People, like horses, can stray from their pedigree. In much the same way a horse bred for turf excels on the dirt, or vice versa, Laurel Park-based apprentice jockey Avery Whisman is gradually proving his success in showing horses can translate to riding Thoroughbreds.
Whisman, 19, was raised on a small farm in Lexington, Ky. near Keeneland Race Course, in the heart of Thoroughbred country. He quickly developed a passion for horses thanks to his lineage – his father was an eventer and former steeplechase rider and his mother, a physician, also competed in eventing.
Regularly doing farm chores from a young age, by the time Whisman reached 11 he was riding horses. He displayed a natural talent that soon propelled him to the top of the junior eventing levels.
“My family has a small horse farm in Kentucky and I grew up my entire childhood riding, mainly the show horses. I did that for about seven years,” Whisman said. “I had an off-track Thoroughbred that I ended up taking to the Junior Olympics in 2017, and did really well with him. We were the leading rider and horse in the region for three or four years in a row.”
Whisman knew he wanted to make a career around the horses, but his choice came as a surprise to those closest to him due to both his inexperience with Thoroughbreds and his size. Taller than most jockeys at 5-foot-6, getting his weight down and keeping it there safely was a concern.
“I wanted to have a career where I could ride. I love riding horses, I love working with them in the mornings and teaching them and trying to make them better and improve every single day. Just being around horses, it's what I love,” Whisman said. “I wanted to find a career where I could do that for the rest of my life. Unfortunately in the eventing and show world, there's not really any kind of money in it. You can't support yourself doing that, so when I started galloping and started making a little money and started getting a little taste of the racing industry, I loved it. It made the most sense.”
Whisman began riding under trainer Joan Scott at Keeneland, and soon was hired by trainer Carla Gaines to ride for her in southern California. He moved to the West Coast in the summer of 2018 and spent time learning and honing his craft at both Del Mar and Santa Anita racetracks.
“When I approached my family and friends and told them, 'I want to be a jockey,' I don't think they really believed me at first. When I was eventing, I was 130 pounds. I was a pretty big kid,” Whisman said. “But I knew I wanted to do it so I just went at it full force. I took my time and worked at it and I got my weight down and was healthy and felt strong, so it wasn't bad.
“Then, when I fully made the transition from eventing to racing, a lot of people in the eventing world were like, 'What the heck are you doing?' They thought I was making a really dumb decision because I was pretty much at the top of the ranks in my region, and I just completely dropped it for the racing,” he added. “But it paid off and people are seeing me having a little more success so they've been super supportive.”
Whisman credits California-based jockeys Joe Talamo and Hall of Famer and Triple Crown champion Mike Smith with being his biggest mentors during his time out west. In fact, it was Smith's suggestion that Whisman launch his career at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, where he could ride a lot and learn from the experience.
“I'm extremely grateful for all the opportunities I've been given and the people that I've been fortunate to have helped me out, like Mike Smith and Joe Talamo. They hold themselves to such a high standard, when you're around them you want to do the same thing,” Whisman said. “Being around somebody like Mike, who is absolutely a complete professional and so focused and so good at what he does, gave me the inspiration to strive to be like that. He does everything right. They give great advice and things like that, but to see how they conduct themselves and go about their business is inspiring and motivating.”
Smith even gave Whisman a leg up on his career by gifting the promising apprentice with several pairs of boots and the saddle he used to win the 2005 Kentucky Derby (G1) aboard 50-1 long shot Giacomo. It was the same saddle presented to Smith by another Hall of Famer, Laffit Pincay Jr., upon his 2003 retirement as the sport's all-time leading rider.
“When I was just starting to ride races, I was trying to get everything together, equipment-wise. Mike said, 'I can give you a saddle,'” Whisman said. “He gave me a saddle and as he was giving it to me he said, 'This is the saddle I won the Kentucky Derby with on Giacomo.' And he said Laffit Pincay had given it to him, so it has quite the background.
