Katie Clawson is making history this year at Indiana Grand. The jockey title at the Shelbyville, Ind., track has never been won by a female rider, nor has it ever been won by an apprentice; 20-year-old Clawson is en route to changing both of those statistics.
Clawson has won 33 races since the start of the Indiana Grand meeting, nine more than any other rider. She is scoring at a remarkable 23 percent and has earned a riding triple on four separate occasions in the last two months — impressive, considering she only has 47 wins total in her career.
Born in Arizona, Clawson's family moved to Indiana when she was seven years old. Before the relocation, she had already begged her parents for riding lessons, which the home-schooler continued to pursue through Indiana's 4-H program in the town of Brazil. Clawson didn't become interested in racing until she was 12, watching TVG, and was inspired by the career of Zenyatta.
“I've always loved horses,” she said. “Watching the big races on the television, I knew that's what I wanted to do.”
Clawson found a job working on a nearby training farm for Steve Fosdick, which she held for two years, breaking babies and picking up the skills she would need to gallop on the racetrack. In 2014, she set foot on the Indiana Grand backside for the first time, exercising horses for Fosdick as well as trainer Mike Lauer, and eventually, Tom Amoss.
“I wasn't very good at first, so I mostly stuck to galloping the babies,” Clawson explained. “I had to work at getting stronger before I was able to hold the older racehorses, but Steve was very patient with me and helped me a lot.”
Hooking up with the Amoss crew, Clawson traveled south to the Fair Grounds in Louisiana for the winter at the age of 17, her first full-time job. Over the next two years, she was noticed by trainer Kellyn Gorder, and eventually took a job galloping for him at Churchill Downs as she worked toward being approved to ride in the afternoons. Assistant John Ortiz made a big difference in her riding, Clawson said, pushing her beyond her comfort zone.
“He told me that the biggest thing I could learn was how to ride a horse from the gate,” she said. “If I could be a good gate rider, I could get the most out of my horse and have a chance to win.”
On July 21, 2015, a training mishap at Churchill could have ended her dream of riding races before it had even begun. A horse she was galloping went careening through the outside fence, and Clawson suffered serious injuries.
“I broke my neck. The vertebrae was almost completely through the middle of it,” she told the Churchill publicity department. “There are two pieces that form sort of a triangle, the vertebrae does. I had like three fractures in the fifth vertebrae. They took the fragments out, put new bone in there, and fused the fourth, fifth and sixth vertebrae. And I fractured a rib.”
Quitting the dream never entered Clawson's mind, despite the severity of her injuries.
“I knew what could happen,” she said. “If I was going to ride scared, I wasn't going to ride. Because that's more dangerous. I haven't been scared on a horse since then. I have those moments when a horse is ‘getting out' or something, and I think, ‘No, not again.' But I think that's normal.”
In July of 2016 Clawson made her first start as a jockey, riding one of Gorder's horses beneath the Twin Spires. A week later, she guided the Gorder-trained filly Street Thunder to the winner's circle for her first career victory.
“I'd been galloping her in the mornings, so I knew her pretty well,” said Clawson. “She kind of missed the break, but we cruised on up to the lead before the turn and she just kept going. I was looking around for someone to be coming, but no one did.”
Through the rest of 2016, Clawson worked on the Kentucky-Indiana circuit, riding at Ellis Park, Indiana Grand, Belterra Park, and Keeneland. After the November meet at Churchill, she spent a month at Laurel Park before moving her tack to Oaklawn Park.
The purse increases at the Arkansas track have driven up the quality of the jockey colony, so Clawson was extremely pleased to score eight wins over the four-month meeting. She had been unsure about her future approaching the end of the Oaklawn season, hoping to stay close to her family in Indiana but not wanting to lose her client base in Kentucky.
Clawson celebrates her 40th win with a pint of Graeter's ice cream
“(Jockey agent) Jimmy McNerny had been telling me for a while that I could come ride in Indiana and do well,” Clawson said. “I finally gave him a call, kind of at the last minute, and it just worked out. He's obviously been a big part of my success here; he's one of the best.”
McNerny currently books the mounts for the top two riders at Indiana Grand, with Clawson leading the standings by nine wins over journeyman Deshawn Parker.
On June 6, Clawson piloted home her 40th career winner, reducing her apprenticeship weight allowance from seven pounds to five. She celebrated the milestone with a pint of Graeter's ice cream, courtesy of Indiana's clerk of scales and will continue to ride with that five-pound allowance through November 20.
As a female rider in what is often a male-dominated sport, Clawson has not found any animosity among her fellow riders at Indiana Grand.
“They all congratulated me on my first few multiple-win days, but now the attitude in the room has changed a little bit,” she said, laughing easily. “I don't really mind that, though!”
Though she has not considered her future beyond the Indiana Grand meet, Clawson does know one thing for certain: she will be getting married to Nolan Ramsey next spring. Grandson to owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, Nolan is currently working as an assistant trainer to Mike Maker in New York, and the two will try to make plans to be in the same place over the winter months.
Wherever she goes, Clawson is hoping her dreams can carry her to the top of the sport, adding humbly that she will try to simply “focus on one day at a time.”