Kentucky Derby: A Female Jockey’s Perspective

It’s that exciting time of the year when Thoroughbred horse racing gets its moment in the spotlight with mentions all over the news and sports shows. This Saturday marks the 139th running of the prestigious Kentucky Derby and to make things even more interesting, a female jockey will be aboard one of the favorites. I can only imagine the thoughts going through Rosie Napravnik’s mind leading up to this momentous race and if she can do what she did last year becoming the first female rider to win the Kentucky Oaks it will be a huge step forward for female jockeys in our sport. But female or not, winning the Kentucky Derby is something every jockey strives for in their career.

I began riding as a child on show horses, competing in show jumping until I was in my mid teens. Over the years I developed a passion for horse racing and developed my own online horse racing game called Equination.net. Having always been very skinny and light, plus having a desire for that adrenaline rush, I decided I wanted to become a jockey but had no idea how to get started. My father was driving home one night from work when the great Canadian jockey Sandy Hawley was on the radio. He called in and spoke with Sandy, asking how I could get started and a few days later Sandy had set me up with my very first job at the racetrack as a hot walker (someone who cools the horses out after they train by hand-walking them).

I was so excited to get started on my career path and the moment I finished high school I was at the racetrack. It wasn’t long before I was an exercise rider, galloping the horses during morning training each day and after a few years of experience with that, I finally began riding races. My first start came in the fall of 2007 and I won my first race that November aboard a filly called Renga’s Girl. I will never forget that day — winning a race, regardless of the level, purse or prestige, is something that words simply cannot describe. It’s an unbelievable rush to prove that you were the best.

My career had a rocky beginning, though. My first race as a jockey had been delayed due to some minor injuries previously and shortly after winning my first race I started to struggle with the toll of making weight. All jockeys have to meet the assigned weight of their horse and when you begin riding you are called an apprentice. All apprentices must be 10lbs lighter than their assigned weight until they win 5 races. Once they win 5 races, they must be 5lbs lighter than their assigned weight until their apprenticeship expires (which is roughly about three years from the date of your first race). Starting out, I weight a mere 104lbs and at 5’4” with a lot of muscle — you have to be very strong to ride! — it was very hard to maintain that weight and remain healthy. I took a break for the winter and returned in the spring only to suffer the same problem with my weight after I won my second career start.

That fall, I tried again but refused to get below a certain weight this time in hopes that I could keep going longer. This was working great and I nailed my third win in the fall of 2008. However, not long after that I suffered an accident during morning training that would eventually put me on the sidelines for three long years. Several tests and months later, doctors finally discovered I had torn the cartilage off the socket in my right shoulder and after surgery and a lengthy recovery I finally made my return to the saddle in 2012 and completed my first full season of racing at Woodbine and Fort Erie Racetrack.

Starting out last year was challenging, as I had been away from the track for such a long period of time. My fitness was a big question and I had to start from the ground up with generating business for myself. You see, there is a lot more to being a jockey than what meets the eye! Let me take you through a typical day for me last year in the middle of the season.

I’m up every day at 4:30am and at the track by a bout 5:30. Training begins at 6am and from that time until training ends at 10:30 I am running from stable to stable getting on horses that I had been booked for. Each horse takes approximately 20-25 minutes to complete the whole training process, which can be quite exhausting depending on how strong the horses are that you get on — they always want to pull and go fast, but you have to hold them together and train them slowly so they don’t injure themselves and save their energy for the races. Once I’m finished with that, I will then “do my rounds.” Most jockeys have agents, but I acted as my own agent last year. It’s my job then, as my own agent, to visit trainers in each of the few dozen stables in the backstretch to try and negotiate with them for a chance to ride their horses. I would also set up my schedule for the coming day as I went along and ensure I had no conflicts in my race bookings for horses I was going to ride.

Once I was done this — most of the trainers would be gone by about 11:30am — I would head over to the jockey’s room in the grandstand. Once there, I would begin pulling weight. In our room we have our own steam sauna and most of us will spend hours in there sweating out weight so we can meet our requirements for the day. The sauna is one of the most dreaded places for jockeys, as we spend far too much time in there and it is quite draining to shed a few pounds in water weight and not be able to drink it back until you’ve finished riding your last horse of the day. Once the weight is pulled, it’s then time to study up on the horses you’re due to ride that day and the fields they are racing in so you can come up with a race strategy. Typically, you also do your homework for your race a day or two in advance, but now you can watch some of the early races to see if there is a track bias or if there was a scratch in your race, sometimes you have to change your tactics.

Every jockey has their own routine before a race. I could only imagine what the routine must be leading up to a race such as the Kentucky Derby. Trying to keep everything as normal as possible to calm the nerves and stay in routine. I’ve heard many riders say that they become very emotional just walking out onto the track for the post parade in the Derby. It’s the moment every rider dreams of and it must be impossible to keep all of your emotions in check. The biggest race I’ve ever ridden in has been an Allowance race and I have done quite well with keeping myself calm, cool and collected each time I head out. I think that heading into a stake race, though, I would start to feel the pressure and get a bit nervous!

After you’ve finished your races and cleaned up, it’s time to head home around 6pm. If your weight is good, you can have a little bit to eat while you do your homework for the next day or so of racing and then head off to bed to do it all over again! I also run an online business — that horse racing game I was mentioning earlier — and I would spend any free time I had working on that as well. It’s a very tough lifestyle to live with very little free time and having to live on such a strict diet really takes its toll on you both mentally and physically.

This job is a very competitive one and you can never let your guard down for a moment. The jockey colony at Woodbine is very large and with the stress of the job and the diet, tempers sometimes flair and rivalries begin. There have been a few incidents over the years where jockeys have gone at it in the room after a race — typically because someone cut another rider off in a race and put their life in jeopardy. Losing, not being able to eat much, working so hard and not having much time for fun or a personal life can really take its toll on a person and it takes a lot to keep yourself positive and focused.

I talk about this mostly because it has taken its toll on myself. And while I’m very excited for the Derby and would love to be able to ride in that race on day, I have reached a point where I need to move on. At the end of 2012 I lost my apprenticeship allowance and a lot of trainers will use you as a jockey on their horse as an apprentice since they are given a weight advantage in exchange for your inexperience. Last season I won 9 races, but things started to tail off for me at the end of the meet. Coming into this season, my business has come to almost a complete stop and I have ridden only one race a week since our meet started on April 20th.

We are, as jockeys, dependent on races to make money and get paid anywhere from $60-$100 per race just to ride. If we win, we get 10% of the horse’s 60% share of the purse. It is next to impossible to plan ahead and it’s certainly not something you can count on. Having to take on the roll of exercise rider (to make some money in the mornings), agent, jockey and homemaker is simply too much with little financial stability. The weight has also taken its toll and my health and well-being comes first and foremost.

On top of all the other woes a rider must face, many people ask if being a female makes a difference in this sport and while I can’t speak for other racetracks, I feel that this gender barrier has been lifted at Woodbine. There are still the odd few trainers who dislike using female jockeys, but provided you prove yourself — that you’re strong and capable — there really isn’t a disadvantage to being female. Jockeys such as Emma Wilson and Chantal Sutherland have helped pave the way for us here in Canada and many trainers are just as likely to give you a chance as a female as they would a male.

It’s sad that I will no longer be riding races (regularly, I may still ride the odd one here and there for fun), but I will always remain a part of this fantastic sport and live vicariously through other jockeys such as Rosie Napravnik who has an incredible chance to make history this weekend in the 139th Kentucky Derby. And while I will be cheering Rosie on, I have to say I like Normandy Invasion’s chances.