Jockeys provides this adrenaline rush of being on the track, on the horses in a race, behind the scenes. It’s an amazing show that focuses on eight jockeys: Chantal Sutherland, Kayla Stra, Mike Smith, Alex Solis, Aaron Gryder, Joe Talamo, Garrett Gomez and Corey Nakatami.
Garrett is a top ranked jockey and has an enviable career to other jockeys. Corey is the “bad boy” of racing. He is all mouth and muscle, fueled by volatile behavior. His grandparents were at an internment camp in 1942 on the site of what is now the Santa Anita race track. Despite his reputation, Corey is an excellent jockey and needs to be on the trainers’ short list of “in demand” riders. Chantal Sutherland is struggling with being a woman among all men. She has bonded with trainer Kristin Mulhall. They work out together every day. Through this friendship, Chantal gets to know many different horses and together the women are allies in the male-dominated sport. She dates veteran/ Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who may have a chance to ride (once again) in the Kentucky Derby this season and their relationship may be further strained by their careers. Alex Solis is also a Kentucky Derby hopeful and nominated for the Hall of Fame.
In the first episode, Kristin owns a horse that she decides to run in a claiming race and wants Chantal to race it. At first, it looks like another trainer has claimed the horse, but Kristin has managed to fool everyone into not placing a claim on her horse. The other female on the track is Aussie Kayla Stra, a tough woman determined to make her mark despite the odds (very few women have had top success as jockeys). She faces sexism in the locker room and fights for every horse she gets to ride.
In episode two, 19-year-old arrogant young jockey Joe Talamo is riding I Want Revenge in an important qualifying race. Joe’s issue is that he is so young and he needs to show everyone that being young is not a detriment in racing horses. He has to prove that youth and talent have no connection. Competing against 19-year-old Talamo, is 39-year-old Aaron Gryder. When he was only 13-years-old, Aaron Gryder left home to pursue his dream of being a jockey and he hasn’t stopped racing. He was afraid of horses but soon lost that inhibition when he learned to ride them. Aaron doesn’t have the level of fame yet that he desires because he hasn’t had that huge international win. He’s not known as a money rider. He hasn’t won the Kentucky Derby or Preakness or World Cup in Dubai. Aaron and Well Armed have built a connection and the horse’s owners have asked him to race the horse in the billion dollar World Cup in Dubai. A win gives Aaron international exposure. Many opportunities will open up for Aaron. He will gain international attention and acclaim and increase his value as a jockey.
I recently spoke to Aaron Gryder.
Amy Steele [AS]: When did you realize you could make a career out of being a jockey?
Aaron Gryder [AG]: Once I moved out when I was 13 and spent that whole summer at that farm in Southern California. I spent that time getting on a few horses every morning and taking care of them until the time they went to bed and I went to bed. I knew then that it justified everything I had thought. I was so excited every morning to wake up early and be with the horses. At that point, it became not just a dream but it was becoming something that was part of my life now. And I just knew I needed to focus on my business and pay attention to everything. From that point on I was going to get the opportunity. I feel I’m pretty blessed to say at three or four what I wanted to do and never waver on that.
AS: What do you like about racing?
AG: I love the animals themselves. I’ve been fortunate to win thousands of races and to ride in England and Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia and Dubai and all over the country here. I look at my life and every friend I’ve got. All of my associations, every travel experience that I’ve had, 99% of them are because of the animal I fell in love with when I was young. I love the excitement of racing. I love the competitiveness.
I love how tough it is to win a race. I love the communication with horses. I love trying to become one with an animal that we might not always understand.
AS: How do you stay in shape as a jockey?
AG: We race five days a week and some days I’ll race one race and some days I’ll race eight or nine, just depending on what my agent has and what comes together on certain days. I’m pretty active seven days a week. If I’m not getting on horses in the morning which I usually do. On a race day, I will ride in the morning and then have time to do whatever I want but usually I need to lose a few pounds (at 5’6”, Aaron is one of the tallest jockeys racing today) and I’ve got different things that I’ll do: sometimes it’s Pilates, sometimes it’s Bikram yoga, sometimes it’s running up the mountain behind Santa Anita in a heavy sweat suit. I have personal trainers at the gym. I try to mix it up all the time to keep it interesting. Some people ask me if that is the hardest part of the job but I don’t look at it that way. If you told me as a kid that I’d have to lose three or four pounds a day and go through all these work-outs, I’d have signed up back then. I would have never taken any detours to avoid it.
