'There is nothing better': Inside the frenetic, arduous life of a jockey

Scott Hanson
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — “You’re a bum,” someone yelled at jockey Gary Wales as he had just finished a day on Aug. 9 at Emerald Downs.

Wales didn’t seem to hear him. In his line of work, you need thick skin or tune out the haters.

Thirty minutes earlier, Wales had been the toast of the track, riding the favorite to victory in the feature race — his second win of the night.

But now, that is forgotten. The man yelling didn’t seem to know — or care — that Wales is the leading jockey at Emerald Downs. His only concern in that moment was that Wales had finished fourth on the favorite.

The man probably also didn’t know Wales, 34, had begun his workday 14 hours earlier, working out horses in the morning to help him in his craft. Or that Wales would be back at the track at 6 a.m. the following day.

Such is the life of a jockey. They do most of their work far from the spotlight of the races, are in constant danger of severe injury and must be careful with everything they eat and drink, lest they become too heavy to compete.

The thrill of winning is hard to describe, and the money is good for the best in the business. But it’s no easy job. Many hours are spent preparing for the brief minutes of competition. Even the best fail much more often than not.

Horse racing is a sport of failure. If you win two of 10, you’re a standout.

“There is nothing better, especially when you ride a good horse,” said Wales. “It’s an adrenaline rush, and it’s more of an adrenaline rush when you win.”

At a crossroads

Wales’ route to becoming a jockey began in his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, on a school field trip to an equestrian center when he was 12.

“That gave me the bug,” Wales said. “I started working in the stables and could ride free on the weekends.”

At 17, Wales went to a racing school in Doncaster, England, then got a job as an apprentice for a stable in England, “learning the trade, mucking stalls, bathing horses, feeding them and exercising them.”

He got his jockey’s license, but seldom raced, competing in about 30 races without a win.

At 22, he was at a crossroads.

“I was either going to come to America and try, or I was going to quit,” he said.

He got a job in 2008 in South Carolina, working with young horses getting prepped for sales. It wasn’t the job he envisioned, but he met his wife, who was a veterinary assistant.

That summer, he went to Colonial Downs in Virginia, and earned his first victory on the first horse he rode.

“It was one of the best feelings, especially for me, because I didn’t get a shot in England,” he said.

Wales has lived the typical life of a jockey the past 10 years, going from track to track and state to state, with varying levels of success. His journeys were confined to the East Coast, until a friend suggested Wales head west and link up with top Emerald Downs jockey agent David “Marbles” Singer.

Wales finished fourth in the jockey standings here last year, then returned to Tampa Bay Downs. Wales appreciates that wife Katie, who has her trainer’s license, has joined him in his journeys.

“She’s smart, a grade-A student in school and she decided to follow (me) around,” Wales said. “It’s a circus life. It really helps having her support and someone to keep you grounded in this life.”

Wales became Singer’s top rider this year when Rocco Bowen, winner of the past three riding titles at Emerald Downs, could not return from injury. Wales began getting better horses to ride, and is the leading rider at a racetrack for the first time, but it’s no time to relax. There rarely is for jockeys like Wales.

Most days, Wales gets to the track by 6 a.m. to work out or gallop five-to-six horses without pay, finishing around 9:30. He does it to drum up business and to get to know the horses.

Singer, more a manager than agent, handles Wales’ morning and evening schedule and tries to get Wales a mount in virtually every race. Getting linked with a good agent is paramount for a jockey. A good one is worth every bit of the 25% of their winnings that jockeys pay them at Emerald Downs.

“You have to be a good rider to be the leading rider, but if you have a good agent, you’re going to do well,” Wales said.

Wales’ first assignment this morning is to gallop a 2-year-old, Dirt Road Red. Wales will ride the horse in his career debut two days later for trainer, Roy Lumm, a jockey himself for 13 years.

“I just want (Wales) to get to know him a little bit,” Lumm said of his horse. “He’s a 2-year-old and he’s green. Just to get a feel for him, and let him know he’s not on a bum. It always helped me a little bit.”

Wales can get a sense just by galloping a horse if it has talent.

“That was more for me than the horse,” Wales said. “But it’s going to help the horse if I know the horse.”

Lumm appreciated Wales putting in the extra work.

“He works hard in the mornings,” Lumm said. “That’s what you got to do. If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right.”

A disciplined diet

After riding another 2-year-old, Wales eats his only full meal of the day. Unlike many riders who spend time in the track’s hot box to sweat off weight, Wales maintains his 114 pounds with a disciplined diet.

“I get a footlong tuna with lettuce and tomatoes and everything on it, and I eat that at 10 o’clock,” he said.

