A Revealing Look At The Lives Of Jockeys

When he was 3 years old, Aaron Gryder’s parents took him to his first horse race. He was, he admits, hooked on the sport from the beginning. Now the lives of Gryder and others like him who risk life and limb — an average of two jockeys die each year on the North American tracks — are featured in the series Jockeys, airing Fridays beginning Feb. 6 on Animal Planet.

We got a chance to talk with Gryder about his work on the series, the rigors of racing, and the dream that came true for one small boy.

You left home at age 13 to begin your training — is that usual?

Aaron Gryder: It wasn’t usual. Most jockeys and trainers grew up in the business or around the business. [But] when I was 3 or 4 years old, I remember going to the racetrack and that’s when I said I wanted to be a jockey.

When you go out to Santa Anita, there’s a playground on the infield. It’s different than a lot of racetracks because it’s geared for families. It makes it easy for the mothers to go out there and have fun with their children while the fathers are excited about the races. I was in the infield playing on swings. But as soon as I heard the announcer I ran over to watch the races. … I was 6 and my brother 8 when we moved to Sacramento [where a] lot of our neighbors had horses. I loved looking at them but I was afraid to pet them unless someone was holding them. It was odd that I wanted something so bad that I was so afraid of.

How did you meet someone who would train you?

I was never around the track after we went up to Sacramento. In summers, my brother and I would fly down and visit my grandparents for a month in the summer. Through that month we’d go to the track maybe three or four times and that would be it. [But] one summer when I was 12, my grandparents — knowing how much I loved the horses — had a friend who had a couple retired or injured racehorses [and] they said they would take me out there to see the horses.

I was excited, even though I thought was just going out there to pet some horses. I had no idea who owned them or that there would be any opportunity for me. While I was out there, I met the gentleman who owns the farm. His name is Rudy Campas. He had raced for 26 years and had retired two years earlier. We got to talking, and I told him I would be a jockey one day. By the end of the hour we were there, he said, “If you want to learn to ride, come back next summer and I will teach you.” When I got back to Sacramento, that whole school year all I thought about was going back to Southern California and learning. It was going to become a reality.

So did you move in with your grandparents when you were 13?

No, that following summer, I moved to the farm. Now that I have children of my own, I realize how young I was. I was doing a man’s job. I was up every morning by 4 feeding the horses, watering them and doing whatever we had to do. … Before I really learned to ride, I started on the ground learning about the horses. The guy who taught me said, “There are a lot of riders who don’t know anything about the horses and don’t respect them because of that.” It was a great foundation for me. We would do things with the horses all day long as far as taking care of them and their upkeep. Then in the afternoon I would get on the horses and [Campas] would ride next to me and tell me things. I would work 8 to 10 hours a day but it never seemed like work. To me, it was never anything but enjoyable because it’s what I wanted.

The first time I ever sat on a horse by myself was [that summer]. It was in a big pen where the horse had room to run around. [Campas] had the horse on a long line and made it gallop in a circle. That was the first experience I had riding. I remember after 15 minutes, we stopped and he said to me, “You’re a natural.” I didn’t know what he meant because I didn’t know what I’d done right or wrong. The only thing that kept me on that horse was fear of falling. But from that day on I never had a fear of horses. I guess I started to understand them.

There was never a time in my life when I thought I’d be anything but a jockey. I look at so many people who are 20 or 30 years old who still do not have a lifetime passion and know what they want to do. I’ve been living that dream for 22 years now.

What makes for a successful jockey?

To begin with, it’s about respecting the animals and understanding that it’s not you who is great but the horses. I don’t care how good a jockey I am, I can’t make a slow horse fast. As soon as you start thinking it’s all about you, you have a rude awakening coming. And it [requires] a lot of dedication, hard work, being able to cross bridges [because] you get shut down a lot. It would be easy to turn away but just keep knocking at the door and being resilient. If you love something enough and are willing to do whatever it takes, you’ve got a much better shot to be successful than the guy who just walks in and thinks, “I’m going to be great.”

There’s also discipline with my weight. It isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle. I had to learn how to eat and it’s so important whether I am racing or not. If I let it get away from me, all of a sudden I’d be too big to be a rider. I’m 5’6″, which is taller than most jockeys. It’s not easy. … I lose about a thousand pounds a year. I lose three or four pounds every racing day. I run in a plastic suit up a mountain. I’m in a boxing gym. I do yoga, pilates. … There’s no option for me, if I want to do what I love. It’s just part of my routine — daily.

Is that what the series is following, the day-to-day training and home life?

