It was 5:37 am on a cold Saturday morning in September 2013 when I pulled off the Watterson Expressway and took the sharp right turn into the Circle K parking lot. I had 18 minutes to get a coffee and drive the 1.3 miles to Gate 5 of Churchill Downs before missing the first set of work-ers that appear like apparitions out of the inky darkness every morning.
Problem was the slow-moving pickup truck with out-of-state plates in front of me didn’t seem to share my sense of urgency. Maybe it was camaraderie of being awake at such an ungodly hour, but like riders loading into the starting gate, this fellow driver and I both turned our heads to acknowledge each other when we finally parked under the neon sign.
That’s when I couldn’t help but laugh. Out of the truck hopped a very chipper Jesus Castanon wearing his riding boots and an unzipped red protective flak vest with his usual ear-to-ear grin. All that was missing from the ensemble was his helmet – which was sitting on the passenger seat atop a stack of conditions books from various tracks the journeyman jockey has called home in a career that has spanned over a quarter century.
Standing in the checkout line with one eye on the clock (which now read 5:42 am) and my hand holding a very large, very hot coffee, Jesus and I got to chatting. He had a few horses to work that morning before he planned to hit the gym and head back to ride a few of the afternoon’s races.
With a $2 coffee warming my frozen fingers, I jumped in my car, luckily caught all the lights on Southern Parkway, waved a quick Hi! at the security guard, and was settling into my seat trying not to spill coffee on my clocker’s notebook as the first set of D. Wayne Lukas trainees reached the half-mile pole. “Hey you!” I heard from somewhere below. Looking over, there’s Jesus Castanon sitting on a big chestnut. It was 5:57 am. I still have no idea how he had time to check out, drive, drink his soda, find the barn on Churchill’s vast backstretch, park, don his protective gear, get a leg up on the horse and ride over to the front side of the track when I barely had had three sips of coffee.
But jockeys are a rare breed.
These brave men and women live at under 115lbs and zip around hairpin turns at 45mph in herds of 1200lbs animals ~ and they do it all balancing on their toes. They are also tireless workers: visit any track in the mornings and you’re guaranteed to see the best riders in the country in addition to the plethora of unsung hero exercise riders on every caliber of racehorse. Santa Anita has Mike Smith and Gary Stevens; Gulfstream Park has Joe Bravo and Edgar Pra-do; Kentucky has everyone from Calvin Borel to Robby Albarado.
Why would Hall of Fame jockeys wake up before dawn almost every day to work out a handful of horses? Jesus Castanon has nearly 2,300 wins in a 17,000 race career: the man has earned the right to sleep in.
But unlike most professional athletes, jockeys don’t have a front office to rely on for guaranteed assignments. There is no depth chart for the position: if a rider wants to succeed, every day is draft day.
So jockeys and their agents use the mornings to build relationships with trainers and get a feel for the stock in each shedrow. Not every horse a jockey works will turn into an afternoon mount: sometimes a trainer wants to put a young horse in more experienced hands or to test a young jockey’s timing with a temperamental charge. When the chemistry is right between horse and rider, though, it’s obvious.
Brian Hernandez, Jr., the 2004 Eclipse Champion for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey, often works horses for Ian Wilkes, but there was something different when he got aboard Fort Larned. The near-black son of E Dubai had nine different riders in his 25 starts, but six of his ten career victories came under Hernandez, Jr., including American racing’s richest prize: the $5million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Watching the pair fly through the lane during their weekly pre-dawn workouts over the course of three years was textbook: Fort Larned reaching for ever more ground as Brian sat chilly in the saddle.
Similarly, Hall of Fame rider Calvin Borel has a knack for calming nervous horses. In Rose to Gold’s final 2013 Kentucky Oaks prep, the compact chestnut filly came through the Churchill Downs stretch moving well enough, but the real magic was after the wire: Calvin stood up like he does with every horse, but this time he ran his hand along her neck and stroked her mane for a few strides. The horse took a breath and relaxed noticeably: she started to move in a more fluid manner and even seemed to puff up a little with added confidence. She may not have won the Oaks, but she was a different horse after that work.
Morning workouts are over around 10 am, so jockeys take a few hours to go to the gym, visit with trainers, or grab a nap before checking in with the Clerk of Scales. They may not haveteams, but one similarity to other professional athletes who have equipment managers is that riders will have a valet who makes sure they have the right silks, saddle, enough goggles, and a whip throughout the raceday. Most riders won’t have a mount in every race, so they occupy their downtime by studying past performances, playing ping pong, or signing autographs for fans. Once the races are over, there is the opportunity to dine with owners and trainers and continue building solid relationships both on and off the track.
To succeed as a top jockey requires more than good hands or the courage to thread a horse through a barely-there hole between rivals: it takes a near-24/7 commitment to the craft.