A dash of recklessness, thrill-seeking desire, and fierce competitiveness are the cornerstones of every jump jockey’s personality, which also makes them good candidates for a little wild fun’on and off the race course.
Jump jockeys are a different breed when it comes to personal bodily injury. Either they have a residual, constant adrenaline flow through their veins that elevates their pain threshold or they really have fallen on their heads so much that they’re too befuddled to acknowledge that “Ouch, this hurts.”
Throw in a little machismo, and when they do get hurt their first response is, “It’s no big deal.” To them, crutches, slings for broken collarbones, huge bruises, and the dazed, wide-eyed stare of a colossal concussion are hardly worth talking about.
Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard recalled a typical off-course incident.
“A few years ago, there was a whole bunch of us steeplechase folks from Pennsylvania who took the same flight to one of the hunt meets out in the Midwest. We all flew back together on the late flight, so when the bus driver came to deliver us to our long-term parking lot, we were the only people on the bus,” he said.
The group was composed of mostly jockeys, recalled Sheppard, and the meet, run in less-than-perfect conditions, suffered numerous falls.
“Sanna Neilson, now Hendriks, was there too. She had stopped riding in races by then, but had had some recent surgery on her knee and so walked with a pronounced limp,” said Sheppard.
As the driver stopped at the appropriate stops, the wounded and the crippled hobbled off the bus, one at a time.
“One jockey with a broken collarbone, arm in a sling, left the bus, then another, with a twisted ankle, on crutches left the bus, then another with a black eye from being hit in the face with a horse’s head left the bus. Then Sanna, limping mightily, hobbled off,” said Sheppard.
“I was the last to leave. Now, if I sit for a prolonged time, my back gets very stiff. So when I got up to leave, I was bent over and hobbling too. As the driver handed me my suitcase, he looked at me, shook his head, and said, ‘Man, I don’t know what you folks all do for a living, but I know I’m sure as hell glad I’m driving this bus!’ “
Two-time champion jockey Jeff Teter also walked with a limp after he broke his ankle’ without ever leaving the saddle’at the Charleston (S.C.) meet in the fall of 1990.
Teter, who rode first call for trainer Janet Elliot, said, “We were galloping down to a hurdle when a horse of Tom Voss’ fell 4 to 5 lengths in front of me. I jumped the
hurdle, and as we went by, the fallen horse got up, bumping into my horse. My leg was pinned between the two horses, and my ankle just snapped. Luckily, mine was a horse who didn’t really want to be a race horse, and all I had to do was say, ‘Whoa,’ and he pulled himself right up.”
At the time, Teter was leading rider, just two wins in front of Ricky Hendriks, and there was only one meet left in the season, the Colonial Cup (S.C.), which had five races on the card.
Confined to a cast for eight weeks, he had to sit helplessly by and agonize as he watched Elliot, without her top jockey, give Hendriks his rides. The worst twist of all was that Hendriks got the coveted ride on the legendary Victorian Hill in the prestigious Colonial Cup.
But justice prevailed for all. Hendriks did win the Colonial Cup, but it was the only race he won all day, so the jockey championship belonged to Teter. Hendriks even announced his retirement after the Colonial Cup.
In 2002 and 2003, Michael Traurig developed a partnership with timber horse Natty Boh. The horse’s front-running, free-jumping style suited Traurig’s own outlandish personality, and the pair were frequently mentioned in the race call due to their leading-the-pack ways.
But at the Queens Cup Steeplechase (N.C.), last April, Traurig became the center of attention for a completely different reason. In the timber stakes, he and the gelding, the race favorite, assumed their customary position in the three-mile race. Also running for the $30,000 purse were Dave Bentley on eventual winner Rosbrian and Mark “Stix” Griffiths, riding Glennair Farm’s Fifth Creek.
Bentley tucked his horse in behind Traurig and so had a front-row seat as events unfolded. “As we jumped the first, I saw his britches had popped open,” Bentley recalled. “I didn’t think much of it, but as we went down to the second I could see them inching down his legs. I shouted across to the rest of the lads what was happening, and as the race progressed we were laughing and joking the whole way.”
Traurig said he knew his pants had popped open, but until he heard the other jockeys laughing, he didn’t realize his pants were inching down his thighs.
“I kept wondering what was so funny about the race,” he said bemused, “then I realized it was me.”
“We were all rolling around in our saddles laughing. Every time he jumped a fence and flashed us with his bum, we laughed even harder,” said Griffiths.
Traurig, unperturbed, kept rolling along. Natty Boh was on his game that day, and the field, worn down by the relentless pace, was all strung out as he approached the second-last.
But Traurig’s mount slipped at take-off and just tipped the top rail enough to bring himself down. Both the jockey and the horse jumped back to their feet immediately as Bentley streaked by, with Tom Foley on Hall Of Angels hot on his heels. Traurig kept his wits about him, grabbed Natty Boh’s reins, and vaulted onto his back, knowing, with only five horses in the race, if he could rejump the last and finish, he could still get a piece of the $30,000 pie.