They followed us on track and off track. A lot of times, it was off track. All of us work out differently and watch our weight differently and have different diets. They followed each rider’s daily routines … or to a coffee shop or the gym or a restaurant where we all got together just talking. The series shows that we are not just little people that wear bright silks and get on a horse for 10 minutes. It shows we are just like everybody else.

Are female jockeys a new thing? I don’t recall hearing much about them until recently.

It’s not that it’s new. The last 12-15 years, there have a few women that have been more successful than in the past. Julie Krone is the only female to be in the hall of fame. But she’s wasn’t a good female jockey, she was a good jockey in general. [But] it’s a tough business, a physical business. You need strength and to be mentally tough because of the competition and other riders who ride a little aggressively. So a lot of women don’t get the opportunities.

Chantel Sutherland [also featured on Jockeys] is a fantastic rider. The other day she beat me by a nose. I didn’t think, “Oh great, I got beat by a girl.” Walking away, I knew I got beat by a good rider. … With Chantel it’s about finesse, because not every horse wants to be aggressively ridden. I don’t know if it’s because she’s female or her mindset, but when I see horses running for Chantel, they look like they are enjoying being ridden.

How important it is for horse and rider to bond? Or are these thoroughbreds so well-trained that isn’t necessary?

Most of the riders that are on the show Jockeys are out every morning. We get on horses for clients. What we’re doing is working for free from 5:30 in the morning until 10. But it gives us an opportunity to get to know some of the horses that our clients have and help us understand them a bit more. And it gives me a chance to get on horses that will be running in the same race, so I get a feel for which ones are faster and I can tell my agent that’s the one I’d like to ride.

[But] about 40 percent of the horses I race I’ve never sat on before. From the time I get on their backs, I’ve got about 11 minutes before we start racing. So I rely on the trainer to tell me about the horse. … People think it’s always better when you know a horse [but] sometimes you ride a horse better the first time than you ever will again.

I think the best jockeys are the best passengers. The more I can stay out of the way of the horse and be one with him rather than trying to control him, I think I’m a better jockey. … I like to let the horse tell me what he wants.

Since you’ve been racing for a number of years, I thought I’d ask your opinion on the horses today. It seems there are a lot of deadly fractures and accidents. Is this true or is the public just more tuned into the accidents?

They are much more tuned into them. Obviously these are fragile animals and you have to be very careful with them. There are thousands of races run every day throughout the country. Unfortunately it’s happened with some major races. People don’t attend the races that often, but they watch the Preakness and Breeder’s Cup and Kentucky Derby on TV. It’s unfortunate through the last few years, with Barbaro in particular, people watched the struggle for his life after that and how well he was taken care of.

It’s sad when a horse or a rider gets injured anytime. If I felt that we were brutal or unfair to these animals, as much as I love then, I wouldn’t be riding because I have way too much respect for them.

What was your sweetest win?

It was a minor race in 1987 — a cheaper race as far as actual rewards. It was a maiden race. Maidens are horses that had never run before.

My father and I were extremely close. He had come down [to Southern California] to see me ride and was driving back to Sacramento to see my brother. He had just gotten over pneumonia and had been off work for a month and a half. The doctor had said he could start doing things, so he thought he would take a drive to see my brother. We were leaving at the same time and he’d said goodbye and pulled away, then stopped the car and backed up. And he got out of the car and said, “I love you, son. Go win a race for me tomorrow.” I didn’t know why he did that but I’m thankful. At that time he was healthy. I expected to see him back in two days. I went to bed that night. It was 9:30 and I remember the police were standing at my bedroom door. I thought it was a dream but they said, “Your father had an accident.” I guess the fluids in his lungs caused him to have a heart attack. He went off the side of a mountain. He was only 42 years old. I told my mom the next day, “I’ve gotta ride. … It’s the last thing dad asked me to do.” How fortunate I was that he backed up that day and said goodbye to me. I was 17 years old.

So I went out and rode. I ran five races but was able to win on a filly called Tom’s Sweetie. She came from last on a rainy muddy day. … I cried the last eighth mile thinking, “This is for you, Dad.” No other race will ever fill my heart and give me the satisfaction of that one.

Anything to add about the series?

Viewers will see how well these animals are taken care of, a different side of racing. They will see that it’s a hard life and a fun life. … They will understand we are just real people. We have feelings. We care. We have injuries. We hurt. We love. I think they will see things they aren’t exposed to with racing.

I also hope it draws in some young people out there. I had a dream at 3 or 4 and never sat on a horse until I was 13 years old. It shows you can have dreams, not just about racing, but about having a goal and direction and inspiration, whether it’s to do something in racing, or to be a fireman or architect.