It seems like it’s been a very long time since I sat down to write about my unforgettable weekend in May; where I found myself in the winner’s circle after my first sanctioned win over hurdles aboard Lune De Caro in the 3-mile Bright Hour Hurdle Race. I had been knocking on the door to that first sanctioned win for so long, once it happened I wasn’t sure what would happen from there. It’s been a roller coaster ride since that win, and this sport never fails to humble you.
It took a few weeks to come off the high of winning my first race on such a big stage like Nashville for connections that mean so much to me. I really didn’t think it could get much better than that. I did not ride another race that spring, and quickly the summer racetrack season began. I was pleasantly surprised when the entries came out for Monmouth Park and my name was next to Orchestra Leader. After my 2nd place on him in the spring, Jimmy Day and owners Mr. and Mrs. Smart were kind enough to let me ride him back in what would be my first hurdle race at a racetrack. It was much faster pace than going 3 miles at Nashville, but Orchestra Leader is an incredible jumper. We led the whole way and tired late to finish 4th at 19/1 odds and were beaten by three very nice horses.
I did not get the privilege of riding at Saratoga this year, not that that would’ve been a privilege I was expecting. However, it is on my bucket list and I hope to get the chance to ride there one day! Lune had a minor setback after Nashville, so he did not run through the summer but we were eyeing a fall comeback. I wasn’t sure what the fall would have in store for me, I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a small part of me that was still second guessing myself and wondering if that was just a lucky fluke on a really nice horse. I’ve learned that confidence is a funny thing, it takes a long time to build it up and when it is there, a person can be pretty much unstoppable, and when it is broken down for whatever reason, the same person can struggle to accomplish the smallest successes.
I rode two flat races at Shawan Downs on the opening weekend of fall racing. Both horses ran well enough, but I knew I was far past measuring my success on training flat races. The following day I was tabbed to ride Yellow Mountain for Jonathan on the flat as a prep race and Orchestra Leader at Foxfield in the feature allowance hurdle race. I started the day with a strong 4th on Yellow Mountain, but I was very anxious to ride my first hurdle race since Monmouth Park in early June. It turns out that Orchestra Leader was an anxious as me, we took the lead the minute the flag dropped and never gave it up! We were pressed the whole way around the course, I made the conscious effort to get on the inside and stay there, because in the spring I was wide and way too conservative when I finished 2nd on him around the same course. We ended up running 20 seconds faster than we did in the spring and broke the track record by 3 or 4 seconds! It was a thrilling and very gratifying day for me. It was a bit of an unexpected win for me, especially in the fashion that we did it, and it really gave me clarity that I have a lot to work on but I can hang with the best and ride with the best and find some success while doing it. As an amateur/apprentice female rider who has worked for the past 5 years to get to that point, it is a very defining moment that can’t completely be put into words.
The next week I went to Middleburg to get Lune de Caro his tune up race on the flat before heading to Far Hills the following week. He ran well, and I was very confident and excited going into Far Hills. In the meantime, I received a call from Kevin Boniface who watched me win at Foxfield, and he asked me to come school his 3-year-old filly, Serilda. I went and schooled her at Bonita Farm, and left with a ride in the 3-year-old Stake at Far Hills. Two rides on the day of one of America’s premier jump meets was literally a dream come true, being able to say I won a race at Nashville and potentially Far Hills was a wild thought running through my mind. But that’s where I can talk about how humbling this sport is.
I went into Far Hill genuinely believing if I gave Lune de Caro a good ride and did my part, we would be the winners. We were picked on top by most of the handicappers, he was in good form, I was having success riding over hurdles and my confidence was up; I just didn’t see where anything could go wrong. Big lesson learned. The flag dropped, the run off in the race went to the front by many like I expected, and I sat close in behind the two horses who took the lead to the rest of the pack. I moved up into 2nd the last time down the backside, and I had the leader in my sight and even at that point I continued to think if I didn’t get in Lune’s way, this race was ours. It was naïve of me to think that way, and I learned that lesson the hard way. We had a fence to go and as we crossed over the road crossing at the bottom of the hill I was passed by the eventual winner and suddenly, we were no longer traveling. He galloped up the hill to the last fence and I was not sitting on the same horse I had been all race, he jumped the last and was just nipped at the line to finish 3rd, but when I went to pull up I realized that what I felt at the bottom of the hill was a career ending injury. The assistant trainer in me wanted to stay with him, and do whatever I needed to do, but the reality of it was I had to walk away and get ready to ride Serilda in the next race. She was a great spin, there were some things I could have done better, but she ran on up the hill to finish a respectable 5th and she was a lot of fun along the way. I am super appreciative to those connections for such a great opportunity!
