Ride of Their Lives

Getting a 1,200-pound thoroughbred across the wire isn’t easy. Neither is losing five pounds every day. But the jockeys in town for four months at Lone Star Park do it despite the danger, the pain, and the torment to their bodies.

Cliff Berry, in white
socks, white pants, and a white t-shirt, kicks back on one of the
couches and crams for his next race. Berry takes his eyes away from the
day’s program to watch Curtis Kimes bring Darlin Desire to the wire by
more than five lengths in the first race. Then he goes back to studying
the third, his first of the night, to see where the speed is.

“There are going to
be four in front of me, which is good,” Berry says. “If four of them go
fast, even two or three of them, they’re going to stop, normally. So
you’d want to stay behind them. But if there’s only one speed in the
race, he’s going to be hard to beat like that.”

Less than an hour
later, Berry will ride Donnatella Maria, the longest shot in the race
at 56-1, from fifth at the start to second at the finish. Rarely does a
race fit a plan so predictably, and never is a race so simplistic.
Chaos theory argues sensitive dependence on initial conditions, and
once the starting gates open, the ensuing cluster of initial conditions
makes its way down the track.

Conditions often
worsen. As the authors of a recent study of jockey injuries put it, the
forward-pitched perch of a rider “creates a situation of dynamic
imbalance and ballistic opportunity.” In addition to the herculean task
of staying in their saddles, jockeys steer 1,200-pound temperamental
animals at speeds approaching 40 mph over an uneven surface, against
the will of all of those in the vicinity.

It’s been said that
jockeys are, pound for pound, the best athletes in all of sport. But
successful jockeys have more than physical prowess; they have an
ability to make decisions every fraction of a second. They watch for
open lanes to run through like a running back looks for holes in his
offensive line-only running backs don’t have to worry about another
running back getting there first.

“You’ve got to have the
horse,” says jockey Marlon St. Julien. “But you can outsmart other
riders. I’ve done it before, and it’s been done to me.”
What
separates the good riders from the great is an intuition of how much
horse they’re sitting on. A counterintuitive twist to thoroughbred
racing is that the fastest horse doesn’t always win. The fastest horse
usually tires somewhere in the homestretch, and the jockey does his or
her best to make sure the horse finishes strong and, gods willing,
finishes first.

“I think the jockey
makes a difference,” says Randy Galloway, Star-Telegram sports
columnist and part owner of Wimp Free Stables. “Now, is that difference
30 percent? Forty percent? I don’t know, and I haven’t heard anyone
have the right answer.”

Blaming a horse for a
losing effort is as fruitful as blaming one’s stinking, rotten luck.
Taking out frustrations on a jockey is easier and more gratifying,
though rarely more reasonable.
Railbirds, armed with rolled-up
programs and only a vague understanding of what it takes to ride a
horse, like to blame a jockey for the treatment of their choice
selection in the previous race. With the Jumbotron replay as Exhibit A,
the final place of order as Exhibit B, bettors often find the jockeys
guilty of costing them money. Jockeys aren’t afforded the opportunity
to offer a defense; if they’re caught talking to anyone other than a
track official, a trainer, an owner, or the valet who takes care of
their equipment, the stewards can mete out anything from a fine to a
suspension.

“Nobody cusses jockeys more than I do,” Galloway says. “But it’s in the privacy of my own betting compartment,
be it the suites, stands, rail, wherever I happen to be. Because, at
the same time, nobody admires these people more than I do.”

When the favorite
finishes out of the money, it takes a magnanimous bettor to appreciate
a losing effort. Few casual fans are as understanding as Galloway, and
few know that a jockey can ride an excellent race on a laggardly horse
that comes nowhere close to first.

“You get a couple of
cowboys who’ve had a few drinks go out there and holler at you,” St.
Julien says. “It’s not too bad here [at Lone Star Park], but you get it
a little bit.”

St. Julien has a wide
smile and pleasant disposition, but he remembers when he lost his
composure after a race he rode here years ago. “There was one guy who
was messing with all of the riders,” he says. “I let him get to me. I
said, ’First of all, you’re all f—ed up. You don’t know what the f—
you’re talking about.’ I said, ’You don’t f—ing scare me.’ I took my
helmet off. I was ready to hit him. If he came over the fence, I would
have.”

The railbird had told St. Julien, “The next time you ride, I hope you get trampled.”
“They don’t realize how much danger there is in a horse race, you know?” St. Julien says. “That’s why it gets to me sometimes.”

In the fourth race on
the first night of racing this summer at Lone Star Park, Deirdre Panas
sat atop That’s Our Shuttle in a $20,000 claiming race. The 3-year-old
was coming out of the gate in a 6-furlong race and was bet down to be
the 3-2 favorite to win. The horse had other plans. That’s Our Shuttle
took a left turn into the rail soon after the start, tossing its rider
hard to the dirt. Panas was stunned and hurt, but not badly enough to
miss any of her three remaining races that night.

