gyp·sy (/ˈjipsē/): noun
1.a member of a traveling people traditionally living by itinerant trade and fortune telling. Gypsies speak a language (Romany) that is related to Hindi and are believed to have originated in South Asia.
2. a nomadic or free-spirited person.
SEE ALSO: racetracker
It’s the time of year that most people look forward to. Days become longer as the Winter cold slowly creeps away. You’ve got March Madness, MLB season openers, the Masters, awards shows for the entertainment junkies, and of course opening weekend at Keeneland (which should be everyone’s favorite racetrack in my personal, totally biased opinion). There are derby prep races all over the country, where we get to watch the top horses and top jocks on their quest for a spot in the gates that first Saturday in May. And best of all, those of us involved in the horse racing industry get to shed the layers of Eskimo clothing that have been our best friends for the last few months.
It also means that most of us are getting prepared to pack up and head to our next destination.
The majority of racetrackers are like birds. Our migration route typically stays the same year after year. During my most nomadic period, I moved to different tracks 6 times in 9 months. I went from being an apprentice jockey to an exercise rider to a galloping assistant trainer which took me from Hot Springs, Arkansas to Chicago, Illinois to Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky all the way to Miami, Florida. If that seems like a shocking amount, that’s because it is. In a good year i only have to move twice between 2 different tracks that run 5 month meets. However, a lot of tracks run much shorter meets. Sometimes only 4 to 6 weeks, which means you are likely to become a professional gypsy.
There are some people who choose to and are lucky enough to stay in one place year round. That is far less typical, purely because there are very few areas that have year round racing or training. And lets be real, once you get used to the snow bird lifestyle it’s hard to stay somewhere with less than ideal weather. Year round jobs are also like finding gold. Opportunities generally only arise if someone gets hurt or can’t keep their wanderlust at bay any longer.
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So for the most part, we move. And when I say we, I mean WE. Horses, people, cats, goats, the occasional rooster and what seems like an endless supply of water buckets, feed tubs, stall gates and lead ropes once you get to packing and unpacking it all. It becomes a bit of an art, or science depending on what side of the brain you’re using. And while you’re worried about packing up the barn, you’re also responsible for your own personal belongings.
Many backside workers live in dorm rooms or tack rooms to be close to their jobs and also to save money. A lot of them don’t have vehicles so you’ll also see us loading up mattresses, TV’S, luggage etc. into a horse trailer along with the barn equipment. Then we snap a shank on the guys and load them in behind the horses. Just kidding. Kinda. It’s not an unusual sight to see a semi load of horses pulling out of the backside with a couple faces peering out the windows around their equine counter parts.
Deciding where to head to next can be a little more challenging as a jockey. Once you’re an established rider, your business typically directs your next move. I’m not what you would call an established rider, and I struggle with the decision to remain on the circuit I’m familiar with or venture somewhere new. It’s a loaded decision for me because I have to consider not just what’s best for my career but also what’s best for the small human, the larger human, the 2 dogs and 2 horses that comprise my gang. According to my Facebook memories, I’ve had this ongoing battle for 8 years.
I’ve been blessed to be able to visit some of the best racetracks in the country and to see so many new cities and states; but it does come at a price. I’ve had to miss my best friend’s wedding because I was 1,000 miles away and working 7 days a week. I couldn’t be there to see my father before he passed away because it was a 12 hour drive, and it’s impossible to get on an airplane at midnight. My son got his first set of stitches without me there to hold his hand.
When you’re working 6 and 7 days a week, waking up at 5 am and sometimes riding races late into the night, it can be difficult to even have any sort of social life or hobbies or partake in “normal” activities. Romantic relationships as well as friendships can be difficult to find and maintain because you’re constantly on the move. I’ve learned not to really try and plan past one meet at a time because there are very few guarantees in horse racing beyond it being unpredictable. One week you may be up, the next week you could be down.
The gypsy lifestyle we’ve all become accustomed to has its pros and cons, but in order to be successful you have to make sacrifices – and being able to do what I love for a living is worth sacrificing for.