AS: I wasn’t even thinking about the weight loss part of it. You need to be in shape obviously. Muscle also weighs more than fat. It sounds like you’re doing a lot of the things that are the lean, long muscle work-outs.
AG: Yeah, I never try to bulk up. Just riding horses in general gets to fit, makes you strong but I want to take it a step further and be better than the guy next to me.
AS: So on the show they were saying that you weren’t a “money rider” but you’ve had a lot of earnings.
AG: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever been a money rider. I’ve been leading rider in California, Kentucky, Chicago, New York. And to be a leading rider you’re winning a lot of big races too because that attracts more business. I’ve always done well in bigger stakes races but the elite races like The Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown races, the Breeder’s Cups—those I have not yet captured and you can win as many stakes as you want but when you win those, the elite races, the World Cups and different races like that, I think people look at you different, they see you winning a race that they all have dreams to win. When you shoot high in this business, those are the ones that stamp you as a money rider and are what people consider a money rider. Fortunately with Well Armed, he became one of the best horses in the world and I’ve been able to accomplish something that very few riders have done and win the World Cup.
AS: What did riding in (and winning) the World Cup in Dubai mean to you?
AG: It was very exciting. It meant a lot this year because I knew we had a good chance. I had run Well Armed there last year and he had run third. I just thought this year that he was a better horse than he was last year. I thought we were going in there with not just a chance to hit the board but I expected to win when I went there and my brother went along with me and all week long I just said, ‘I feel so good about this and feel as if this is my race to win this year.’ It’s just nice when everything comes together. Horses are fragile and it’s a tough process to get the horse from the time they are weanlings to even get to the racetrack. And to go beyond there and get them to the races and to win the race. There are so many factors that can go against you. Well Armed was making everything happen so smoothly. He’s a very sound horse. He travels good. He shows up and runs a big race. It’s the most watched race in the world. In America, more people will watch the Triple Crown races. But that’s got such international flavor, that they’re watching it in Hong Kong and Japan and all through Europe and all over the world. It meant a lot to me as far as international recognition which could obviously open doors to more races abroad. It’s amazing what one race can do for you and how many eyes and how much attention you can get.
AS: When you were riding the race in Dubai, how was it different from the U.S.?
AG: It’s a much longer track. The stretch run is a lot longer. When you turn for home in America you either have 3/16th of a mile or a ¼ of a mile to run. When you turn into the stretch at Dubai, it’s 3/8th of a mile. So it’s literally double the length’s of Del Mar’s stretch. In American usually when you are turning for home, everyone is in full gear and really riding their horses aggressively but in Dubai you really can’t do that. I think they were behind me because they were trying to catch up with Well Armed at that point. I just wanted to sit there and give him a chance to stay comfortable and just ask him for his best last quarter of a mile home. I think we were two lengths in front at the quarter pole and once I did ask him, he just started extending himself.
AS: You look like you really have soft hands. I don’t know if that’s just with riding him (Well Armed) or if that’s how you ride always.
AG: Well some horses you ride a little bit differently. Some you ride a little more aggressive. Others like Well Armed, they say I helped Well Armed become a better horse but in the same breath I think he’s helped me become a better rider. Once I understood what he wanted and he just wanted to be left alone and let his big stride take advantage of the long courses and let him really reach out. And the only way he really was going to do that was if I was really soft with him and took a long hold. Early on, he was more aggressive and I probably took a shorter hold of him which takes away from their stride or sometimes I’d ask him to be in a position that maybe he didn’t want to. Anytime you ask a big, long-striding horse like that to do anything different, it might seem like you’re doing the right thing for him. But once I realized all I needed to do was let him do it because he was enjoying the game, he would find his best stride. Then once he would get in that full length and in a nice rhythm, I could do whatever I wanted with him. But it was just about leaving him alone early on.
In the World Cup, he broke so well I got to sit there quiet on him until he got to the quarter pole. It’s nice when you’re on a horse that every pole you think you’re in a winning position and you like the way they are traveling.