“I fell hard,” she
remembered the following week. “I just lied there. Knock on wood, I’ve
never broken a bone, but I’ve heard that when you break something,
it’ll get really hot and the pain will start. And you just kind of wait
there like, ’Okay, what’s broken?’”

The paramedics in the ambulance that follows every race arrived quickly.

“They asked where it
hurt. Here, here, here, and definitely here,” she says as she points to
her leg, stomach, arm, and mouth. The next night, her lip was still
busted.

Panas, like every other
rider, gets used to riding with pain. If a jockey doesn’t ride, that
jockey doesn’t make money. Just by running in a race, a jockey earns a
minimum mount fee of about $50. If that jockey wins, he or she makes 10
percent of the owner’s 60 percent of the purse. For a big stakes race,
that might be as much as $6,000. On a typical weeknight,

The money can be good,
but expenses add up, too. As independent contractors, jockeys must buy
insurance for themselves, with disability insurance taking chunks out
of paychecks. A jockey has to buy his or her tack, pay his or her agent
(about 25 percent of their earnings), and pay the valet who takes care
of the tack and helps out in the locker room (another 5 percent). But
insurance is the most important investment.

A study in the
Journal of the American Medical Association two years ago proved just
how dangerous being a horse-racing jockey is. Documenting the injury
reports over the course of four years, the authors of the study
determined a conservative estimate of 606 injuries per 1,000
jockey-years. Approximately 2,700 jockeys suffered a total of 6,545
injuries. Three riders died. But those figures only included reported
injuries during a race, not chronic ones that jockeys get used to in
order to keep working. And they don’t include training sessions early
in the mornings, when scores of skittish horses are on the track at
once.

More recently, Tomey
Swan, the new president of the Jockey Guild, told the Racing
Commissioners International that, on average, across the country, five
jockeys needed medical attention due to a job-related injury every day.
Jockeys average two deaths and three catastrophic injuries every year.

St. Julien suffered his
worst spill in his second week of racing, when he was only 17, still
contemplating college and a life away from the track. His horse clipped
heels with another; he fell to the dirt and was run over. He fractured
his sternum and several ribs, ruptured his spleen, and tore his liver.

“My mom didn’t want me
to become a jockey because of how dangerous it was,” he says. “I said,
’Mom, I can walk outside and get run over by a car or whatever.’ I
mean, you’re going to die. When it’s your turn, it’s your turn.”

“Fear is the biggest
enemy they’ve got,” Chaplain Sam says. “I would not advise any jockey
to go out there if he’s full of fear, ’cause he’s inviting problems.”

Jimmy Nichols has an
easy chair parked in the front of the men’s locker room. At 75, he’s an
honorary steward, ostensibly responsible for keeping the identifying
numbered armbands clean. “They give me something to do,” Nichols says
with a shrug. Nichols is the resident legend of Lone Star. During his
35-year career as a jockey, he was beat up plenty. He broke his back
three times. “You get back on because you love it,” he says.

As dangerous as it is
to be on a race-horse at 40 miles per hour with eight or so other
racehorses in front, beside, and behind you, and as much as the jockeys
tempt fate by running in six, seven, eight, or nine races a day, the
actual riding is one of the easiest parts. The time off the track takes
just as much, if not more, commitment and effort.

For jockeys, the
politics of the backside, as the stables are called, are like trying to
make the football team and the student council at the same time. They
have to stroll through barns to alternately establish, nurture, and
mend relationships with trainers, who make the call on who rides their
horses. They’re at the track before 6 in the morning to work out up to
five or six horses for free, when exercise jockeys get paid anywhere
from $5-$20 per horse. Their agents help to do some targeted PR and
book rides for them, but the successful jockeys are as talkative as
they are talented, selling themselves so they can prove themselves.

In sports terms,
jockeys are perpetual free agents, and unlike in other sports, they
change teams and change jerseys every half hour. As the host of the
annual NTRA All-Star Jockey Challenge, Lone Star Park is the only track
and June 21 (this year) is the only time when jockeys get the spotlight
all to themselves. Leading riders from across the country come to Grand
Prairie to compete in one night of racing, accumulating points based on
order of finish in four special races. Bettors can wager on them as
though they were livestock, an odd promotion of acclaim. And for one
day, track announcer Michael Wrona calls out the jockeys’ names rather
than the horses they’re riding.

But on every other day,
jockeys are second-class stock, still subject to whims of owners and
trainers. A trainer and jockey can establish a solid, working
relationship together, but it’s nothing that one bad ride, actual or
perceived, can’t change.

