Back in 2018, a campus introduction between a second-semester student who loved horse racing and a horse-loving administrator at Harford Community College (Maryland) started the wheels in motion for that student, Dominick Merritt, to turn his passion into a vocation. Educator Jennie Towner blogged about the experience then. Now, five years later, Merritt, 25, is sharing what he has created from that experience.
Back in 2005 when I was just 7 years old, I have a vivid memory of watching the Kentucky Derby on TV. I will never forget the exhilaration and rush I felt watching Giacomo “coming from the clouds,” as racing fans would say, storming down the center of the track to take the win in the shadow of the wire. Since that day I’ve been hooked on the industry and studied the sport day and night, with ambitions to someday make that adrenaline rush my own.
Growing up in Baltimore, my exposure to the racing industry was little to none. With few resources, I had little direct access to horses. I had no friends or family that had any interest in the racing world except my uncle Michael. He helped me go from watching these magnificent animals on TV to watching them live, front and center at the Pimlico Race Course. Every Friday I would call him after school and ask, “Can we go to the track this weekend?” I soon heightened my request by asking to take a weekend trip to upstate New York and the mecca of Thoroughbred racing, Saratoga Race Course.
Over the next several years, I was drawn to one particular trainer whose iconic white bridles and success with horses like Rags To Riches, Pluck, and Uncle Mo caught my attention. That trainer is the renowned Todd Pletcher.
Fast forward 13 years to when I enrolled Harford Community College. There, I met Jennie Towner, and we connected over our shared interest in horses. She gave me that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn a dream into reality when she introduced me to Chris and Kevin Boniface of Bonita Farm in Darlington, Maryland. Jennie gave me Chris’ phone number and encouraged me to reach out to them.
Chris invited me to the farm, and from that point on my life was forever changed. At Bonita Farm with Chris and Kevin, I learned aspects of the industry that aren’t always broadcast on television—things such as mucking a stall, hot walking, putting on polos and properly grooming a race horse. These essential, everyday tasks are just a little insight of the daily routine it takes to get a Thoroughbred to the races, and I’m grateful to have well-rounded knowledge about horse care and not just riding horses.
With almost no riding experience, Chris and Kevin took a chance on me and allowed me to ride a 2-year-old filly, Along Came Mizzy, my first day on the job. I’ll never forget the feeling of power even as I was being ponied in the indoor shed row. Over time, as my riding got stronger, I graduated from riding in the shed row to actually galloping on the racetrack—my first gallop is a moment I will always remember.
As my skills increased, I shared with Kevin that I’d dreamed of working for Todd Pletcher. Kevin indicated that whenever I was ready, he’d make the connection. After a year at Bonita Farm and another two years galloping at Laurel and Pimlico, I made the call to Kevin: “I’m ready for New York”.
I don’t know all the details, but I know Kevin called an assistant trainer of Todd’s and told him that he had a rider for Todd A. Pletcher Racing Stables. From there, I called the trainer to ensure I had a job before I canceled my lease in Baltimore and moved to Saratoga. From my childhood watching races at Saratoga on TV every summer to now riding here every morning still feels surreal to me.
One of my favorite memories is the first time I met Todd during morning workouts in the summer of 2022. Filled with excitement and nerves, it took me 30 minutes to build up the courage to introduce myself to the man that I have been in awe of since childhood. I was immediately at ease with the natural conversation we had. He was interested in my Baltimore roots, and we discussed our mutual connection with the Boniface family.
My years with horses have been life-changing and have exceeded all of my expectations. I can’t believe it has only been five years since I started this journey.
Now I’m blessed to be able to travel with TAP stables and spend my summers in New York and winters in Florida. I will always owe a massive thank you to Jennie, as she was the initial link to all my success. My No. 1 goal in 2022 was to create a memory that would not only stick with me for a lifetime, but to influence those younger than me or any future up-and-comers to believe that dreams do come true if you remain dedicated with a strong work ethic. I did both in May, when I had the chance to return to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes.
It was important for me to return home to Baltimore for the Preakness, and Todd didn’t hesitate when I asked if I could travel to Pimlico. The opportunity allowed me to give back to my community as a special guest on the Sunrise Tours, an educational opportunity for Baltimore residents to visit the track and the backside. I was surprised to be recognized and approached about being a special guest on the tour. That is when I realized that I had become a public figure…what a feeling!
Not one to talk about myself, when I was in the spotlight I was most at ease focusing on talking to the young kids who reminded me of myself, full of excitement watching the racehorses. I’m honored to have the opportunity to continue inspiring youth by serving as a mentor for Saddle Up Scholars, a new nonprofit that Jennie started along with her colleague, Win Lewis, geared toward increasing equity and inclusion in the horse world through the benefits of education. It makes me proud to be a role model to kids from Baltimore from backgrounds just like mine.
In the same way that Jennie initially found a common bond with me about horses, I’ve been able to connect with new people who share the same drive and visions. The people I’ve met at the track have made me a better person. I’m grateful for my friendship with Conor Schliff, a New York native who traveled with me to Florida this winter. We were fortunate to leave “home” together and rely on each other to navigate our new surroundings in Florida. While being away from home, we became family to each other. Through our experiences of living in new places, we both realized how much the world really has to offer and how lucky we are to have horses show us the way.
A decade from now, I aim to be living full-time in Florida. I know that horses will always be part of my life whether that be full-time or in addition to new pursuits that I am considering, such as carpentry or real estate. One thing I’ve learned from horses is that the possibilities are endless.
Dominick Merritt is an exercise rider with Todd A. Pletcher Racing stables based in Saratoga Springs, New York. Originally from Baltimore, he was introduced to horses when he was a student at Harford Community College in Maryland.