Jockey Ken Tohill celebrated the 4,000th winner of his career on Sunday at Prairie Meadows Racetrack in Altoona, Ia., when the Doug Anderson-trained Rainbow Surebet proved victorious in the fourth race on the card. In so doing, Tohill became the 79th jockey to reach the 4,000-win milestone.
“It's a milestone that seemed a long ways away a few years back,” said Tohill, 59. “This is a goal we set about five years ago, really a major accomplishment. I want to do this as long as I'm an asset on the racetrack and not in the way.”
Tohill grew up in the racing industry; his mother was a horse trainer and his father was a jockey. He was more interested in dirt bikes than horses as a child, but that changed when he realized he could get paid to gallop horses on the track.
“That was a much better deal,” he said, laughing.
At the age of 16, Tohill rode his first race at California's Solano Race Place, and he won his first race just two starts later at Pleasanton. Tohill admits that he was lucky early in his career, thanks to his father's connections, and said it took him three years to really learn how to ride races.
“When I was young my dad had a lot of friends who let me starting riding before I was ready,” Tohill said. “The kind of horses I got to ride were because of my dad being friends with a lot of trainers, so I didn't go through as rough a spot as I should have.”
His relationship with his father was cut short when the elder Tohill went down in an accident in Spokane, and spent the next nine years in a convalescent home until he passed away in the late 1980s.
“I always figured the racing gods would never take two from the same family, so I was safe and he was watching over me,” said Tohill.
Tohill stayed in Northern California for the early part of his career, riding alongside the winningest North American rider of all time, Russell Baze. It was difficult to win races there, and along with many of his friends, Tohill became discouraged.
“Baze was winning probably 40 percent of the races, and it kind of takes the wind out of your sails,” said Tohill. “It was so hard to really focus, and a lot of the people we knew never grew up… Everybody was outlaws and a only few of us became adults.”
Tohill really began to make his mark when he stepped away from Northern California to ride in New Mexico. He was the leading rider at Sunland Park for several years in the early 2000s, and continued to win races when he began to spend his summers in Iowa.
The jockey has finished in the top 100 for wins in North America 12 times since 2000, and he won a career-high 221 races in 2005 to finish 20th nationally.
“I like to be able to move a horse up,” Tohill said. “I'm lucky enough to have pretty good relationships with most of the animals I ride, and I like to hunt for what makes 'em tick, and what makes 'em reach.”
Tohill's wife, Robyn, is his biggest supporter.
“I'm sure that's why I'm still here,” he said. “She keeps me out of trouble, and she's been a major part of my success. We've been together for 20 years.”
Another of Tohill's major influences is the indefatigable Jon Court, with whom he rode earlier in his career. Court sits just ahead of Tohill's milestone with 4,242 victories, and recently won the 2022 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) aboard Last Samurai.
“I hope I'm not done yet, because my friend Jon Court set the bar pretty high,” Tohill said. “I'm really proud of him getting things going. I know it's been fun for me to watch his career.”