Lune is doing great, he is back in KY with his owners and will make a full recovery, but our career together was very short lived and makes me sad every time I think about it. He gave me one of the biggest thrills of my life with my first win, and out of all the outcomes I thought about that could happen at Far Hills, this was not one of them. I still ask myself if I could have done anything different, and I know what the answer is but I can’t help but wonder if I could have prevented it. At the end of the day, it’s a hard pill to swallow either way, and we can just be thankful he will live out his days in the best home possible with people who love him, and our racing career together was not meant to be long lived, but he is the reason my career has really taken off at all.
After that day at Far Hills, I went to the Gold Cup to ride a horse for Kathy Nielson and Mrs. Johnston who I had been schooling regularly for months. I was really looking forward to riding him, and as we turned down the backside for the final time he slipped and completely wiped out on the turn. No real excuse, just one of those things, but definitely not what anyone had expected or wanted. I was also going to be riding my first stake race that day aboard Orchestra Leader, but he had a snotty nose that morning and was a late scratch. Later in the day I rode a filly in the money allowance race on the flat against the boys named Quiet Prediction for trainer Rae Fernandez. It had been a rough 2 weeks and it was nice to end that weekend on a huge 2nd place finish at 50/1 (I think even higher) odds!
The next weekend was Aiken, and I was reunited with Serilda in the filly and mare maiden hurdle and got my first ride on a first-time starter for Jonathan. It was a big deal for me because I wasn’t sure how much I would get to ride for Jonathan now that Lune was no longer in the barn and we do have a stable jockey, so the fact I was put on Really Ready meant a lot to me. I ended up with two good thirds on both horses that day, and it was just the day to pick my confidence back up. Everyone came home safe and everyone ran well, and I had ridden every weekend of the fall to that point and that was a big accomplishment for me.
But oh, my how this game will humble you. Montpelier was the next weekend, and I find out the day that entries come out that Orchestra Leader would be taking on the hedge horse in the Noel Laing. This is the only proper hedge course left in American Steeplechasing and it’s always been on my bucket list. “Ollie” is a great jumper and although they must figure out that they can jump through them and don’t have to jump clean over the hedges, I thought that he would figure it out and we would be golden. I also picked up a mount for Joe and Blythe Miller and a filly for Bruce Miller, so I went into the weekend with three mounts and I couldn’t be happier. Morning of the race I found out my filly for Bruce scratched, but that was no big deal because I still had two mounts. I took a spin on the maiden before I rode Orchestra Leader so it was nice to have a ride before I rode the Noel Laing. When it was finally time for the Noel Laing I went to show “Ollie” the first fence and the hedges are so big that he could not even see over it. Not to mention the first fence was at the top of this huge hill, and I knew I would more than likely be in front by the time I got to it. No turning back, though, so to the start we went. I was in front at the first, and he launched at the first but we were good. He wasn’t really getting how to jump through them, but by the time we had almost made a full circuit he had two really good jumps and I thought we had gotten in a good rhythm. And we had, until we hit that first fence for the second time around. We climbed the hill and the fence came up abruptly like it had the first time around, and at the last-minute Ollie completely guessed at it and ended up scrambling over the base in the hedge and we were both in the hedge for a second and as he scrambled through it and found his feet I was unseated. I have fallen off plenty of times but I have never been as disappointed and embarrassed as I was that day. I legitimately thought that we had a good shot of winning that day and I just felt like I let the connections and the horse down. He made a mistake that I could not stick, and maybe a professional couldn’t have stuck it either, but more than likely they could have and as an amateur/apprentice rider that is a thought that always runs through my head. With Lune retired, Orchestra Leader is the best horse I get to ride and if I were to lose the ride on him as well I was going to be devastated.
