There are big tracks, tracks with marquees that light up like Christmas with big named horses and jockeys and bigger named celebrity patrons on the biggest days of the year. They hold a grandeur and a mystique, an aura for the flocking horse racing fans to witness history – if they’re lucky.
And then there are the little tracks, where every day of the year is a great day of racing, a sun up to sun down operation of entertainment. Where men and women grind out a living on purses only a fraction the size of those big tracks, but the faces are familiar, the accommodations cozy even if a little dilapidated, and the community is tight-knit, friendly, chummy.
Racing at one of those small, quaint, tracks is gutsy and fast; the conditions aren’t always optimal, but there is a true, gritty, palpable love for the sport. Flipping through the pages of a racing program here the soft and flexible pages fall from one page to the next with a simplicity reminiscent of these places. They’re filled with the same statistics as any program – the same jargon and layout as any program – but at a small midwestern track there’s a jockey’s name that appears on almost every page – in almost every race. It’s not a name that stands out by any means, not necessarily recognizable to the casual fan or the one-off patron of the track. It doesn’t jump off the page recalling stories of grandeur, of great horses of racing’s past, or of exquisite races etched in memory.
And yet, Perry Ouzts has accomplished something incredible – something only a handful of jockeys have ever achieved – all from a couple of those little tracks in the American Midwest.
“The Jockeys” story series is brought to you by our friends at Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment
Growing up in a small town in Arkansas, Perry was recruited by his cousins to be a jockey just seven days after his high school graduation. He was the perfect height, the right weight, and – unbeknownst to anyone – he had the stuff champions are made of. “When I first started out it was all a blur, I couldn’t really believe I could do it…that someone would pay me to ride horses,” Perry recalls. “I was really, really good…like, second day riding, the fourth horse I rode I won and then I won another one that same day. That first meet I was leading rider and I just thought it was a really cool job. But I didn’t really catch on to being a halfway decent jockey until I was about three years in. Up until that point it was all in my mind thinking I was that good.”
It was 1973 when Perry started, and he has been devotedly jockeying a small track circuit ever since. “I’ll never forget the thrill of winning that first race. I still get that same thrill and it’s been 45 years. Every single time I win a race I get that thrill. You couldn’t really explain it to someone who’s never done it but I’ve never found anything in life that gives you that same thrill as winning a horse race. It don’t matter if its a cheap race or the big stakes of the day, I get that thrill every time I win one.”
So every morning, as reliable as a rooster’s crow, Perry can be found at the barns ready to work, ready to ride, ready to win. Donned in black chaps and a black vest, he’ll ride as many horses as he can get on before the morning is over, only to come back to ride seven – or so – more that afternoon.
It’s not bad for a 64 year old man.
But that’s not the only reason why his name stands out in the racing program to regulars of the track, who often look for him to place their bets, or to the local communities who know their heroes name.
For forty-five years Ouzts has been taking good horses, difficult horses, and everything in between to the winner’s circle time and time again – more-so than the vast majority of other jockeys ever. This year, with over 50,000 starts under his belt, he hit the 7,000 win mark, placing him ninth overall in jockey wins. His current position is just behind Edgar Prado – who’s wins are easily within reach for Perry, who has his eye on that spot. “I’ve got about three or four more guys in front of [Edgar Prado] that I want to beat,” he says. “My all time goal is to get to fifth all time winning rider. I think I can get there in about four more years. I just don’t have enough time to get any further than that. [The number is] just a personal goal – you’ve got to have goals in life and I just try to set them realistically, one step at a time.”
Ouzts has earned only a fraction of what the other jockeys on the list have in earnings, but that doesn’t bother him, not one bit. For Perry, there is such comfort in his home track, in laying his head down in his own bed every night, in knowing the faces and the names of those he works around day to day, in that small track camaraderie, that the big money tracks and races have never been all too inviting. “I like being a big fish in a small pond,” he says.
So in the pages of the racing form of Belterra Park, or Turfway Park, there’s a name that doesn’t jump off the pages unless you know his story. It’s the story of a man who has followed his passion mercilessly for forty-five years and made his own mark on the world of horse racing. A mark that was solely his to define and to claim. He’s not in it for the money, he’s not in it for the recognition – despite multiple grassroots attempts to get him into the Hall of Fame that he waves off – it’s not even really about the number; for Perry Ouzts it’s about the love, the euphoria, that he experiences every time his mount’s nose inches in front of the competition and hits that finish line first. Forty five years later, it’s still about that win.
“I was telling Pat Day about [that feeling], and he said ‘when you don’t get that thrill when you win, that’s probably about the time when you need to quit.’ That’s what happened to Pat: One day he had just won a stakes race, he didn’t get that thrill, and about three days later he was done,” remembers Perry.
No one – not even Perry himself – can tell when it will be over, when he won’t get that feeling any longer. So, for now, Perry will keep chasing those wins as a living legend riding races in the small racing communities between Kentucky and Ohio. And though you will only rarely find his name in the racing programs of the big Kentucky tracks, he’s made a name for himself nonetheless.
Thank you to Turfway Park for the photos by John Engelhardt