Stu the jockey retired undefeated

The Kentucky Derby over the weekend took me back to 1994, to my first (and last) win as a jockey at the Cherry Hill race track (R.I.P.)

To be precise, as I learned at the time, I was a driver, not a jockey. I wasn’t on the horse’s back, but seated in a cart, or sulky.

A winnah!

This is known as harness racing, or trotters. The horses are standardbreds, a bit smaller than thoroughbreds used in flat racing. 

I was there for a promotional “media night,” at which the horses were driven by men — only men, then — with names known to the public. I think I was the only print journalist, and I believe I remember contestants Vai Sikahema, Jerry Blavat, WIP’s Jody McDonald, among others. I wrote about it at the time, but Mr. Google came up empty. So I write this from memory. 

We were competing for a $1,000 purse that would be awarded to a charity the winner named.

We gathered at the race track in the early evening and were fitted for our racing silks. Not surprisingly, few fit us, even though cart drivers aren’t as tiny as thoroughbred jockeys.

At the time I was 6-3 and 210 pounds and wound up in chocolate and white colors. Not my favorite combo, but, what are you going to do.

We posed for pictures, joked with each other, drew lots to select a horse, and then were taken down to the paddock to meet our horses. 

“You’ve got the best horse,” one of track’s PR men whispered to me as we were led downstairs. 

He pointed out the horse I had drawn — a stallion named Rebel Yell, who was standing with a trainer and groom near him. I had brought a carrot to make friends with him.

As I approached, the trainer shouted, “Stand back! Don’t touch him! He bites!”

I have been on dates that went like that.

“What’s wrong?,” I asked.

“He doesn’t like people,” the trainer replied. It’s like I had a twin. 

As the other drivers petted and talked to their horses, I kept my distance, but got close enough to explain to Rebel Yell that he would be racing for Variety, the Children’s Charity, as if he would understand.

Rebel Yell looked at me. Horses have very large eyes and I could see hate in his. 

“This horse is a winner,” the trainer told me. “Just let him do what he wants and he’ll win.”

Other drivers were getting into their carts. The trainer told me no, Rebel Yell doesn’t like riders getting aboard indoors, we’d have to wait until we were out on the track.

So then we are out on the track and I gingerly climbed into the seat, not wanting to annoy Rebel Yell any more than I already had.

The reins have loops at the end, which you grip, after bending forward at the waist, with your back stretched. You are not sitting back as if  in a surrey. You are seriously stretched out.

The trainer told me to hold Rebel Yell tight, and to lean forward once the starting gate moved away, mounted on the back of a pickup. No need to say “giddyup,” no need to snap the reins, just lean forward “and let him do his thing. Turn him loose near the finish line.”

I nodded, adjusted my goggles and settled in. That’s not too much to remember. 

I was about third or fourth from the rail, and when the pace car pulled away, I leaned forward about an inch and Rebel Yell was off, breaking clean and heading for the rail.

I didn’t know that I was in the lead, but I did know no one was in front of me. I shouted, “GO Rebel Yell” and got a mouth full of race track kicked up by Rebel Yell.

I was so glad I wasn’t behind six other horses.

Rebel Yell was striding smooth and fast, a very enjoyable ride for me.

About halfway through, I ventured a quick peek over my right shoulder and saw Jody McDonald moving up on me, yelling at his horse.

Having been in the lead the whole time, could I lose now?

I leaned forward another inch and — amazingly — Rebel Yell found a fifth gear and accelerated, leaving McDonald in the dust.

We won by several lengths, then slowed Rebel Yell gradually and turned him toward the winner’s circle, bumping into Jerry Blavat’s cart on the way.

I expected to be photographed in the winner’s circle sitting in the cart, with Rebel Yell draped in the customary flowers.

The trainer ordered me out of the cart.

“He doesn’t like the winner’s circle.”

Of course he doesn’t. I should have known. 

Somewhere there is a photo of me crossing the finish line. I had a copy, but it’s hiding.

But the memory doesn’t fade of my victory driving an angry horse to benefit kids with disabilities.

14 thoughts on “Stu the jockey retired undefeated”

  1. At last, a good news story! LoL. I guess Old Jockey (err, driver) Stories never die, they just fade away. But not this time! Who knew our favorite columnist, err, blogger, had such a storied, err, exciting past. Keep ’em coming, Stu. I can’t wait to see what else is in your post, err, past.

  2. The photo appears to place you more on a motorcycle as a cop in some foreign country starting with the letter “H.” Maybe a repeat for charity could be arranged as your “left in the dust” fellow riders are still alive. Add a couple of other popular aspirants like Mayor Kenny whose weight would be a handicap and not just for weight. How about a female like Janice Armstrong who would love chasing you on any track. Lastly to draw public attention to our racial divide invite Al Sharpton who would probably denounce the race as a systemic parley but would show if paid his usual fee of
    $ 30.000. And this time we would make sure of photos and video but only if you win.

  3. Had you continued as a jockey-journalist, you could’ve trotted out a weekly column, three-minute read, titled “Jockey Shorts.” 😀

  4. Great read Stu. My grandfather used to take me to Garden State to watch “the ponies” when I was a teenager in the late 80’s (post fire). As I remember, half the fun of seeing the ponies was watching my grandfather successfully navigate the Race Track Circle on 70. Too bad they didn’t have GoPros back then, you could have had the driver’s eye view.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Ah the memories!

  5. GARDEN STATE WAS MY FAVORITE TRACK. I WON THE LONGEST ODDS RACE OF MY LIFE THERE. I STILL REMEMBER THE NAME OF THE HORSE, DUSTMATE, AT 90 TO 1. NEVER HAD LUCK WITH STANDARDBREDS. YOU HAD LARGE GONADS TO RIDE THESE HORSES.

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