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A Former Jockey’s Lament

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You just washed up from the previous race, put on new silks along with clean goggles. You stand around chewing the fat with the other riders and your valet brings your whip after saddling your horse for the next race. The Clerk of Scales shouts out, “Let’s go Jocks”. You walk out into the paddock area and make your way to where your mount is anxiously waiting. You shake hands with the owners, have a word with the trainer and await the call. The Paddock Judge calls out, “Riders Up!” You bend your left knee, the trainer grabs your ankle and as your horse is prancing off, he legs up all 110 lbs. You buckle your helmet, fit your feet into your irons and find your seat. The trainer hands you off to the pony rider with a “Good Luck Jock!”

As you enter onto the racetrack with the other eleven horse and riders, the bugle announces the call of the post parade for the following race. You make your grandstand appearance and then off for an eight-minute warmup, after which the outrider shouts to line up and head to the gates. Behind the gates the pony rider hands your horse off to one of the gate crew, who keeps your horse turning in circles attempting to keep the anxious animal calm. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it’s your number to enter the gates the gate worker turns, aims for your number’s stall and trots you in. The back doors lock up and you hopefully can sit quiet inside the cage while the remaining field of horses are loaded. You have a twelve-hundred-pound, high-strung animal on which you sit. This is courage time. As the old-timers would say, “Take a deep seat and a far-away look!”

The gates rattle from horses anxiously bouncing around. The sound of a jock yelling, “Hey, Hey, Hey!” Another shouting, “Not yet boss!”. The gateman stands inside the stall helping to keep your horse settled by turning its head into his lap. His risk is a great as any rider confined within the small cage. A wound-up, high-strung horse can explode at any time. Many injuries are sustained in the starting gates. A horse in the starting gates rearing and flipping over backwards is a jock’s worse nightmare.

Your horse’s eyes are wild with anticipation. With an attempt to maintain a relaxed attitude, you may look over to the rider next to you and say something like, “I’ll bet ya a beer I beat ya!” You hear one of the gate crew shout, “One back!” You turn and look as the last horse enters the gates. It’s only a moment now before it’s all hooves and dirt. There is moment of silence, barely enough time to grab a little mane, cock your right foot back for stability and “Ring-g-g-g”, the gates slam open and with a burst of power, “They’re off!”

In moments your moving at 40 miles per hour. Heading towards the first turn you allow your horse to settle into position. Hopefully it’s where you wish to be, or maybe you’ll need to hurry your horse a little to get better position before the turn. The turn is where a race can be won or lost…among many other factors. Other than the sound of thundering hooves and sand hitting your goggles, all is quiet until you race into the turn. You attempt to set your horse into the left lead. Horses bounce off one another as a jock shouts, “Get over”. Another shouts, “Get the hell off me!” This is one reason jockeys ride with stirrups so short. It avoids your feet from getting knocked out of your irons in the close quarters of a horse race.

You come out of the turn, set your horse back into its right lead and take a breather. You scan the landscape to estimate the movement of the horses in front so that you can position yourself for the last turn. The closer to the rail, the more ground you can save. The more dangerous it can be as well.

Coming out of the final turn, you enter the “head of the stretch”. If you have timed everything well, you have room to make your stretch run. The sound of cracking whips, shouts, the heavy breathing of horses are overcome with the roar of the grandstand crowd, which never fails to inspire a new burst of energy. You cross the finish wire either first, second, third, or even last. The race is over. A minute and a half is packed with a lot of events. For a veteran jockey, speed can become slow motion. It may take a half mile to get your horse slowed to a stop. You steady your tired mount to a walk, turn, and gallop back to where the trainer and your valet are waiting. If you won, you go into the winner’s circle. Otherwise, you dismount, pull your saddle, weigh out and head back into the jocks room. You have ten minutes to prepare for the next race.

You have just followed along with me in a horse race. The action is non-stop. The thrill is always in the air. Only an injury can sideline this excitement…but only for a while. Then you get too old, or too sore, or you just become burned out. Your life is always in the hands of something other than yourself.

Feature Image: Last major race I won…1995. Retired soon after.

Gary Godfrey retired from horse racing in 1995. He has been a resident of Castle Rock since 2013, living in Colorado since 1998.