Best of 2023: Najja Thompson
Dec 26, 2023
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Best of 2023: Najja Thompson

by Keith McCalmont

Just four live race days remain in 2023 to complete a remarkable year of racing action on the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) circuit. To celebrate the season, the NYRA Press Office checked in with a selection of trainers, owners, jockeys and racing personalities to share their reflections on the memorable year.

Najja Thompson, who spent nearly a decade working for NYRA in a variety of roles within marketing, communications and human resources, joined the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc. (NYTB) in 2020 as their Executive Director where he works tirelessly to promote the New York-bred racing program and its significant economic impact within New York State.

In addition, Thompson is the president of the Turf Publicists of America and serves on the boards of NYRA, the New York Racetrack Chaplaincy, the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding & Development Fund, the Backstretch Employee Service Team and the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.

A graduate of Florida State University, Thompson developed his passion for thoroughbred racing after being introduced to the sport by his uncle, a small-time breeder in Florida. Growing up attending racetracks in both Florida and New York, he followed his passion to work in the industry.

Q. NYRA again played host to three Showcase Days for New York-breds this year, including the Big Apple Showcase Day in May at Belmont Park, New York Showcase Day in August at Saratoga Race Course and Empire Showcase Day which was held in October at Belmont at the Big A. Why are these all New York-bred cards important to the local industry and what were some of the highlights for you this year?

“Our annual New York Showcase Days, which were created and promoted in partnership between NYTB, NYRA, and the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding & Development Fund (the Fund), are essential to New York’s breeding and racing industry as marquee state-bred Championship days for racing fans and all participants in the New York-bred program to experience.

“Each day features multiple stakes races which not only helps to promote the New York-bred program to a national audience, but the improved quality of racehorses foaled in New York. Another benefit is the days are a great example of the positive economic and social impact our sport directly contributes to New York State.

“Highlights from each of this year’s Showcase Days for me include the impressive performances by City Man, who captured the West Point at Saratoga and Kingston at Belmont in this year’s series. As well, 4-year-old filly Sterling Silver, who won the Iroquois on Big Apple Showcase Day at Belmont following a valiant effort in the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom.

“Most rewarding above all the performances was the fact that each of our Showcase Days was well supported at the entry box. The Showcase Days offered competitive fields for horseplayers which was reflected with their strong support in handle figures.”

Q. The New York Stallion Stakes Series offers more than $2.3 million in purse money throughout the year for horses by registered New York-sires topped by a pair of half-million dollar races in the Great White Way for juveniles and the Fifth Avenue for juvenile fillies. How does this program help promote the New York market and what were the standout moments for you this year in the NYSSS?

“Without question, the New York Stallion Series has been our most effective tool in helping to promote the diverse quality of stallions and attractive bloodlines currently standing in New York.

“The 10-race series provides breeders immediate market value in sending their mare to a New York-based stallion at a fraction of the cost on the open market knowing their future foal will be eligible for the $2 million series exclusively competed on the NYRA circuit. For racehorse owners, owning a New York-Sired horse eligible to compete in the series including the pair of juvenile half-million dollar stakes races in December, while remaining eligible for all state-bred races if a registered New York-bred, makes it even more enticing to purchase foals sired by New York stallions.

“This year, it was especially great to see Solomini, who stands at McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, emerge as one of the leading freshman sires in North America. The son of Curlin is the leading first crop yearling sire outside the state of Kentucky and his progeny have shown to be precocious with his 2-year-olds capturing the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity in California and the $500,000 Fifth Avenue Division of the New York Stallion Stakes Series here in New York. It will be exciting to see what his runners continue to accomplish as 3-year-olds next year.”

Q. What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of for the New York-bred program this year?

“This December, through our work and partnership with the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding & Development Fund, we were able to significantly increase New York-bred program breeder awards. This means breeders of New York-breds will be rewarded with more money in their pocket from offspring who finish first through third in New York State. The increased awards offer up to 40 percent of purse money earned for New York-Sired progeny and up to 20 percent of purse money earned for non-New York-Sired progeny. We hope these increased incentives and returns lead to more investment in bringing additional mares to the state.

“Additionally, working alongside NYRA, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA), and affiliated racing businesses and work unions through the We Are NY Horse Racing coalition, securing the state loan of $455 million in May for the redevelopment of Belmont Park was another monumental accomplishment.

