NBC grad Fonseca driven for success in harness racing
EAST WINDSOR » Josert Fonseca arrived at the Meadowlands Racetrack on a September morning last year and prepared for his first-ever drive in a qualifier. If he hoped to go unnoticed and work through any jitters, it would be impossible. First, the horse’s trainer, Hall of Famer Jimmy Takter, pointed out Fonseca to observers. Second, the horse was Pinkman.
Not often does a driver get to take his first spin around a racetrack — even in a non-betting prep race — with a Hambletonian Stakes champion. But such was Fonseca’s opportunity, which speaks volumes about Takter’s trust and confidence in the 29-year-old graduate of Northern Burlington High School. Fonseca, who was then in his fifth year working at Takter’s stable and had no knowledge of harness racing prior to arriving there, guided Pinkman to a win in 1:55.2.
Since then, Fonseca has driven in 18 more qualifiers, getting opportunities not only from Takter but trainers Nancy Johansson, Tony Alagna and Trond Smedshammer, and finished worse than second only five times. He recently received his provisional license and hopes to eventually get drives in parimutuel races.
“If you like the sport, you want to try it at least one time,” Fonseca said about driving. “You can train for so long, but you watch them out on the track (in races) and you want to get a chance to try it for yourself.
“I never pushed the issue at all, but I think Jimmy saw that I showed a little bit of interest in it and that’s kind of what sparked it. It’s a lot on the line, so for him to say ‘You can take that one,’ is a big deal for me. I’ve been lucky with the ones I’ve driven so far, they’ve all performed really good for me.”
Fonseca’s first qualifier with Pinkman, the 2015 Hambletonian winner, was special.
“I trained him when he was growing up, so I’m comfortable with him, but it’s still a little nerve-wracking,” Fonseca said, adding with a laugh, “I just wanted to keep a low profile.
“But (Pinkman) went out there and he was really, really good. And I was surprised how comfortable I was once I got out there.”
Fonseca was born in Costa Rica, where he spent his early childhood before moving to New Jersey at the age of 8. He graduated from Northern Burlington, located not far from Takter’s stable, but spent several years working in a variety of jobs, including a bakery and a fine-dining Italian restaurant, before a friend introduced him to harness racing.
“My family had riding horses in Costa Rica and I always loved horses,” said Fonseca, who lives in Allentown. “I decided to give this a try for a couple weeks and see if I got the hang of it. I ended up sticking around. There is no better place to start. I’ve learned a lot in six years. It’s like going to college, but you’re getting paid to do it.”
Fonseca worked as a groom for more than two years before getting the chance to join in training.
“He has a lot of responsibilities in the stable and he handles things very well,” Takter said. “I can see who has the talent to do it out there. Every time he was out there, he got a little better, more comfortable. He handles the horses well; he doesn’t fight with them, he sits right in the bike, he’s very comfortable and relaxed.
“I don’t think he knows pressure yet. Of course there is a big difference between qualifiers and races, but he’s going to be fine. He has a future, I’m sure about that.”
A future is Fonseca’s dream.
“I would love to pursue driving,” Fonseca said. “I know it’s difficult to get to the level most guys are at, but it’s something I love. I feel really comfortable doing it; I don’t feel nervous. I hope people see that I try to take good care of the horses out there.
“I just need to keep doing what I’m supposed to do. If I get a chance, hopefully I’ll take advantage of it. If I get the chance, I’ll do my best.”
Ken Weingartner is a Media Relations Manager for the U.S. Trotting Association.