“I was a little bit nervous using it the first couple times, but he's just such a good guy. I don't use it a lot now. I have a couple other ones. I try to protect it as much as possible. I think the next time I see him I'll probably give it back to him, if he wants to take it back,” he added.
Whisman made his professional debut Dec. 18, 2018 at Turf Paradise, finishing sixth with Sincere Warning. He rode twice more before the end of the year and remained in Arizona to start 2019, riding there through the end of March and picking up his first winner March 16 aboard Spring Sprung.
By the end of April, Whisman relocated to the Mid-Atlantic region and has found a home in Maryland, which is known for its cultivation of young talent. In 2018, Weston Hamilton became the 11thMaryland-based rider to win the Eclipse Award as champion apprentice, a list that includes Hall of Famers Chris McCarron and Kent Desormeaux as well as contemporary Victor Carrasco.
Whisman rode his first race at Laurel Park April 26 and was winless in three mounts before the circuit moved to Pimlico Race Course for its 12-day Preakness Meet. There, at the second-oldest racetrack in the country behind Saratoga, he finished with eight wins from 31 mounts, second in wins only to multiple meet and year-end champion Trevor McCarthy.
Between May 8 and 16, Whisman won with three of six starters, officially beginning his one-year apprenticeship May 16 with his fifth career triumph, coming aboard Sventastic at Pimlico. He registered his first two-win day there May 27, matching the feat at Laurel Park July 28.
Heading into August, Whisman had ridden 13 winners from 85 mounts at Laurel's summer meet, ranking ahead of such accomplished riders as Horacio Karamanos, Jorge Vargas Jr., Julian Pimentel, Hamilton and Feargal Lynch. He had finished in the top three 27 times, with purse earnings of more than $354,000.
“All my family lives on the East Coast, so I wanted to come out here to ride and be around family and everything. I had been watching all the good apprentices come out of this area, leading riders and everything, and most of the Eclipse Award winners come out of this area, as well,” Whisman said. “I knew I wanted to be in this area. I had an old connection from the eventing world whose daughter used to gallop for Graham Motion. They kind of lined me up with an agent up at Fair Hill who brought me here. I knew I wanted to be in this area when I had my bug. I was in Arizona starting off, just to get started.”
Five of Whisman's wins this summer have come in 12 rides for trainer Dale Capuano, a career winner of more than 3,400 races known for nurturing young riders, including being a big part of Hamilton's Eclipse Award-winning apprenticeship.
“Dale's a great trainer and great guy to work for, so I'm glad horses have been running well for him,” Whisman said. “Dale's been really good to me. He's given me a bunch of chances on good horses, so I'm always happy to get a win for him.”
Most recently, Whisman piloted 5-year-old gelding Eastern Bay to a rallying head victory in an optional claiming allowance for Capuano July 28 at Laurel, capping the card with a 31-1 upset aboard Going to the Lead for trainer Charlie 'Snake' Frock. Whisman began July with wins for Capuano in back-to-back tries on Determined Mission in the July 4 finale and Go Magician Go in the fifth race July 7.
“He rode both of them the way they needed to be ridden, so that's good. I'm very pleased with him so far. He works hard, he's quiet, and he's a nice young man,” Capuano said. “So far, he's done well for me. His background seems to help him. He's very quiet on a horse. He really gets in tune with them and does that pretty easily. That makes a difference. He listens, he tries hard, all the things I like and for seven pounds, he's starting off doing pretty well.”
For his part, Whisman is keeping his goals simple – for now.
“Mainly just to keep improving. Unfortunately, I started my bug at the wrong time in order to be in the running for the Eclipse, so I kind of just let that go. Now I'm just focusing on improving every single day and every single week, trying to get stronger and make less mistakes,” he said.
“I'm not super-focused on just winning as many races as possible. I'm trying to perfect every aspect of my riding and really learning to listen to trainers and do what they say and try to work everything out. I'm still really new to this industry, so I'm still trying to figure it all out and get myself in position to have the most success as possible.”