in neighboring East Rutherford known as The Meadowlands.
And that’s where Philip LaCorte III and his dad, Philip Jr., would spend a lot of their time bonding. So much time, in fact, that the younger LaCorte made it his life’s mission to get into the business despite having never been in a barn in his life.
Now in the business for five years, Phil owns just two horses that he trains and drives, so he is looking to expand his Goshen, N.Y.-based stable and is in the process of getting his full driver’s license. It has taken some time to get a foothold, but the thrill of the profession is providing everything it promised to LaCorte when he watched from outside the bubble.
“I really am enjoying it,” he said. “I love every second of this. This is all I do now and I’m hoping that it lasts forever.”
Phil and his dad were frequent visitors to the Big M and LaCorte was the proverbial wide-eyed kid looking in the toy store window.
“Growing up I was never around horses, so that was something really surreal about The Meadowlands back in the day,” he said. “You go outside, you see the groom, you see the horses getting ready before their race. You didn’t need to know anything about the horses just to be able to see them and enjoy them.”
As an all-around athlete at Hackensack High School, LaCorte looked at harness racing as a sport rather than a business. The athleticism of driving sparked his interest, so after a stint at Bergen Community College he saw an ad for the 2014 USTA Driving School in Goshen and figured at age 20, if he were ever going to take a shot, that would be the time.
The eager student attended the four-day program, working particularly close with trainer Ray Schnittker and sopping up everything he could from whoever he could.
“I knew it was going to be hard,” LaCorte said. “I went to camp with an open mind. I really tried to learn. I brought a backpack, I was there every day, early as I possibly could. It wasn’t just a be-there type of thing.
“I got very lucky in meeting some great people there that actually took me under their wing. Being a person that’s not in the business, I was like a sponge at the time soaking everything in. It worked out perfectly for me. I couldn’t ask for any better, it was a great experience.”
After completing his schooling, LaCorte got hands-on experience working for Schnittker as he made the two-hour round trip to Goshen every day.
“I worked with the grooms and the grooms helped me a lot also,” he said. “There were a lot of well experienced horsemen that you just really appreciate. I feel very lucky to have met some great people. I really was able to push myself forward because of that.”
In 2016 LaCorte decided it was time to go on his own. He opened his own stable, bought his first horse and earned his qualifying license and trainer’s license.
“I had to learn off my own self a little more,” said LaCorte, whose dad helps with the operation. “I was taking that step forward and not just relying on other people to keep going forward. I needed to start moving to prove myself a little bit, not just be an apprentice to anybody.”
His first purchase was a 5-year-old gelding, but an injury forced LaCorte to retire the horse. Undaunted, Phil claimed J Danae, a 6-year-old mare at the time, and later bought another mare, Jaybeebullville. After racing at both Freehold and Monticello for a short while, LaCorte now only races at Freehold.
Phil has two wins and two shows in 18 drives this year. For his career, he has six wins, 11 seconds and 11 thirds for $37,968 in earnings in 124 drives.
“I can’t complain,” he said. “My horses are really showing up in these races. Some of these races you wouldn’t think they had a shot but they’re showing up. With the COVID stuff, I feel a little bad for the older one (J Danae) because she was on and off a little during it.
“The other one, she’s been a hit or miss. Last week she should have won. She should have won two weeks in a row and gotten her first back-to-back wins. But she just wanted to break out of the one hole. That one hole gets her sometimes. She doesn’t break any other time. I’m going to change some rigging this week, but I think it’s just her. I try not to use that excuse, that she’s just being a filly.”
He added with a laugh, “I’d rather blame myself even though I think it’s her. But I try to find another reason than that even though it is that.”
LaCorte is hoping to breed J Danae in the future as he wants to get experience working with yearlings. He’s looking to increase his stable and wants to race beyond Freehold, although he truly enjoys the central New Jersey track.
“I wish I had a little more competitive horses to show my driving, but I do like our driving colony at Freehold,” said LaCorte, whose main goal is to be a driver. “I think everything at Freehold is really good. Even with the younger drivers. There’s a couple of young guys there and I personally like that.”
At age 28 LaCorte is not all that old, but he was considered fairly old as a newcomer to the horse business. But he has diligently plugged away and is making up for lost time.
“I got very lucky with the school, with the people that helped me,” he said. “Being a person that hadn’t been in the business, I always feel blessed to be able to come as far as I have so far.”