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Apprentice jockey learns her trade the hard way

Jun 27th, 12
Somewhere around the 12th century, English knights returned from crusades with Arabian horses, bred them with English mares and produced horses with extraordinary speed and endurance.

BY DAN O'NEILL doneill@post-dispatch.com
 
They paired the fastest of these majestic breeds in races, and wagering on the outcome became a popular pastime for royals and aristocrats.

Today, the sport is in a less princely place.

Horse racing's image has taken hits in recent years. The high-profile breakdowns of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and 2008 Derby hopeful Eight Belles sparked animal-rights groups and invited investigative attention. Invariably, the stories have been uncomplimentary in tone, asymmetrical in reach. They have focused on maltreatment, drug abuse and regulatory dysfunctions.

But if horse racing has dark closets, it also has bright personalities, like 21-year-old Aymara Rivero, an apprentice jockey. Rivero grew up in Troy, Ill., officially. More accurately, she grew up at Fairmount Park. Her mother loves horses and worked as a groom at the Collinsville track for many years. Aymara inherited the gene.

She had her own horse by the age of 8, started jumping soon after. As a teenager, she worked summers at Fairmount and during the school year, she beat a hasty retreat to the back end of the track as soon as the bell rang at Triad High.

"People ask me if I played any sports in high school, or did this or that," Rivero said, smiling. "I always say, 'No, I was too busy doing stuff with horses.' "

As she grew older, Rivero began ponying horses and out-riding during races. Horsemen like Kenny Jansen mentored the precocious young girl, showing her tricks of the trade. Rivero began racing at carnivals and county fairs, anywhere to feel the wind in her face and the reins in her hands.

"It's kind of hard to explain," said Rivero, whose first win was aboard I'm A Rising Star, a 92-1 shot last year at Hoosier Park in Indiana. "It seems like it lasts for five seconds. But it never gets old. Every time is like the first time, every time is thrilling, especially when you win."

Last Tuesday, Rivero rode Reba Nell to victory in the fourth race at Fairmount. On Friday night, she had two more winners. She has finished third or better 56 times and ranks sixth among the 12 jockeys with 46 or more starts.

'ENOUGH TO GET BY'

If it was cars she was racing, Rivero might have Danica Patrick-like marketing appeal. She is personable and a vibrant 5 feet 1, 107 pounds. But she races horses at Fairmount, pursuing her passion in relative obscurity. There are stars in the sport, jockeys who make big money and command top horses. But the business is not glamorous or lucrative for the masses.

During a good meet (season), a jockey at Fairmount Park might make in excess of $30,000. Those who travel elsewhere and ride year-round might earn closer to $80,000. But there are travel expenses, agents' fees, equipment costs and taxes. Jockeys get $55 per mount at Fairmount, as much as $100 at more prestigious tracks. Then it becomes a commission-based business.

A winning horse gets 60 percent of the purse and a jockey 10 percent of the take. Those that place or show get smaller cuts, also shared with the jockey. Her ride aboard Reba Bell earned Rivero $850. Her agent got some 30 percent of that pie, her valet another five percent. The horses Rivero rides are worth more than the car she drives, a 2003 Mitsubishi, dented in the front, mangled in the back.

The son of a jockey, Lindell Wells has been riding for 31 years around the Midwest, and he's riding still. "Most of the time, for most of us, you make enough to get by and that's about it," he said.

UNDERRATED ATHLETES

A good caddy in golf has a feel for his player, knowledge about the course, experience in the game. But ultimately, the caddy is only as good as the player hitting the shot. Jockeys have a similar relationship with their horses.

"The big thing about a good rider is not so much that they help the horse but they don't get the horse in trouble," said trainer John Wainwright, who has been handling horses since the mid-1960s. "You can't pick that horse up and make him run any faster than he can run. But you can get him to where he can't be stopped.

"They used to say, 'A good horse is dangerous in anyone's hand.' And there's some truth to that."

