Learning The Sport of Kings : Horse racing: About 50 miles north of Los Angeles, Paradise Ranch boasts that it is the only school in the nation to train men and women.
Three dogs and a goat trot out to greet newcomers while aspiring jockeys get advice like: “Push those heels down and stick that rear end out a little further.”
Welcome to Paradise.
Paradise Ranch Racing School, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles--and a freeway ride away from Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Los Alamitos--boasts that it is the only school in the nation to train men and women in the sport of kings.
For $1,200 a month, a full-time student can learn how to become a jockey or exercise rider. There are also courses for racing stable management, how to be a groom or trainer, or how to prepare horses for sale. For another $275 per month, a serious student can live in the bunkhouse.
“You gotta eat, sleep, drink, think, breathe racing and let your whip become your best friend,” said apprentice John Atherton, an honors graduate from Paradise Ranch.
Since Atherton graduated from Paradise in 1991, the 22-year-old has ridden winners at Del Mar, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.
Another graduate--Corey Nakatani, class of 1987--is one of the top riders in the nation. He is sixth nationally this year in the standings, with $1.4 million in earnings.
Atherton was working the candy counter at Sears in Ventura when thoroughbred owner Red Tucker spotted him and said: “I know a better job for you. You should be a jockey.”
Tucker tucked a Paradise Ranch card in Atherton’s hand. The next time they met, Atherton was busy at his studies in Paradise.
“When I was here for eight months in ’90 there were only a couple of students and a lot of horses. I got a lot more hands-on learning than book learning,” Atherton said.
Atherton, who had never ridden a horse, was a quick study, said Paradise executive director Kristyn Goddard.
“He was like a sponge,” she said, “an excellent student.”
Atherton said he had to work hard to get good at everything, but that one thing did come naturally for him--breaking from the gate.
Instructing at the practice gate, Atherton told boarder Mary Hausch, “The first thing you gotta do is grab . . . a mound of his hair.”
Hausch, 19, of Keokuk, Iowa, was aboard Big Red at an old gate mounted on flattened tires.
Atherton said if Hausch grabs onto Red’s mane, she won’t topple over backward.
“At the gate, don’t push or nothing,” said Atherton, guest instructor for the day. “Go natural. Make sure his head is up and straight, his body’s straight, then start listening for the call. You’ll hear, ‘Two out. One way back.’ When you hear, ‘One out,’ you know the last horse is about ready and you only have seconds to go.”
Hausch’s first start was less than polished, as Big Red scooted sideways and she almost took a tumble. Hausch said she was thinking too much about getting her reins right.
Her second break went beautifully.
“When can you let go?” asked Chris Roberts, 20, of Palmdale, Calif.
“When you’ve got no more sensation of falling on your butt,” Atherton said. “Let him break good and then put him back. Let him break freely, maybe two or three strides, maybe a 16th of a mile. Some things you just have to find out for yourself.”
Before the students heard what it’s really like on the track, instructor Richard Budge took them through their turns and exercises: bunny hops, pullups, pushups, chinups, legups, knots, elevating, bellyups, girths.
Some of the practice was done on a retired racer called Smokey and a couple of “babies” that the students broke themselves.
Students must muck stables, hot walk, learn about medications and memorize every muscle and bone in the horse’s body.
“I know not only how to gallop a horse,” Atherton said, “I know where a horse is sore. I can point out things to trainers. You get to know a lot about horse muscles, their bones, how to tack a horse. You can do everything.”
Atherton drew groans from the students when he said he had no problem with weight, that he could eat anything and still stay about 106 or 107 pounds. He described the weigh-ins in detail and what equipment counts and what doesn’t. He suggested students eat oranges for energy, and pasta without buttery sauces.
He also said Laffit Pincay, one of the all-time top riders, had been eating rice cakes lately because he was having a problem with his weight.
Atherton also told students about what it’s like to compete and what to expect from older jockeys. Novices can expect to be crowded to the rail and have their whips knocked out of their hands. They’ll be yelled at, just to see how much they’ll take.
There is a half-mile training track at Paradise, along with a three-stall starting gate, paddocks, “The Bullpen” training ring, and an arena marked with neon orange road cones. There are enough stalls for 80 horses.
Budge said that when he taught at jockey schools in France, Brazil and Britain, there could be anywhere from 20 to 100 students, while at Paradise there are seven. But the school puts out a good crop.
Recently, the leading apprentice at Portland (Ore.) Meadows was Mike Ardis, a 1989 Paradise grad. Another 1989 graduate is Iggy Puglisi, a leading jockey in Canada.
The great Johnny Longden sent his granddaughter, Trudi Helm, to Paradise, which has an advisory committee that includes Hall of Fame trainer Jack Vanberg and jockey agent Warren Eves.
“I’m very impressed with it,” said Atherton, who now lives in Arcadia, near Santa Anita. “I came here thinking, I’ll try it. I’ll try it for my parents and grandparents. Thank God they did send me.”