The morning riders who make the afternoon horses
Exercise, as described by that consummate wordsmith, Noah Webster, is “an activity that requires physical or mental exertion, especially when performed to develop or maintain fitness.”
To that end, one could say exercise riders are a Thoroughbred’s personal trainer.
They spend considerable time with the horses, and are responsible for riding them during their exercise runs on the track, be they jogs, gallops, or breezes.
They work closely with each horse’s trainer to keep the steed at peak performance level and provide feedback regarding its condition. Exercise riders can be hired by a trainer, a stable, or work freelance.
Trainers also employ jockeys to work horses, but there are beneficial differences to using an exercise rider.
“Jockeys are lighter in weight than exercise riders and horses breeze a little bit faster with them on,” said former jockey Art Sherman, who trained two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome. “If I don’t want my horse to work too fast, I like exercise boys on them for slower works, because they are heavier (weighing as much as 30-to-40 pounds more than a jockey).
“If you want a faster work and put a jock on, that’s fine, but prepping for a race, I like to have the exercise boy on.”
Trainer Peter Eurton’s stepfather was trainer Steve Ippolito, for whom Eurton exercised horses before weight issues ended his career as a jockey, so he knows first-hand the value of an exercise rider.
“They are one of many people who are really important to your barn,” said Eurton, who runs one of the most diversified and successful operations in California. “They’re your last source of information. As far as working horses is concerned, you need a good work rider at your barn and fortunately we have one in Pepe (Jose Contreras).
“Jockeys are okay, but sometimes they can be a bit apprehensive giving you the news straight, especially if it’s not what you want to hear. In a sense, they have a vested interest, so you have to take what they say with a grain of salt, although for the most part, riders do a really good job.”
One such jockey is ‘The Man with the Midas Touch,’ Mike Smith, North America’s leading money earner through June of 2017 with more than $14 million, and that’s not counting the $6 million gleaned when he rode Arrogate to victory in the Dubai World Cup in March.
Smith’s horses have earned enough purse money this year to balance the budget of a Third World country.
The Hall of Fame member, still in peak form as he turns 52 on August 10, maintains that horses are creatures of habit and benefit from a solid foundation, the first level of which is laid by exercise riders.
“I use this analogy,” Smith said. “If you send your kids to a bad school, they’re not going to learn what’s right. You’ve got to send them to the best school possible, and it’s the same with horses and exercise riders.
“They’re teaching them everything they need to know for the afternoons. If they’re not receiving proper instructions in the mornings, they’re certainly not going to get it right in the afternoon.”