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A Jockey's Life
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A Jockey’s Life : Lessons from Peter Pan

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.” ~ Peter Pan

My entire life I dreamt of becoming a jockey, my head filled with visions of the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown, appearing on magazine covers and doing such spectacular things with my career that they’d surely write books and make movies about me and my beloved mounts. That clearly didn’t pan out (no pun intended) the way I had hoped, but to actually achieve becoming a jockey and riding and winning races was still such a blessing. It’s something that I know I will look back on when I’m old and be so proud and amazed that I actually did it.

So many people just get through their day to day life. They may be stuck in a boring, dead end job that they dread going to every day just to pay the bills. Or in this day and age, need TWO jobs to pay the bills. Knowing that I am lucky enough to do something I love and enjoy so much makes getting out of bed easy in the mornings.

But there was definitely a period of time in my life when that wasn’t the case.



I stopped riding races when I had the bug on March 16, 2011 – the day before my 23rd birthday. (Don’t bother doing the math….ask Peter why my cake this year had 25 candles on it.) That was a pretty low point for me, and I never intended for “quitting” to be a permanent decision. I actually told everyone I was “taking a break”. I sure didn’t think it would be 4 years before I would ride races again.

I became pregnant in the Spring of 2012, just a little over a year since I hung up my tack. The timing was ironic, since I had intentions of losing 10 pounds and trying to make a comeback that Summer. Obviously, my life got steered in another direction.

During my pregnancy I gained 50 lbs. I was the size of a small pony. The day I gave birth I was pretty sure the scale had to be broken. I didn’t think it was possible for me to see those numbers and sure never thought it would be possible to see them go down enough to make riding weight again.

I did the stay at home mom thing for a while as my husband was starting his riding career, but when Kai was about 6 months old, I wanted to start galloping again at Keeneland. I called a trainer I knew that kept a stable there, and he offered to put me on horses and help me to get back in shape. At that point I had basically lost all my pregnancy weight but my entire equilibrium had changed. I had sore muscles that I didn’t even know existed. Sleep deprivation is a real thing when you’re getting up at 4 am and have to coordinate nap schedules with a difficult, colicky baby. I spent break time between sets during training holed up in a tack room with my breast pump which was somewhat awkward when I had to try and explain to the grooms exactly why they didn’t want to steal my “drinks” out of the refrigerator.

Despite the physical difficulties, I was really enjoying getting on horses again and realized how much I had missed it. That unfortunately only lasted a few weeks before I realized it was more of a headache than it was worth. So the boots went back in the closet. We instead spent our days chauffeuring my husband to tracks such as Churchill Downs, Ellis Park, Indiana Grand, and Turfway Park, supporting him from the sidelines.


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Fast forward to the next summer, and once again I was pounding the pavement trying to get back in to riding shape and finding horses to gallop at Churchill Downs. It was really difficult to find someone that wanted to take a slightly overweight, mostly unfit ex-jockey under their wing. I did more walking than riding… until I was offered the job of a lifetime.

One morning during training I was passing time at one of the viewing stands. A man (later to be known as prestigious exercise rider Georgie Alvarez) walks up, and I said good morning because I like to be polite to everyone. He asked me if I freelanced and if I was looking for more horses to get on. I said ‘yes’ – but in my head I was already going through where this conversation was going to lead. I figured it would turn into, “my cousin’s, girlfriend’s, uncle has this 5 year old maiden he shipped in from the farm and he needs to breeze out of the gates to get off the starters list and wants someone light”…or something equally as terrifying of a request.

Georgie then told me who he worked for… Bob Baffert

I all but jumped off the stand and ran to the barn to go meet and talk to assistant trainer, Jimmy Barnes, which ultimately led to galloping and breezing some of the nicest and classiest horses I’d ever sat on. I’d been on plenty of good and bad horses, and we all know expensive doesn’t necessarily translate to good – but it sure doesn’t hurt. It was an amazing opportunity and I was very, very sad when they shipped back to California at the end of the meet. In fact, I contemplated sneaking me and the baby on to the horse plane with them.

Baby Kai kissing Bayern

So once again, I found myself jobless with no options on the horizon. It’s a funny thing… being an exercise rider and even as a jockey, you are completely expendable. Yes, there are always better riders and not as good riders, and some people just get along with some horses. If you are a loyal and faithful employee, you can typically find a loyal and faithful boss. But more often than not, if you can’t get the job done for one reason or another, there are 5 people lined up behind you with their helmets buckled ready to take your place.

As much as I loved riding, I thought at this point that it wasn’t going to be my future. The mental and financial strain were definitely difficult to deal with. I wanted to be able to do what I loved, and yet it seemed like the odds were stacked against me.

If I couldn’t find a good galloping job, how would I ever be able to make it back to being a jockey?


Now Read Part 2 of A Jockey’s Life : Lessons from Peter Pan

 

 


 

Article written by Cassandra Buckley Naupac

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