“Each of these initiatives will help to ensure the future sustainability and prosperity for breeding and racing in New York for many years to come. We have also successfully worked with NYRA to offer unprecedented incentives and awards for New York-breds. Including, purse parity with their open company counterparts starting with New York-bred 2-year-olds foaled this year and who will race in 2026.

“Historically, New York has been the benchmark for world class racing and we are proud to position the New York-bred program in continuing to carry that mantle going forward.”

Q. What new stallions have landed in New York State recently and where do you see them fitting in with the state-bred program?

“Each of our stallion stations across the state have done a phenomenal job continuing to improve the quality of bloodlines offered for breeders to appropriately match their mare. Among the new and exciting stallions joining the Empire State registry in 2024 are graded stakes winners Americanrevolution, who will stand at Rockridge Stud and Bucchero who joins the stallion roster at McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds.

“Bucchero, offers breeders versatility from a runner who has performed well on dirt, turf, and synthetic. Americanrevolution, a former New York-bred Horse of the Year, affords breeders the opportunity to breed to a son of Constitution whose progeny have shown tremendous ability at the track.

“The new stallions join an already excellent value roster that includes graded stakes placed Honest Mischief, a son of leading North America sire Into Mischief at Sequel New York, who also stands Keepmeinmind, a son of graded stakes winner Laoban and multiple graded stakes winner Fire At Will.

“Multiple graded stakes winner Mind Control, who entered stud last year, and covered a record 190 mares in the state, this year will be located at Irish Hill & Dutchess Views Stallions. Additionally, returning sires who continue to foal consistent runners include yearly leading New York-bred earner Central Banker and all-time earner Freud.”

Q. In addition to being the Executive Director of the NYTB, you're also a lifelong fan of the sport - what moments resonated with you this year?

“I grew up visiting racetracks with my family and it’s always great to spend an afternoon at the track with friends and colleagues who also become your family. Among this year’s moments I’ll cherish are Jena Antonucci winning the Belmont Stakes with Arcangelo. The stretch duel between Elite Power and Gunite in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt at Saratoga was also a phenomenal race. As well, witnessing White Abarrio’s impressive performance in the Grade 1 Whitney before going on to deliver another great performance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was another phenomenal moment.”

Q. Your role requires a lot of travel and time spent at New York tracks - do you have any recommendations or hidden gems for places to eat, visit, etc. when traveling to Saratoga, Belmont or the Big A?

“I think it goes without saying that if you’re visiting Aqueduct Racetrack, you should try to have dinner after the races at Don Peppe restaurant, which has long been a tradition for many horseplayers. At Saratoga, I believe an underrated area to watch races is right along the rail. The energy of the crowd and quality of racing is only matched by the effort put on by our equine athletes and jockeys.”

Q. You sit on the board of a number of organizations and have a hand in a lot of programs through the industry – are there any you would like to highlight as being important for 2024 and beyond?

“I am honored to serve on the boards for both the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) and the New York Race Track Chaplaincy. Each organization works to assist and ensure every racetrack worker and their family on the NYRA circuit is supported through a variety of areas including physical, mental health services and community support and wellbeing.

“Our industry is all encompassing in that it involves both agricultural and urban labor work forces that is essential for our sport to operate and be conducted throughout the year. Both B.E.S.T. and the New York Racetrack Chaplaincy do phenomenal work not only helping us to make that happen but that each worker and their family is supported to make that possible. I look forward to help increase the awareness and reach of each respective organization and to help make it known how important the support for each is needed.”

Q. What are your goals for 2024?

“Looking ahead to next year, it’s always my main priority as Executive Director of NYTB to ensure every participant in the New York-bred program is aware of the work we do daily to improve the incentives and awards in New York in making it attractive to foal more thoroughbreds in the state. We are a membership organization and it’s critical to for us to relay the overall value we provide on behalf of each of our members no matter their involvement in racing– whether as a breeder, horsemen, owner, and racing fan.

“Personally, I am getting married next May, following the first two legs of the Triple Crown and just before what will be a historic Belmont Stakes at Saratoga. I look forward to the experience of planning a wedding and getting married during our most busy season, but thankful I have an understanding fiancé, who has grown to love and enjoy our sport as well.”

America's Day at the Races will present live coverage and analysis of every day of the Aqueduct Racetrack fall meet on the networks of FOX Sports. For the broadcast schedule and channel finder, visit

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