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 horse-riding simulator is called an Equicizer, and it looks like something drunks would enjoy at a state fair. It’s not nearly as tall as an actual horse but its mane makes it resemble the real thing. To make it bob in place, you pump your arms. For me, though, the sharp pain is in my hips. I contort my long legs into an uncomfortable position so my feet “fit” into the stirrups. My head is up, my back parallel to the Equicizer’s body. “That’s good, man,” Lindsay says to me during our third one-minute set. He’s the Texas bull rider. And he’s a liar.

These daily workouts happen just down the road from barn 30, upstairs in a two-floor NARA classroom that’s actually a former apartment with spackled ceilings. You pass through a kitchen to get to the staircase that leads to this room with nine Equicizers, some dumbbells, a pull-up bar in a doorway. A sheet contains each student’s individual workout. After three Equicizer sets, it already feels like magma is coursing through my legs. McCarron loves to share stories from his racing career, little aphorisms he’s picked up over the years. “You know how mushrooms grow? That’s how I treated trainers,” he says. “Keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em a bunch of shit.” 

McCarron points at Dylan Davis, who’s the jockey’s son, and me. “You and you,” McCarron says. He orders each of us to do a wall-sit — back against the wall, thighs parallel to the ground. A former student, McCarron says, once did a 40-minute wall-sit. “Taught a whole class while he was doing it,” he says. My legs, already as sluggish as Montana because of the Equicizer, start quivering. “He’s quitting!” McCarron yells. “He’s shaking!” I last one minute, 24 seconds. Davis goes for five minutes.

We return to barn 30 because McCarron, Bellocq and Ryall, the most advanced student, are going to practice entering a starting gate. They mount horses named Gus, Lady and Marble. At the track, on the outside rail, I talk to jockey student Jesse Sauder, who is 19 and, like the others, weighs 105 pounds. “My goal is to win the Derby. Yes, sir,” Sauder says. His blog is My Race to the Kentucky Derby. Sauder’s from Illinois, where he owns a half-Quarter, half-Arabian, and says he visited family in California and went to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park looking for a way to break into the game. Ultimately, he discovered NARA’s two-year program online. (Later, when I ask Ryall how she heard about the school, she says, “Google.”) Work at the barn ends about 4:30 p.m., and Sauder is a waiter at Steak ’n Shake six days a week, until 10 p.m. on weekdays, midnight or 1 a.m. on weekends.

Another student, 22-year-old Laura Carson, was born in Canada, but her family moved to Point Roberts, Wash., because it was cheaper to have horses there than in, say, Vancouver. “When I was six years old,” Carson says, “I told my parents I wanted to be a jockey.” From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., she’s on the overnight shift at a nearby farm, in a “cubby hole” watching broodmares on a TV monitor, ready to alert her boss if a horse goes into labor. “Not a lot of time for sleep,” she says.

Lindsay’s first time on a horse was at jockey school. “Bulls and horses,” he says, “they’re not alike in any way.” Davis, for his part, plans to start out as an exercise rider, hoping to use his sister’s East Coast connections. “I don’t think about the bigger goals constantly,” he says. “If you do that, you can forget to focus on the little things that can make you better.”

Dixie Hayes, who teaches NARA’s equine science courses, says, “The hardest thing for these kids is getting good horses. If you don’t win, you don’t get noticed.” Says Bellocq: “Our job is to get them ready for their first day on the job. We want to be an equine industry workforce academy.” (During year two, students complete internships for various farms and trainers.) Bellocq and McCarron discussed the potential for a school like this for years. “Took Chris retiring to make it happen,” Bellocq says.

Following a successful trip to the starting gate (loading, not breaking), the students ride, first in a paddock behind the barn, then on the smaller of the Thoroughbred Center’s two dirt tracks. McCarron posts the set lists, each kid’s name next to a horse — Polo, Explicit, Sticky, Ease, Yankee. I’m too inexperienced to get on a Thoroughbred. When asked what I’d need to do to become a jockey, Parisel, the Frenchman, says, “You’d have to change a lot. Cut the legs and go from there.” McCarron’s on Montana, and I offer to hot-walk the horse following the second set. I figure he’ll at least let me stand next to them.