Yes, I was a jockey. I spent 20 years in the business, seven as an exercise rider, and I rode pro from the spring of 1993 to the fall of 2005. I don’t write or speak much of my career. It was a lifestyle unlike most. To mark the highlights of my success: 387 wins, five stake wins, two track records – one at the shortest of distances run by thoroughbreds, 5 furlongs in 56.2 sec at Fort Erie racetrack, and one at one of the longest at 1 mile 7/8 at Woodbine racetrack. I have the time marked down but I don’t remember it off the top of my head. I missed a turf track record at Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, by two-fifths of a second. I have won races at Suffolk Downs in Boston, Mountaineer Park in Virginia, Penn National in Pennsylvania, Tampa Bay, Florida. I won the Apprentice of the Year Award at Fort Erie racetrack in Ontario for 1995, and finished in the top twenty standings at Woodbine once. Not bad for a girl from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, with no racing heritage to speak of.
What I remember the most about racing is that I worked hard. It was seven days a week, 12 to 14- hour days. In fact the only time I took time off was when I was injured. I have been flipped on, kicked, bitten and thrown to the ground. I’ve broken 22 bones, had four separated shoulders, and three dislocated shoulders. I was crushed twice, sustained a punctured a lung, a ruptured spleen, a bruised heart and more concussions than I can count on two hands – three of those concussion, I couldn’t tell you my own name for several hours. People say with great risk comes great reward. I have a few choice cusses to say about that.
I knew I had to leave racing when I was in a spill where five horses went down in a heap. One of the horse’s hooves nicked my ear as I fell to the ground. The doctors glued it back together after they put my arm in a sling for a separated shoulder and broken collar bone. Another jockey in the same spill broke both his thighs.
I started going to night classes at George Brown College for journalism. I retired from the sport and I have never looked back.
This triple crown season has had some bizarre events that people have been questioning. My coworkers and friends keep asking me, “What did you think of the disqualification in the Kentucky Derby?” Trying to explain and sum up the unwritten and written rules of horse racing in a few words is tough. “When I saw Maximum Security leave the rail, I took a deep breath in and held it, hoping I wasn’t going to witness a pile up at the quarter pole on live TV.” Is my answer. Luckily that didn’t happen.
I too kept thinking “It should come down but… this is the Derby.” What jockey have you ever seen not fist-pump the air and try to hug the outrider after a Kentucky Derby win? While being led back, by the outrider, Luis Saez, immediately stated “The horse is a baby …. he spooked.” Coming up with a defense before anyone had mentioned the incident, tells me he knew there could be an inquiry. Believe me, I felt for Luis, a chance of a lifetime gone. Glad it wasn’t me.
Then I get asked “What did you think about the horse that stumbled at the start in the Preakness Stakes and lost his rider, but ran around the track twice before being caught?” All I can think about is I broke my collarbone once when that happened to me. I lost six weeks of racing in a short, Canadian racing season, and I had to rebuild all my clientele late in the fall. Ten of the horses I was riding won while I was out recovering. All that hard work for nothing. Jockeys only get paid when they ride, we don’t have contracts and guaranteed pay. Pension and benefits- what is that?
Am I bitter? I was for a long time but I am humble now. I love my life after racing, but I live with the physical and mental pain racing left on every day.
On my recent trip to Grand Falls, New Brunswick, I got to see the monument that the town has dedicated to its famous son, jockey Ron Turcotte. It is very well done, with Ron on board Secretariat, he looks over at the timer as they gilde to an easy world record time of 2:24, in the Belmont Stakes of 1973.
The marble base is etched with all the stakes wins. Ron must have been so thrilled. I hear that he stays current on racing and its people and is still an advocate for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund . He never comes across as bitter about that horrible July 13, 1978, race at Belmont Park that changed his world.
I have only read about when Small Raja, ridden by Jeff Fell, drifted out and squeezed the path of Water Malone. Ron was riding Flag of Leyte Gulf. He was forced to stand up in the irons to pull his horse back but couldn’t avoid clipping heels and going down. Ron landed head first on the ground, breaking his neck. He has been in a wheelchair since. Just the thought of it makes me queasy.
If I had planned my trip better, I would have contacted him and asked if he was up for a visit. I know where he lives, but I never knew or rode with Ron – he was well before my time – so I was hesitant to go over unannounced.
I imagine that we could have chatted at length, we do have some things in common: we are two of three former jockeys that reside in New Brunswick – Jerry Baird, originally from Newfoundland, lives in Saint John. He and I stay in touch. Ron and I both started riding at Windfield Farms, of Northern Dancer fame. That is where the commonalities end. I was never in his league.
Perhaps I was afraid I would not have been able to keep the burning question from registering on my face; was the reward worth the risk? I may never get a statue dedicated to me at my home town, but I am forever grateful I made it out alive.
Happy and Safe Belmont Stakes Day from Maritimemac.