I spent the morning with Dale Romans earlier this week, and we got to talking about exercise riders (people who ride our horses in the mornings) and their importance to the industry. Dale has a very solid group of riders, most of them have been with him over a decade.
Tammy Fox (Dale’s life partner) is one of the barn’s primary breeze riders — she weighs about 120 pounds and is a former jockey. Tammy is a great asset to the team because she knows the horses well and provides candid feedback after workouts — the good, the bad, the ugly. As they say, it’s not about how fast a horse goes; it’s about how they go fast.
Most riders are up before dawn and get on six to eight to horses a morning. They are often employed by a trainer but can be freelancers as well. Being an exercise rider is certainly a physically demanding and dangerous job!
Some riders can be too big and leggy to breeze horses but are strong and balanced, making them best suited to galloping. The stronger riders are often assigned to the more headstrong horses.
A horse in full training typically breezes once a week, plus or minus a few days. It takes trial and error to match the right exercise rider with a horse. Some horses benefit from having the same person on their back day in and day out, while others are best having different people on them. Some horses (especially veterans) are the same no matter who rides them.
Riders must be able to adapt to different types of horses. Some horses gallop around like old ponies, some try different stunts as an excuse not to go forward, and others are apt to try and run off.
What do I look for in a good exercise rider? First, they have to have a good attitude and outlook. There’s no question a rider communicates their mindset to the horse — good or bad. Morning training is about rhythm, repetition, and fitness and good riders are balanced with soft hands.
They must also have a good clock in their head. If the trainer says go an easy half in 50, a rider’s gonna be in trouble if they whiz around there in 47 and change. Open communication between a trainer and his or her riders is key.
People often ask about why jockeys aren’t on horses more often in the mornings. A lot of it comes down to supply and demand — most jocks aren’t going to get on a bunch of horses in the mornings when they have a full day’s work ahead. Veteran riders may only come out in the mornings to ride for the trainers who give them the most mounts and/or have stakes horses. Others, especially young riders, are more apt to hustle and get on a lot of horses in hopes of securing mounts in the afternoon.
The existing relationship between a trainer and jockey is paramount. A jock may not work a horse if he’s not going to be named on that horse in the afternoon. Some top riders have leverage on their side, gaining mounts despite working less in the mornings. Towards the end of his career, Jerry Bailey was seldom seen working a horse. I will say that I tend to see more jockeys in the early hours during the summer meets!
We’ve found that jockeys are the best people to breeze horses from the gate — it’s something they do day in and day out. It’s a dangerous part of the job (especially with young horses), and you can’t minimize what it means to have an experienced pair of hands when they spring the latch. Many trainers like to have a jock come out to breeze a horse when they are getting close to a race — the new perspective can help in the decision-making process.
I don’t buy too much into the notion of jocks working horses to “get to know them better”. There’s a time and place for a jock in the mornings. But, let’s face it, they can ride 10+ a day and many have ridden thousands of races. Chances are getting on the horse isn’t going to affect how they ride come race day.
Some trainers also feel that jockeys are more apt to “overdo” it and go too fast in the mornings since they are used to going full speed.
Exercise riders tend to know the horses much better — they’re around the barn and know how their mounts move, what their idiosyncrasies are, the amount of energy they bring to a routine day of training, fitness levels, etc. Often they can pick up on subtle lamenesses, and issues can be addressed before they turn into serious problems.
Exercise riders are an important part of any racing operation. The next time you’re out for morning training, stop and think about them. They work hard to position your horse for success and have a dangerous job!