Mom’s Choice Awards is excited to announce another post in our interview series where we chat with the inventors, designers, publishers, and others behind some of our favorite family-friendly products.
Hello, Mom’s Choice readers! As part of our ongoing interview series, we spoke with Maddy Zanetti, author of the Mom’s Choice Award-winning books Upset – The Original Dark Horse and Jim Dandy – A Dark Horse on a Dark Day. Jim Dandy is the sequel to Upset, which is a twist on the true story of two racehorses named Upset and Man o’War in the Sanford Stakes almost 100 years ago. Both books in the Dark Horse series teach that it is not always luck that gets you to your goals, but believing in yourself and staying true to who you are. Each book in the Dark Horse Series is also filled with beautiful illustrations by local illustrated by local Saratogian artist Gretchen Tisch! Keep reading to find out more about Maddy Zanetti and her award-winning series!
MCA: Hi Maddy, thank you so much for joining us today! Congratulations on your multiple Mom’s Choice Awards for your Dark Horse Series. The Dark Horse Series is a truly magical series that is full of great stories for readers of all ages! Can we first start the interview by finding out a little bit about the author behind such a wonderful series?
Maddy: I am a native Saratogian. I live downtown with my husband, son, and our three dogs. Upset lives at our friend’s farm with my childhood horse and our other miniature horse Poppy. I am co-owner of Impressions of Saratoga and The Dark Horse Mercantile, both located on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. I have always been an avid animal lover and Saratoga history fan. We were raised to be very proud of where we come from and Saratoga Springs is an amazing place, it is easy to be proud of. I graduated from SUNY Geneseo with a business degree but have been an entrepreneur for as long as I can remember. Whether I was walking neighbor’s dogs for $1, selling lemonade outside of Saratoga Race Course, or offering to pet sit any animal available. I started working at Impressions of Saratoga as a kid and planned on opening my own business in the future. I became a partner at Impressions in 2011 and co-owner with Marianne Barker in 2018.
I spend most of my time at work because we love what we do. Impressions has been in business since 1978 and is “The Everything Saratoga Store ” with gifts, souvenirs, garments, and decor based on the equestrian lifestyle and Saratoga’s Charm. The Dark Horse was a brand created at Impressions that grew into its own store in 2018, it is based on Saratoga Race Course’s history as “The Graveyard of Champions” where unlikely winners prevail, the store is filled with one of a kind collectibles, garments, gifts, and decor. When not at work I am doing something with my family and the dogs. Our dogs are a big part of my life. They come to work with me and we love going for long walks. I do dog agility with all three of them, it is a lot of fun and a great way to bond with the dogs. My son is three so we spend a lot of time playing with cars, trucks, and trains, building things, and reading books. We do a lot of biking and outdoor activities. Saratoga Springs is lucky to have a tight-knit community and I am very involved in different organizations. Right now I am on the board of Discover Saratoga, The Saratoga Historical Society, and Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation. I have served as the Downtown Business Association President and been on many different committees. I am a big believer in being a part of your community.
MCA: I grew up near Poughkeepsie and we would sometimes go up to watch the horse races in Saratoga, so I am somewhat familiar with the area! It sounds like you are surrounded by plenty of inspiration for your writing living there. What was your path to becoming a writer like? What inspired you?
Maddy: It was not planned! One of my best friends is a writer, she is incredibly talented and I’ve always been impressed by her way with words. I have never thought of myself as a writer. We tell the story of The Dark Horse so often that I can recite the dates and facts in my sleep. One day while walking the dogs I started thinking about the story in rhyme, not thinking much of it. I wrote it down when I got home and kept adding to it now and then. Soon I had enough to tell the entire story in rhyme. I spoke with a few friends in publishing and started working on the book. Then I hired Gretchen Louise Tisch, a very talented local artist to do all of the illustrations. She and I were both new to the publishing world so we learned together. We published “Upset” in 2018 and “Jim Dandy” in 2020. I am always inspired by history, longshots, and the people around me. My grandmother, Carol Zanetti, who the first book is dedicated to, was an avid believer in reading and education. She used to read to children weekly, a program called “Carol and the Magic Hat.” She was always a great role model,
MCA: That’s a wonderful story about your grandmother, thank you for sharing that with us! What was your inspiration for writing the Dark Horse Series?