Montpelier was a low day for me, and the following day was the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup where I was slated to ride a horse for Jonathan on the flat. I was faced with many questions from people who just saw the results online as to what happened the day before so I did not get to pretend like falling off over the hedges never happened. Luckily, the horse I rode in the flat race proved to be as nice as we thought he was, and he pulled away to win by 6 lengths over a field of 10 other horses. It was a nice way to end a bad weekend, but there were 3 long weeks ahead before the final race of the season. I am pretty sure professional jockeys look at that as a mini break/vacation, but as an amateur/apprentice whose first real year of riding was ending and the weekend prior had not been that great, my mind was racing about if I would get asked to ride anything at Camden or if after I took a digger in the hedge would I be deemed useless, haha. It’s a different ballgame when you are not being paid to ride and are not that experienced compared to trainers’ other choices for riders, you go into every race feeling the pressure to succeed because opportunities are so far and few between, especially as an American female trying to make it in the sport.
In reality, this sport is filled with a lot of loyal, caring, all around awesome connections and I had definitely overreacted from my lack luster weekend at Montpelier. I was getting the ride back on Really Ready and Serilda (both were 3rd with me at Aiken) and I was getting the mount back on Orchestra Leader, which made me breath a huge sigh of relief. Just seeing the overnights restored my confidence. I went down earlier in the week to Camden, SC and did a lot of schooling and I was feeling really good about the race day. I’ve come to learn how tough this sport is, though, and even though I was fully prepared mentally and physically, it wasn’t meant to be my day. My first mount, Really Ready, fell at the last and trapped me under him when he collapsed from exhaustion. We were both fine, but it was my first experience of a fall to that magnitude. I had no chance to catch my breath or my bearings before the very next race which was on Serilda. She is always a bit of a handful to the start but she was in rare form that day, and I was having a hard time with her until they dropped the flag. We were off in good order, but the pace in the 3-year-old race was fast and relentless. She bobbled just a bit at the 3rd fence and I lost my iron, which wasn’t a big deal except when I did get it back before the 4th fence we had already distanced ourselves from the field except for one horse and I just had the gut feeling that chasing those boys around the course was not going to end well at that point. She is a very nice young filly who I think has a future ahead of her and I did not want to jeopardize that. There is a very good chance that was the wrong decision, and maybe that’s not a decision I should be making. It has irked me since that day, and it’s now January and I still think about it. But I can’t take it back and I’m going to own it, and I am only writing about it because I’m not sure that everyone understands that there is more that goes into riding a race than hanging on, jumping fences and trying to come home in front. We were all given jockey pants to wear that day from the race committee that most of the jockeys were wearing that day. Another female jockey, Carolann Sloan, had a fall in the first race. Then, after my fall and pull up in the 2nd and 3rd races we decided to take the pants off because they were bad luck. (We had to blame someone/something.) All three of us girls riding that day (Bethany Baumgardner was the 3rd) changed back into our normal jockey pants and Bethany had a great spin in the 4th, Carolann had a great spin in the grade 1, and I was taking my final spin of the day in my regular pants so things had to get better, right? I ended my day with Orchestra Leader, which luckily ended the opposite as it did at Montpelier. What a great way to end the 2016 season of many highs and lows. We did not win, but we led the field every step of the way until the final fence. He was leaving multiple strides out at many fences and absolutely flying around the course. It was exactly what I needed and we were just nipped out for 3rd.
I did not go into this great of week by week detail for any other reason than to let you inside my world for this past year. Earlier in the year I wrote about my first win, and what it took for me to get there. That day at Nashville was an all-time high for me, and the day I can honestly say a career as a jump jockey truly began for me. But obviously after reading this is it very evident there are many highs and lows just from week to week in this sport. The struggles that an amateur/apprentice rider face are different than what professionals deal with. It’s been a roller coaster ride for me, and looking onto 2017 there are a lot of things I am looking to improve on and build from. The biggest thing I would like to improve as a young rider is the start of races. If I am on a horse that breaks sharp from the flag naturally I am fine but I have found that I need work on getting maidens away from the flag in the group. I worry too much about holding them up that I don’t put myself in good position early and that is the main thing I want to improve in 2017. I hope to see more apprentice riders join the ranks in 2017 as we are the future of the sport! Hard work does pay off and is rewarded in this game and I’d like to thank all the connections that gave me a chance this season, it is very much appreciated! There’s a little over 2 months until we all get ready to do this again, hoping for a good season of racing for all!