Dream Riding : The Jockeys and Stablehands of Tomorrow Saddle Up a Dream at Racing School in Castaic That Demands Hard Work and Long Hours
Out there beyond Magic Mountain, in a small, picturesque valley that’s just far enough away from Interstate 5 to muffle the buzz of traffic, seven teen-agers have risen before the sun, tucked in their blankets, washed their breakfast dishes and tidied their rooms. Class is about to begin.
Even more unusual than neat teen-agers is the curriculum they are studying. While their friends at public school are learning the three Rs, the seven teens are discovering the difference between a forelock and a fetlock, a dead heat and a dead weight. And while their friends are out playing at the mall, these kids are pitching hay, not making it.
They’re attending the Women’s Jockey Assn. Racing School at Paradise Ranch in Castaic. Despite the name, the school is for boys, too. Students take a nine-month course that could lead to a job at a race track or a horse farm. Some students hope to become trainers, some would like to become exercise riders, and a couple have magna cum long-shot dreams. They want to be jockeys.
Of the 100 or so graduates of the school since it was founded four years ago, only two have ridden professionally as jockeys: Dasha Marush and Carlos Aguilar. So it’s no wonder that most students, especially women, decide against being jockey majors.
“Breaking in as a jockey in Southern California, even for a boy, is really tough because the best jockeys in the world race here,” said Kristyn Goddard, founder of the school. And, as Goddard learned, women have it even tougher.
Goddard started the association to promote women in racing, taking up the cause like a galloping Gloria Steinem. She got the California Horse Racing Board to encourage the use of women at the tracks. And in one of her bigger coups, she persuaded Del Mar race track to hold a race exclusively for women jockeys, the Satin ‘n’ Silks Derby, which was run in 1980.
Goddard never expected to wind up as a dean of students and a house mother for a trailer full of teen-agers. But as an exercise rider at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, she found that she wasn’t learning the proper techniques because nobody wanted to teach her. It was after she suffered a broken leg during a morning workout that she decided to provide opportunities and instruction for youngsters of both sexes.
So she opened the school, which is one of only three of its kind in the country. After holding classes on weekends at equestrian centers for a year and a half, she began a six-day-a-week operation at Paradise Ranch in 1983.
If you’re a kid, how do you find a mentor at the track? Answer: You usually don’t. One of Goddard’s students is 16-year-old Trudi Helm. In racing lingo, she’s by Brian Helm out of Andrea Longden. Good blood lines. Trudi is the granddaughter of Johnny Longden, one of racing’s legendary jockeys and now a trainer at Santa Anita. But when she came around asking a lot of questions about racing, he made a deal with her.
“My grandfather told me he’d pay if I found a place to teach me because he didn’t have the time himself,” Trudi said.
Longden, 80, has visited the school and, he said, “Trudi seems to be learning a lot. They take a real interest in the kids.”
There have always been openings for entry-level jobs at the track. Not many people want to awake before dawn, muck out stalls and try to get along with unpredictable beasts--who often turn out to be the trainers, not the horses. But jobs such as assistant trainer and exercise rider are hard to find.
Goddard’s facility, accredited by the state Department of Education for post-secondary education, is the trade school of the horse business. Students, who have ranged in age from 14 to 54, come from as far away as Sweden. Ads are placed in the Daily Racing Form. “If you love horses,” one says, “why not consider a lifetime career as a jockey, trainer, exercise rider.” And, Goddard says, even before they graduate, most of her students have job offers, primarily from horse farms.
To learn how to ride professionally, students pay $2,400 for the nine months. Most of them live on campus in what are called bunk houses, which rent for $40 a week without food. Like many colleges, the school offers dropouts a refund of up to 90%, depending on the number of days attended.
Rules are as strict as those at a boarding school. In by 10 p.m. No messing around. Keep your room clean. But the students, Goddard said, generally behave, possibly because they’re so tired by the end of a long day. In her 2 1/2 years at Paradise Ranch, she has expelled only two students.
The curriculum is tougher than the rules. Classroom work includes written tests on physiology, racing terminology and preventive medicine. Report cards and evaluations are issued. Then there’s manual labor, like learning how to clean the 80 boxed stalls the right way (keep them free of cobwebs and bird droppings), and taking a horse’s temperature, which isn’t the highlight of the horse’s day.
Everybody, even those training to be a jockey, must work the stable area, which includes washing and grooming the 40 horses on the premises. Goddard calls it “starting at the bottom.” At the school, the only animal lower than a beginning student is the goat that helps to keep the grass trimmed.