Maddy: I believe very strongly in the message of The Dark Horse brand, you don’t have to be the favorite to win. Hard work pays off. Follow your dreams. Upset was a real horse, born in 1917 and ran in Saratoga Springs in 1919. Jim Dandy, also a real horse, ran in Saratoga in 1930. I wanted to share their stories with others, not just children or horse racing fans. Of course, there is more to life than winning and that is part of what I try to teach, even if you are not the best you can still always do your best because it only takes one time to make history. I am always inspired by stories about upsets in sports, business, even politics. I like to root for the little guy, being a small business owner you have to be!
MCA: Everyone loves an underdog story! Tell us more about Upset, the living miniature horse who inspired the book!
Maddy: Upset, the miniature Dark Horse of Saratoga, is such a special horse. In 2014 when we decided to make Dark Horse into its own brand we were talking about ways to market the brand and the story.
Jokingly we said we needed a mascot… never one to turn down the idea of another animal, within a few hours I had found a small black horse who was looking for a new home and had set up a meeting with him in a few days. His owner at the time was using him as a show horse but said he was not really interested in it even though he had done well. He was a Reserve Champion in AMHA (American Miniature Horse Assoc.) and had multiple Grans in AMHR (American Miniature Horse Registry). His previous owner said “He will do anything for a treat” and that is the truth. We asked her if she thought he would be good in crowds or doing events inside around children, she said “she thought so but to give it a try and see how it went.”
Upset was a natural. The first time we walked him downtown we knew he was going to be an instant success. In the first parade he was in, he was in front of a marching band and behind a cannon firing blanks, he marched right along. His first event was the brand launch party at a local restaurant, he entertained children and spent six hours being pet in the restaurant’s garden.
When he shows up at an event he walks in with a presence about him. He knows he is special and he knows he is there to work. He is spunky and has a lot of personality. He is helping to teach the Dark Horse story to children of all ages. Everyone loves him!
He lives with my older horse Flye and another miniature horse, Poppy. He spends most of his days eating grass and running around with them. He is good friends with King Tut, the Saratoga Springs Mounted Police Unit’s Percheron Horse, they are identical in build and color but King Tut weighs about 2,000 pounds more! People love seeing them together!
MCA: That is adorable, I wish I could meet such a special horse in person! I’m glad to at least get the chance to meet Upset through the Dark Horse Series. Tell us about the message of the Original Dark Horse?
Maddy: Always doing your best and never giving up. Upset ran against Man o’War (the Big Red Horse) six times and finished in second every time. But he did not stop trying. He kept working hard and training. He found something he loved doing and kept working at it. People are so used to instant gratification now. Sometimes things take longer and they are worth the wait. Working hard and having goals is really important, having a sense of purpose makes people happier.
MCA: We couldn’t agree with that message more! What kind of response from readers have you received?
Maddy: It has been very surprising. When I wrote the book I did not expect it to be anything other than a way for people to bring the story of the Dark Horse home with them. Instead, we sold out within the first two months and had to reprint. We have people who come in every month to pick up a few copies for gifts (for people of all ages). I have had people call the store to tell me how the story brought them to tears and how important the message is for people.
People love Grethen’s artwork too. It is eye-catching and so colorful. She did a wonderful job. People love how she incorporates her love of nature into her art. Plus in Jim Dandy, we had a lot of fun with little details that were fun to us. On one page our dogs, Smitty and Clover, are at the barn, the two pups always play together while we are working on books. On another page FDR is watching the race, he really did attend the 1930 Travers Stakes in Saratoga Springs.
It is very rewarding. It is humbling to have people come in and compliment the book. It has been a great experience. People are always asking “what are you going to do next?” And I have a few ideas, we will see!
MCA: Wow, congratulations on all of the success you’ve seen so far! I think it’s safe to say there will be much more to come. If you could ensure readers of your book walk away with one main lesson from each book, what would it be?
Maddy: Do your best, you can overcome the odds with hard work, dedication, and believing in yourself. There is nothing you can’t do if you dedicate yourself to it and put in the work. Growing up my dad would say to us every morning on his way out the door; “Do your best.” That is what I sign in my books, because if you have done your best you will have nothing to regret.
MCA: Thank you for a wonderful interview, Maddy. Please be sure to keep us posted on what’s next for the Dark Horse Series!