Call him a workaholic if you want, but Darin Mouser’s job as a horse trainer is much more than that.
It’s a lifestyle.
Born and raised in London, Mouser grew up around horses, so it didn’t surprise his family when he turned his father Max’s hobby into a living and began harness racing at age 19.
Since then, he’s spent nearly every day at the Madison County Fairgrounds, where he now operates Mouser Stables. Inside those dusty horse barns, Mouser, now 50, passes mornings and afternoon feeding, bathing and soothing and jogging seven horses around dirt tracks.
Most evenings year round, he and a few other men crowd into a truck shoulder-to-shoulder and make their way to Scioto Downs Casino and Racetrack in Lebanon to race each evening.
Mouser is one of several locals looking forward to returning to the home track on Sunday, when harness racing will take place at the Madison County Fairgrounds on opening day.
The race will begin at noon, as opposed to previous years’ 1 p.m. start time.
The harness racing business is on the rise, said Gerald McHenry, speed superintendent at the fairgrounds. Unlike thoroughbred racing, drivers (not riders) sit on carts attached to the horse’s back.
Harness racing used to take place at least three nights a week at the fair. In recent years, that has dwindled to just one evening. But Ohio racinos have breathed new enthusiasm — and money — back into the industry, McHenry said.
“It’s definitely coming back,” he said. “A lot of the horseman went out of state to Pennsylvania and Indiana, but Ohio’s coming back. The purses are growing. It’s going to be good.”
About 20 drivers are expected to compete Sunday.
Mouser is hoping for a good-sized home crowd, similar to the county fairs from years ago. He said he likes training at Madison County Fairgrounds because the horses are more relaxed. The fact that it’s just a few miles from home is an added plus, of course.
Before becoming a trainer full-time, Mouser spent more than 25 years as a driver himself. After graduating London High School in 1982, he lived in Chicago for a winter to work in the business. He opened the stable the next year.
Times weren’t always good. For years the industry struggled. Mouser would take an odd job here and there to make ends meet. But, now a fifth-place standing pays out what a win used to several years ago.
“Racinos have changed everything, which we’ve been waiting on for years,” he said. “For 10 to 12 years, it was hard to make a living.”
Other than the financial constraints, the job is physically risky, as well.
In 1993, Mouser’s leg was snapped in two during a wreck on the track. Although he jumped back in the saddle that time, another accident in 2008 turned out to be much more serious.
While racing at Scioto Downs, a couple horses fell down in front of him.
“You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. I got thrown and my landing wasn’t good,” he added with a laugh.
He broke his hip. Mouser underwent a hip replacement in 2011 and has been a trainer solely since.
The biggest misconception about the industry is that racing is cruel to the horses, he said. If those folks spent more time with the animals, they would know the horses love what they do.
“They can’t wait to get to a race track. They’re athletes and they’re bred to be athletes,” he said. “These horses live better than I do — trust me. I miss meals before they do.”
Of the seven horses Mouser currently trains, one is his own. Good Connections is 12 years old and “spoiled rotten,” he said.
The horses eat a sweet feed comprised of oats and molasses, as well as hay and lots of carrots. Carrots are supposed to be a special treat for a good race, but Mouser’s an easy touch.
“Dad always said, ‘Treat em’ like you want to be treated,’” Mouser recalled. “And, I’ve always done that.”
Andrea Chaffin can be reached at (740) 852-1616, ext. 1619 or via Twitter @AndeeWrites.