“Some parents have sent their kids off to us thinking we’re going to baby-sit them,” said Goddard, a no-nonsense redhead. “This is not summer camp. We take it very seriously. Horse racing is a multimillion-dollar business and we want students who are responsible and dedicated.”
Which means that cutting class is out. “You can’t have your mommy write a note for you here if you don’t feel like going to school,” Goddard said. “Your horse still has to be walked and groomed and his stall still has to be cleaned out.”
For the students, the fun begins on the back of a horse. The first few lessons, however, take place on a bale of hay that doubles for Native Dancer. From there, beginning riders go to the one-acre outdoor arena and learn on horses that run as if they’re only days shy of Trigger’s fate. In the arena, the riders are scrutinized by Goddard and her fiance, executive director Bill Davis, a cowboy with 14 years of experience as a trainer.
On a balmy spring morning recently, school was in session. A couple of students were tending to horses in the stable area. A few dogs were lazing around, the goats were dining on chickweed, and the fly jar was adding to its grisly collection.
In the arena, three students were practicing their lead changes and stick switches. A chunky girl was leaning too far forward and Goddard yelled instructions. The girl repositioned herself correctly.
“When students come here they’re soft and most are a little overweight,” Goddard said. “But the weight just comes off naturally. It’s not any diet, just hard physical work.”
Once one beginner demonstrates an ability to handle a horse, she moves to the half-mile dirt track. But the chunky girl, Goddard said, still needed a few weeks of seasoning.
“She’s not secure out there,” Goddard said. “The other girls are in control and relaxed. She’s still a little afraid. We’ve got to work on a lot of psychological things as well as technical things before a student is ready for the track. Horses are different on a track than they are in the arena. They’re a lot tougher.”
Goddard got up from the bleacher seats and strolled about 100 yards to the tree-shrouded oval track where Davis was watching Mike Hayashi gallop a chestnut colt. Hayashi, 19, has dreamed of being a jockey since he was 15. Last year, while shopping at a department store, he struck up a conversation with a sales clerk who happened to be Steve Jacobs, a jockey sidelined from racing with a shoulder injury. Jacobs mentioned the school.
When Hayashi enrolled six months ago, he had never been on a horse. He remembers his first time. “It was kind of scary,” he said.
As Hayashi whipped around the track atop the chestnut colt, fun, not fear, was etched on his face. He has become the school’s star student. “Nice change!” Davis shouted at the blur dashing by him, then turned to Goddard and said, “He’s making him move out real nice.”
Students aren’t the only ones going to school at Paradise Ranch. Like most of the horses on the ranch, the colt arrived as an unbroken 2-year-old. Goddard boards race horses for $18 a day. Davis, with help from the students, trains them. Davis does the breaking, taking about a month to teach a wild horse to gallop with a 115-pound jockey on its withers. And forget about the Wild West version of the bucking bronco; Davis uses positive reinforcement instead.
Davis makes suggestions to owners but generally trains their horses according to their instructions. Kermit Hodge is the owner of Never at Sea, a 3-year-old that is being brought along slowly at the ranch.
“I like having my horse here,” Hodge said. “Bill has given me a lot of insight into my horse, and the students give it the right amount of care.”
Boarding thoroughbreds and teaching potential jockeys has turned out to be a good arrangement: Students get to work with young, talented horses, and the horses get worked on by students whose grades are dependent on their attention to detail. Horses learn faster than students, however, and usually graduate in about 120 days.
“We have to get the horses ready for the race track,” Goddard said, “and we want our students to be pros. We don’t allow a horse to come out of a stall with shavings or straw on its tail. If that happens, the student who was responsible doesn’t ride that day. So when horses leave here, they’re extremely fit, extremely poised and looking gorgeous.”
At the barn area, a horse was being walked in circles by Trudi Helm. Called away by Goddard, she gave the reins to Bobi Pfetzing, a deaf 21-year-old who has an uncanny rapport with horses. Pfetzing is studying to be an exercise rider, probably at a horse farm.
Helm has more ambitious plans. She wants to follow in the hoof steps of her famous grandfather, not merely as a jockey but, she said, as “the first woman to win the Triple Crown.”
Goddard smiled. “Trudi will have opportunities other students won’t,” she said, “but that could work for her or against her. Being Johnny Longden’s granddaughter, she’s expected to be good, but there will be people out there just waiting to pick her apart.”
It’s nice to dream, though.
“She rides like her grandfather, same kind of style,” Goddard said.
But the Triple Crown? “Ya know,” Goddard added, green eyes twinkling at what the publicity would do for the old alma mater, “I think horse racing is the only sport where women can compete equally with men.”