As one jockey says, “Trainers are pretty much the enemy.”

Claude Davis is the enemy, too. Well, in theory he is.

As the clerk of scales
for Lone Star Park, Jitter, as he’s known, weighs jockeys. He has other
duties, but making sure the riders aren’t overweight is chief among
them. Jitter, 63, would be an unwelcomed specter of the scale to the
jockeys, an antagonistic authority figure, like a trainer, if he
weren’t so likable and so like them. He started out as a jockey in
Nebraska in 1958, and he kept galloping horses until the day before he
came to Lone Star Park.

“They don’t let me
gallop,” he says. “I wish they would. Then I wouldn’t be fat.” As he
says this, he grabs with both hands what he perceives to be a
protruding stomach. Then he goes back to his usual stance, arms
crossed. With his left hand Jitter scratches his right arm often enough
to make you think his fidgeting is how he got his name. But he’s been
“Jitter” ever since he was 1 year old. “Even some relatives don’t know
my name,” he says.

The Texas Racing
Commission’s Rules of Horse Racing mandate that if a jockey is more
than two pounds heavier than the assigned weight for that race, which
varies from 114 to 122 including boots, clothes, saddle, and pad, he or
she can’t ride unless the owner or trainer allows it. If a jockey is
seven pounds overweight, he or she’s automatically taken off the mount.

“What we ask jockeys to
do in this country is outrageous and outrageously wrong,” Galloway
says. “We’re asking grown men to starve themselves. We’re in a sport
that promotes bulimia and anorexia. It’s stupid. The weight limit
should be at least five or 10 more pounds.”

Surprisingly, some
jockeys would disagree. If the weights are raised, the thinking goes,
then any Joe Schmoe exercise rider will think he can run with the big
boys. Well, the “big” boys. The drastic measures taken to lose weight,
known as “reducing,” are badges of honor among themselves, a measure of
commitment, a part of the job. Without the imposed, near-impossible
weight restrictions, an inexperienced, overweight, amateurish rider
might get someone hurt. So regurgitation, the most notorious method of
reducing, becomes a daily ritual.

Still, they are not
proud. In fact, the topic of weight, so much the focal point of being a
jockey, is nearly taboo. Trainers lose confidence in jockeys who
frequent the hotbox too often. “Flipping,” induced regurgitation, is
more disgusting, but more discreet.

“It’s not normal,” one
jockey admits. He remembers when he first started flipping, and an
older jockey told him what to do. Drink a lot of water when you eat.
Finish it off with a hot Coke. After a while, you don’t need a finger
down your throat. You don’t need a warm soda. You just bend over, suck
air, and heave. “It becomes a regular thing,” he says. The locker room
has a face bowl that flushes itself.

Flipping isn’t the only
way to lose weight, but it’s one of the easier, more popular ones. One
jockey guesses that 80-85 percent do it, despite the intestinal strain
and well-known long-term effects of stomach acid on tooth enamel, among
other dangers. Jimmy Nichols recently lost both kidneys. He doesn’t
know if years of vomiting caused the renal failure, but enough jockeys
have similar problems to imply they did.

Still, some jockeys
would rather heave than sit in the hotbox, a 200-degree-plus sweat room
where jockeys can lose, or “pull,” four or five pounds but end up
feeling like, well, like they just sweat off four or five pounds.
Others take Lasix, a diuretic that makes them pee like a racehorse
(literally; the same medication is given to horses for other purposes).
“Some take five or six Correctal [laxative] with warm water and s— it
out,” one jockey says matter-of-factly.

Cliff Berry, who’ll
turn 40 at the end of the summer, never planned to be a jockey, but
it’s all he’s ever done. “I started riding. I started winning some
races, started making a living like that,” he says. “And it just never
ended.”

For Deirdre Panas, it’s
all she’s ever wanted to do. She endured a 10-year slump at the
beginning of her career, which she only recently broke out of when she
came to the Texas circuit last year. She’s also endured the chauvinism
that deems women jockeys too weak to ride winners, as have other
accomplished female riders at Lone Star, such as Rita Helton and
Cathleen Garner.

Marlon St. Julien, as
talented and successful as he’s been, has had his own uphill battle.
When he raced in the 2000 Kentucky Derby, he was the first
African-American rider in 79 years, a fact that overshadowed an
excellent ride on Curule, who went off at 23-1. He finished seventh
after breaking from the 18th post. “I just want to be considered one of
the best riders in the country, whether black, white, purple, blue, or
brown,” he said at the time. He’s getting there.

They’re all jockeys,
and they all have their reasons to ride. Some do it because they’ve
always done it. Some do it because they love horses and hate losing.
Some do it for the exhilaration of speed and the thrill of victory. And
some just do it because they’re short.

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