Why we love the Kentucky Derby: Not everyone can be a jockey [Horse racing]

Why we love the Kentucky Derby: Our writer goes to jockey school [Horse racing]

The 10-hour day includes one 15-or-so-minute lunch break. I speed to a gas station, the closest thing I can find, and inhale a sandwich. “Speedway’s still in business because of us,” Hayes says. She also informs me that a jockey by the name of Deshawn Parker is about my height and is tearing it up at Mountaineer Racetrack in north West Virginia. My problem would be my weight. Like the first line of the NARA application says: “Preference will be given to those applicants whose weight does not exceed 112 pounds wearing boots, riding britches, safety helmet….”

After “lunch,” I’m the last to arrive in Hayes’ classroom on the ground floor of the former apartment, with the Equicizers stabled upstairs. Most students pack a lunch. Or don’t eat. Sauder tells me that today he’s consuming a single protein bar because yesterday — he’ll do this once a month — he binged at a pizza buffet. “I went to town,” he says. For him, lunch is typically a boring turkey sandwich and “maybe a tangerine.” On his cellphone, an app called MyFitnessPal helps him hit his 1,200-calorie-a-day target. He looks forward to one big meal a week and does confess that, over Christmas break, he put on 20 pounds, which he shed by dieting and exercising. “I told myself if I get too big, I won’t take pills or flip to lose weight. I’ll just stop because it’s not worth putting your body through that.” Good. I won’t need to force myself to vomit to get the full experience.

Hayes pulls up a race at Florida’s Gulfstream Park on her computer, which we watch on a projection screen. She’s interested in the No. 2 horse because she was working at the farm when the filly was born. The mare died during childbirth, and Hayes bottle-fed the foal for the first 48 hours of its life. The filly comes in second. “If she’d have won, I wouldn’t make you take the quiz,” Hayes jokes. There are 11 questions about horse pregnancy (What dates should a mare’s pregnancy be monitored via rectal palpation?), and I don’t know one answer.

Other highlights:

  1. A horse named Moe bites my notebook.
  2. At one point, McCarron is in a stall, scratching a horse’s withers. The horse, with its mouth, simultaneously returns the favor on McCarron’s back. “Know what this is called?” he asks. “Symbiosis.”
  3. Each horse’s temperature gets recorded twice a day. Lindsay hands me a thermometer that looks like it could be from my medicine cabinet. “Pat him on the back to let him know you’re here,” Lindsay says. Then what? “Pull up the tail.” Then what? “And stick the thermometer in his butt-hole.” Ninety-nine degrees. “That’s a good temperature,” Lindsay says.

So, anyway, back to Montana and me in the stall. We make it out (with McCarron’s help). The space between all of the stalls forms a figure eight and, atop Montana, I make two loops around half of the barn. It’s stop-and-go, as if red traffic lights dot our path. The first time around, McCarron holds the horse, constantly telling me to keep my heels down, not to pull back on the reins. I’m solo the next lap, which could barely be described as walking. It takes probably 10 times as long as it should, Montana rarely responding when I squeeze my legs or make a clicking sound with my tongue, which I’ve been told to do. “That’s the first step, riding around the barn,” McCarron says when I dismount. Could I be a jockey one day? “I’d sit you down and tell you, ‘Look, it’s probably not gonna work out, you being a jockey,’” McCarron says. “But then I’d encourage you to go the route of a horseman.” In the fall, this group was about twice its current size, and whenever somebody quits, this is what the three instructors say: It just wasn’t in the cards.

At the end of the day, McCarron scores each student’s performance. The rest get 4s and 5s. Montana and me? “One-and-a-half,” McCarron says.

“Doesn’t everybody get a five on Montana?” asks 18-year-old Haley Hester.

Then McCarron invites all of us into his office so the class can see something on his computer. It’s a YouTube video of a three-year-old, a little girl, riding a horse.

Illustration: Matt Mignanelli

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