About an hour before evening races, Wales has a banana, a Snickers bar, a small packet of peanuts and a Gatorade.

“That’s how I get energy,” he said. “And I drink a lot of water. The more water you get, the more you flush everything out, and the lighter you are. A lot of jockeys try to dehydrate themselves. I am always hydrated. I believe that helps me be stronger.”

Emerald Downs leading jockey Gary Wales jogs in the racetrack’s workout room before a full evening of back-to-back races on July 12, 2019, in Auburn, Wash.

Maintaining energy

Wales has taken his standard afternoon nap and is back at the track at 4:40 p.m., two hours before the first race. He comes in early to read the racing form, looking at the past performances of every horse, hoping for clues that might help him win a race.

“I look at every race, so it’s fresh in my head, but I’m not the kind of rider that overthinks a race too much,” he said. “I try to break good, ride my horse comfortably and stay out of trouble.”

His studying complete, Wales runs on the treadmill for 10 minutes.

“If you don’t do that, sometimes you’ll ride your first race and be winded,” he said. “I started doing it last year, and it made a big difference.”

Wales has a busy night ahead, with 25 minutes or so between races. Wales is the only rider competing in all seven races, and he’s scheduled to ride in every race the next day.

“If I don’t get the right amount of sleep, the right amount of exercise, and eat the right amount of food, it can get tiring,” he said. “That’s the last way you want to feel riding a horse.”

In charge of having Wales’ silks and equipment ready for each race is his valet, Dan Brock, a former jockey. Valets earn 5% of a jockey’s winnings, which is 10% of what the horse earns.

Wales’ mounts have earned $710,145 this year through Aug. 8. Thirty percent of his share goes to his agent and valet. Then there are taxes.

“If you really want to make money here as a jockey, you’ve got to be in the top five,” Wales said.

Eagle Ease, with Emerald Downs jockey Gary Wales up, during a full night of races on July 12, 2019, at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash.

Getting back on the horse

Race night has begun. Wales has no time to relax. Every minute is valuable.

7:27 p.m.: The gates open for the third race. Wales guides Awesome Return to the lead.

“No matter what, I was going to the front,” Wales later said.

7:29: Awesome Return never relinquishes the lead, winning by 1.5 lengths in 1 minute, 37.11 seconds.

It gave Wales a win on 24 straight days of racing. The streak means a lot to Wales.

“I didn’t know how many chances I would have today,” Wales said. “On paper, I looked good, but you never know.”

7:32: Wales leaves the celebration in the winner’s circle. He walks to the jockeys’ room, taking time to pose for a photograph.

Before entering the jockeys’ room, Wales sees a TV near the entrance showing a replay of Awesome Return’s victory.

“I was talking to him down the stretch,” Wales said of Awesome Return, an 8-year-old who won for the 11th time. “I was saying one more time.”

7:39: Wales emerges wearing new silks. “Five minutes, that’s pretty good,” he said of the time it took.

After fist bumping a young kid, he walks into the paddock, meeting the owners and trainer of French Candy, his mount for the next race.

7:43: He mounts French Candy, and leads the horse onto the track.

7:54: The gates open. Twenty-five minutes after winning on Awesome Return, Wales finishes fifth on French Candy.

The race finished without incident, never a given. Most jockeys have a laundry list of bones they have broken. Wales, has broken just one, his back, in a spill at Suffolk Downs in Boston in 2010.

When wife Katie entered the emergency room, Gary told her he was quitting.

“She said something like, ‘You’ll be fine, you love it. You just feel like that right now,’ “ he said.

Six weeks later, Wales returned. He won on his first mount back.

“If you don’t win right away, other riders will spread it around that you’re afraid,” he said. “So you tell your agent, get me on a winner quick. Otherwise, your career is in jeopardy. If something like that goes around, it can kill your business and you’ve got to find a new racetrack.”

Wales missed another six weeks a few years ago when his horse flipped in the starting gate, with his ankle getting lodged between the horse and the gate.

Somehow, the ankle wasn’t broken, just badly sprained.

“I do the right things to avoid getting hurt, but sometimes freak things happen you can’t see coming,” he said.

At 9:30 p.m., his workday is done. With two wins, he widened his lead in the jockey standings.

But the hard work continues. He wants that title and will be back at the track in eight hours to start another split shift.

“Winning the title would mean a lot because it’s something I could always take pride in,” he said. “When you’re down on your luck, you can always say, ‘Hey, I was the leading rider at this track.’ ”

Emerald Downs jockey Gary Wales grins while walking through the winners’ circle after coming in first in a race on July 12, 2019, in Auburn, Wash.