But the vault meant the end of Traurig’s pants. The flimsy, silken material split right down the middle. With the remnants of his pants flapping from his boots and baring almost all to a crowd of about 20,000, Traurig re-jumped the second-last and galloped bravely toward the last, thinking he had third place all wrapped up.
But Griffiths had stopped laughing enough to rally Fifth Creek and stole up on Traurig at a dead gallop, stealing third and what was left of Traurig’s dignity.
“You couldn’t have scripted a ‘Worst Race Ever’ story any better,” said Griffiths. “And then, to add insult to injury, he had to jump off and weigh-in right in front of the grandstand, showing everything he had to everybody!”
Beware Of Strangers Bearing Drinks
When your mother warns you not to accept anything from strangers, she’s just looking out for your best interests. Turney McKnight had to learn that the hard way.
An amateur jockey in the ’70s and early ’80s, McKnight was a fearless timber rider, who won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1982 on Tong. He also rode in hurdle races, but the lighter weight allowances meant that those races taxed his weight-losing ability to the max.
McKnight recalled that, at age 18 or 19, he’d been named on a hurdle horse at the Virginia Gold Cup. He said he’d employed some radical means to ensure he reached the correct weight, and, as a consequence, was extremely dehydrated before the race. Feeling like a sponge in the Mojave Dessert, McKnight spied a gentleman walking through the paddock, glass in hand.
“My mouth was dry, my lips were dry, and I was dying for something to drink,” he said. “Since I’d already weighed out, I asked the gentleman if I could just have a few sips of what was in his glass. He mumbled something about it being lemonade and told me I could finish it off. I drank it down’it tasted like lemonade to me’and then got on the horse and galloped down to the start.”
By the time McKnight reached the start, he discovered he was reelingly intoxicated. The gentleman’s high-octane “lemonade” had sped through McKnight’s system faster than quicksilver, and the teenager was viewing the world slightly cockeyed. But in typical steeplechase jockey fashion, he bravely ignored his double vision, the ominous rolling of his stomach contents, and the blissful feeling of drunkenness.
“The flag dropped, and we galloped hard down to the first,” said McKnight. “I’m not sure what happened exactly, but I think I must have clipped heels with the horse in front of me, because my horse flipped and the other horse flipped, and there I was lying on my back in the turf with the other jockey cursing me to hell and back.”
Neither horse nor jockey was harmed, and McKnight learned a great lesson from the whole unfortunate episode. “That was the last time I ever drank an unidentified substance,” he said ruefully.
Map? We Don’t Need No Stinking Map
There are many stories of jockeys going off course, either because they missed a beacon, because they got forced off course, or just plain lost their way. But Sean Clancy, the leading jockey in 1998, told the story of Johnston’s Express, a horse who literally jumped his way off course’well, sort of.
Clancy and the Jack Fisher-trained Johnston’s Express were in the Steeplethon, a three-mile, direction-switching race over mixed obstacles at the Great Meadow course in Virginia. They were leading as they ran down the hill to the third jump, an imposing coop topped with brush, set way out on the backside of the undulating course.
Clancy, well aware of his horse’s predilection to jump left, pointed Johnson’s Express for the middle of the coop to compensate. But the horse jumped severely left, so severely that when he landed he was practically parallel to the coop and aimed head-on at a nearby grove of pine trees.
“There was a whole pack of trees, 15 or 20 of them, and there was no avoiding them; he practically landed in them,” recalled Clancy. Like the Ewoks on the stormtroopers’ motorcycles in the second Star Wars movie, Clancy said all he could do was dodge left and right and try not to hit anything.
“I just put my hands down, like you do when you’re foxhunting, and galloped through the trees, back out to the race course. I could hear the rest of the jockeys all laughing at me as I disappeared into the trees,” he said.
The other jockeys briefly assumed that Clancy was done for, so they were extremely startled when he appeared suddenly out of the grove, a sheepish smile on his face.
“I popped out to find myself lying fourth and said, ‘Hey guys, what’s happening?’ ” said Clancy with a laugh. But he wasn’t sure whether or not he’d be taken down for being off course, so he wasn’t sure whether he should pull up his horse and save him for another day or continue.
“That’s not the kind of course you want to tackle half-heartedly; it’s too big and too complicated,” said Clancy, with a grin. “It was terrible just galloping around wondering if it was even worth going on.”
In the end, the stewards ruled that he hadn’t left the course, as there was no boundary beacon placed anywhere near the trees.
Sane Or Insane?
Jack Fisher is one of steeplechasing’s most colorful characters. As the National Steeplechase Association’s leading trainer in 2003 and an NSA board member, no one can nor would question his horsemanship or his dedication to the sport. But there have been several instances when it would be completely legitimate to question his sanity.