Like everything in this complex sport, however, there's more to it than chance. Good jockeys have an abstract alliance with racehorses, organic and undefined. Jockeys might be the most underrated athletes in the world. These are Lilliputians aboard 1,200-pound quivering slabs of muscle, traveling 35-40 miles per hour on lumpy, dirt roads. They make the trip while balancing on their toes in steel stirrups, scrunched like a jack-in-the-box. The ride can be as short as a minute or longer than two minutes.

"The longer you go the harder it is to stay down," trainer Jim Childers said. "And depending on what lane you're in, when they go to the rail, it can be like World War II. It's a battle out there. That's what you're out there for. They've got to be dead fit, no question."

The human-growth hormone is not a problem in horse racing, just the opposite. The optimal body weight for jockeys is 108 to 118 pounds. Their nutritional behavior is predicated on maintaining or shredding weight to avoid being disqualified. Some jockeys are willing to practice diuretic and purgative extremes to stay viable.

A HIGH-RISK RIDE

Anyone who races horses knows he's going to get hurt at some point, it's just a matter of time and severity. No one represents the risk-reward extremes more than Ron Turcotte. In 1973, he rode Secretariat to the first Triple Crown win in 25 years, setting records at each track. He became the first jockey to win five of six consecutive Triple Crown races.

In 1978, he was thrown from a horse at Belmont Park and suffered injuries that have left him a paraplegic. No creatures on earth are more resplendent than a thoroughbred, and few are more capricious. Rivero once had a horse fall back on her, but she was not seriously hurt. She is not spiritual by nature, but she is becoming so.

"I've seen so many accidents that have happened right next to me during a race and I think, 'Wow! I can't believe they're OK.' And there's been times when I've thought, 'Wow! I can't believe I'm OK,' " she said. "It's made me believe in a higher power more than I did when I first started riding."

Wells, 48, carries the residue of 10,000 races folded into his leathery features. He estimates he has made "25 to 30" trips to a hospital. But he never fears another; he can't afford to.

"If you fear it," Wells added, "you'll get hurt and you'll be hurt bad. You just have to put that out of the back of your mind. You can't fear it, or you won't do it."

BREAKING BARRIERS

Rivero is the sole female jockey at Fairmount; some tracks have more. Diane Crump broke the industry gender barrier in 1969, but Julie Krone is the Babe Ruth of the genre.

Krone won the 1991 Belmont Stakes aboard Colonial Affair, the only woman to win a Triple Crown race, and she became the first female to win a Breeder's Cup race in 2003. This year, Rosie Napravnik had mounts in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont, the sixth female to ride in Triple Crown races, the first since 1996.

The sport remains cliquish and dominated by males, competitively difficult for any young jockey to crack, especially tough for young women. They must try harder to get mounts, endure brutish behavior, prove themselves more than their counterparts.

Rivero won't be deterred. She arrives at Fairmount at 6:30 each morning, exercising horses, visiting with owners and trainers, building relationships. She knows the game and she earns respect.

"I don't feel any different, but there's been times when I've been treated differently because I'm a girl," she said. "Some jockeys treat you as an equal, but some of them really don't like getting beat by a girl.

"And there's some trainers still who won't use a girl to ride. There's been plenty of times I haven't gotten mounts because I'm a girl. They think I'm not strong enough to hold the horse. They don't get it. But that's just the mind-set they have."

A FUTURE IN PERIL?

Fairmount Park, which opened in 1925, currently houses some 875 horses. But like many tracks in the country, it is floundering. A measure to allow slot machines at Illinois tracks could change the landscape and awaits the governor's approval. Without it, the picture is dire.

But facilities like Fairmount are vital satellites in this historical universe. The second-tier tracks allow unpretentious horsemen to practice their craft, aspiring jockeys to indulge their affection, spirited horses a place to run. Whether it's Fairmount, or farther down the road, Wells has no doubt Rivero can succeed.

"The No 1 thing a jockey needs to do is be willing to listen and learn," Wells said. "She has a knack for it. That's why when she first started riding, I was willing to help her. She has a good personality; people like her."

People, that is, who love the science, love the horses, love to watch them run.

PDJF

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