By Francis LaBelle

A whirlwind visit to Saratoga Springs, NY did little to throw Lauren Vannucci off of her game. She handled media interview requests cheerfully, patiently, and represented herself and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) as if she had done this kind of stuff all her life.

That isn’t the case.

“Five years,” she said. “September 10th marked five years that I reached E.O.S.” — End of Sentence.

This milestone anniversary of Lauren’s release from the all-female Lowell Correctional Facility near Ocala, FL, is what has given her the energy to repeatedly tell her story and convince anyone willing to listen that the TRF, its Second Chances Program, and the faith and kindness of her family and friends, all afforded her the opportunity to set her life on a straight course.

Lauren has taken at least one giant step each year since she left Lowell. In 2017, she moved to Ocala and began galloping horses for Niall and Stephanie Brennan at their prestigious thoroughbred training farm. She continued with her education, eventually earning her Bachelor of Science degree in Equine Studies and Business Management from the College of Central Florida. She was promoted by the Brennans to the position of Director of Client Services in 2021 and began taking pictures and videos of horses to present to clients. That led Lauren to start her own equine photography business, which made her even busier during the recent sales season. Last February, she married Matt Vannucci.

      Lauren turns 30 in November.

     “I can’t believe how fast everything has happened, and I know how lucky I am,” Lauren said. “Ten years ago, I was underage, went to a bar, drank way too much and got into a bad accident. I was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and bodily injury and given the maximum of five years. I served four and a half years, and that was because I had built up credit because I had been involved with the Second Chances program.”

     Lauren grew up near Florida’s Gulf Coast, living at various times near Tampa and Clearwater. Barely out of third grade, she attended a horse camp in Georgia and continued to ride as she grew older. At a low point in her life, horses lifted her up. “Second Chances allowed me to work with horses and in the process, learn other skills,” Lauren said. “I learned more about the horses. Connected with them. Along with taking care of the horses, we took care of the barn and the equipment, and did other maintenance and yard work. All of it helped me even doing everyday chores. For instance, there were many days that I would do weeding, and it got to the point that I really enjoyed it. For me, it was very therapeutic. It was also gratifying because when I was done, everything looked so pretty.”

      Lauren also got to ride some of the Second Chances horses. Upon her release, Lauren was introduced to the Brennans.

    “Lauren initially wanted to be a jockey and she wanted to ride at Tampa Bay Downs,” said Stephanie Brennan, who joined the TRF’s Board of Directors in 2021. “We knew that she rode show horses when she was younger. She just didn’t have experience riding thoroughbred racehorses. She has balance and a really good seat. We just needed to build up her strength, so she could handle thoroughbreds. We started by putting her on our quieter thoroughbreds and she learned quickly.” The more she rode, the more Lauren wanted to be a jockey. And she wanted to ride at her home track at Tampa Bay Downs.

      “I did all I could to dissuade her,” said Stephanie, “because a jockey’s life is a hard life and it is especially hard at Tampa during the winter. Lauren had a lot going for her. She had already finished school and she is very bright. We found out that she could do much more. She began taking photos and videos of horses to update our clients. She took on more duties and really organized everything. She is very personable and she became such a huge help to everyone, especially Niall. So, we created the position of Director of Client Services, and she has been terrific.”

     With the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the Brennans relied on Lauren to take confirmation photos and walking videos for them to present to clients. By late summer that year, Lauren had started her own equine photography business, LNB Photography. Because she is grateful for the opportunities presented to her after leaving Lowell, Lauren now hopes to someday return as a volunteer to help out at their Second Chances program.  She is certain that her own experience during the past five years could benefit the program’s participants.

     “When I got out, I lived with my mom,” Lauren said. “I got hired by the Brennans, and Mom bought me a truck so I could move to Ocala. I know I am lucky because Second Chances was what I needed, and I had support from my family and friends like the Brennans. I want people to know that there are good people in prison. You don’t just lock them up and throw away the key. They need to be rehabilitated, not `corrected’. They know they have done wrong and they need the chance and the tools–like Second Chances– to make it right. They are assets and they need to know that they can be something.”