Brooks Durkee, a former jockey who’s now a trainer, recalled a classic Jack Fisher moment at Willowdale (Pa.) in 1995, when he rode against Fisher in a hurdle race.
Fisher was riding Tessancourt, a graded stakes winner on the flat from France. But the horse was no shoo-in. In schooling the horse over hurdles, Fisher and his exercise riders had discovered the horse had a flaw.
“We taught him to jump and he wasn’t bad’when he would jump,” recalled Fisher. “He would school down over five flights of hurdles on Monday, and Tuesday you couldn’t get him within 50 feet of the first one.”
No amount of cajoling, horse whispering, and various other sundry means could persuade this horse to jump if he didn’t want to. Rumors rapidly spread throughout the tiny steeplechase community’Fisher had bought a lemon.
So when Fisher entered Tessancourt in his first hurdle race in the United States, Fisher, who named himself to ride, made sure that his horse started last, and he kept him wide going down to the first fence so that if he did stop, it wouldn’t interfere with anyone else.
As everyone galloped off to the first, Fisher dutifully followed behind. The field jumped the first closely bunched, and as the horses landed, Durkee recalled, “Every jockey’s head swiveled left, looking over our shoulders to see what would happen to Jack. It was like we were all puppets, controlled by the same ‘puppet string’ or something.”
What the jockeys saw still makes them chuckle. There Fisher was, earnestly riding down to the first, elbows and knees flapping in characteristic Fisher style. Much to the jocks’ collective delight, Tessancourt lived up to his reputation and practically fell over the fence, so earnestly did he try to avoid jumping, neatly depositing Fisher into the hurdle.
“We took it all in, all heads swiveled back to the front, and, laughing as hard as you can and still ride, we went down to the second fence,” said Durkee.
Sean Clancy was riding another Fisher-trainee, Sunset Falls, in the same race. “My only instructions [for the race] from Jack were, ‘Make sure you stay the heck away from me!’ I heard the crowd gasp and the sound of something hitting the hurdle, and I knew Jack hadn’t made it,” recalled Clancy.
Fisher gave up on Tessancourt and sold the horse (quite cheaply) to a foxhunter near Chicago. It turned out that the horse loved foxhunting and became the gentleman’s favorite mount.
Penny Wise And Pound Foolish
In the 1950s, steeplechasing in America was going strong; racetracks such as Belmont Park (N.Y.), Saratoga (N.Y.), Aqueduct (N.Y.), Monmouth Park (N.J.), Delaware and Arling-ton Heights (Ill.) offered solid race cards, and the hunt meets were, as they are today, the social highlight for many communities.
Custer Cassidy, whose cartoons have graced the Chronicle pages for more than 50 years, rode over jumps at the same time as the legendary F.D. “Dooley” Adams and A.P. “Paddy” Smithwick. Cassidy was a blue-collar jockey, known for his willingness to take on the tough and the not-so-brilliant steeds, so he had to watch his earnings with care.
He recalled a timber race he rode that added a whole new meaning to the idea of stuffing your mattress. It was the 20th running of the three-mile Deep Run Hunt Cup in 1952, in Richmond, Va.
Cassidy was riding Forest Hare. As he was changing in the jockey’s tent, he realized, “I hadn’t anybody to look after my money.” He was carrying about $450, a large sum in those days’so he stashed his wad of cash down into his jockey boot, which had an elasticized cuff around the calf.
It was raining, the course was a bog, and since Forest Hare had run eight times that year and had never placed, Cassidy wasn’t expecting too much from his mount’he was just looking to get around safely. But as the race progressed, Forest Hare started to gain ground in the eight-horse field.
“It was weak timber,” Cassidy explained. “Horses were knocking the top boards down left and right, and I was going for all the holes.”
With a little less than a half-mile to go, Cassidy realized he and his longshot had a shot at third. “So I started riding, scrubbing for the finish line,” he said.
With every step his horse took, Cassidy’s boot started to ride down his leg and caused a couple of bills to flutter off, lost to the wind, rain and mud. It was quite a dilemma. If Cassidy stopped riding, he could keep his money, but then he would lose a placing. Ever the honest and consummate profess-ional, Cassidy doggedly kept urging Forest Hare on as his wad of money quickly dwindled.
“I lost every bit of that money. Even though I finished third, it was a tough pill to swallow. I told my trainer’s wife what happened and she said, ‘Well let’s go find it.’ I almost didn’t even try to find that money’it was raining, the track was muddy. But we went out there after the races, and, believe it or not, we found every bit of it. One of the other jockeys said to me, ‘Heck, if we’d known you were losing money in the stretch, we would have all pulled up to pick it up and you’d have won anyway,’ ” recalled Cassidy.
Forest Hare’s earnings that day were $50.