In the Shadow of Horse

In the Shadow of Horse
In the Shadow of Horse

Monday, June 8, 2009

To the True Horsemen of the Racing Game

Here’s to the Jockeys


If only jockeys could speak their mind like trainers. Last year Big Brown’s trainer criticized his jockey for pulling the big horse up with a widely publicized hoof infirmity. This year Woolley, a Chip off the old trainer’s block if there ever was one, felt the need to blame Calvin Borel for misriding Mine That Bird, for moving too early in the third Leg of the Triple Crown.

It seems everyone accepts jockey criticism. The first words out of both of the trainers of the last two losing Belmont favorites, were words of criticism for their riders, yet both trainers failed to properly prepare their horses to partner with their jockeys. As human nature goes in horse racing, both trainers found it in their hearts to shift the blame from themselves to the riders. Sportswriters find little trouble going after jockeys as an easy target, as well. Desormeaux last year, Borel this. Nice.

These athletes who ride thoroughbreds are little, and they are humble. Jockeys know better than to find blame in their horses or their trainers, as they know there will be another day if only they make it alive through the race at hand. Jockeys are the true makers of this game — the jockeys and their mounts. In a jockey’s world, once the gate opens, everyone else is superfluous but their horse and the other horses and riders in the race. In a horse race decisions are made, yes, judgments upon which races can be won or lost.

Yet, with jockeys once the race is over, everything is superfluous. They are alive. They pinch themselves, yes, I made it. Jockeys leave the should-have-done-this, should-have-done-that for the next race. They adjust and learn from their mistakes to a highly efficient degree. Jockeys leave the riding commentary to the trainers and sportswriters. When jockeys comment negatively on the trainer’s ability, they often lose future mounts. When jockeys gripe about sportswriters, they get bad press. Jockeys are wise. Horses make one very wise, especially if one rides them in rough company for big money. Like horses, jockeys know when to keep their mouths shut.

You did not hear Kent Desormeaux criticize Big Brown’s trainer for failing to adequately prepare the horse to be in a partnering mood last year. But indeed, the trainer failed to prepare the horse to collaborate with Kent. Brown was rank and washy and unmanageable. See last year’s summary of the Belmont, Horsemanship and Horseracing.

This year Woolley failed to prepare Mine That Bird to rate well over the Belmont route of ground, and whom does he blame? Calvin Borel, the Derby-riding savant.

The angst Preakness runner-up Mine That Bird was weaving in his Belmont shedrow all day. Weaving is a stereotypy improperly managed racehorses take up with. Seems Woolley was busy elsewhere other than in the shedrow where he should have been enriching his horse’s life before the Belmont. As a result, the Kentucky Derby winner took to cantering in place on the way to the paddock. Generally, this is not a sign that the horse has been prepared to rate. Racy horses do not rate well nor easily. The trainer is responsible for the condition of his horse. The mental condition of Mine That Bird was not conducive to rating the mile and a half Belmont. The trainer failed both the horse and the jockey.

Let us take a moment and bow our heads to the jockeys. They take all the risks and talk about none of them. They take criticism close-lipped and quiet-like, the true horsefolk they are. All the risk is theirs, yes, but the blame for losing a race is not theirs, not in the last two Belmonts at any rate.

Like horses, jockeys are survivors. They have class. Jockeys emanate class. The organization that oversees thoroughbred horse racing is called The Jockey Club for a reason. Jockeys rule this game quietly. Each and every race they are riding to survive, and riding well.

From my rabbit hole in the infield, I say let us all take our hats off to the game’s true friend. Here’s to the jockeys! Spills and wrecks will break their bones, but words will never hurt them.

Sid Gustafson, D.V.M., is a novelist and equine veterinarian specializing in thoroughbred sportsmedicine and equine behavior. He currently practices regulatory veterinary medicine, representing the safety and welfare of thoroughbred racehorses.


Dr Gustafson provides consultations regarding the design and management of equine facilities and horse training methodologies to best accommodate the inherent nature and behavior of horses. He provides information and management assistance creating natural approaches to maintain equine health, prevent diseases, and resolve lameness.
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