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The morning riders who make the afternoon horses

Training (NAT)Web Master
By ED GOLDEN 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.” Bob Baffert, trainer of $17 million earner Arrogate and a barnful of other blueblooded stakes winners, recognizes full well the contribution of exercise riders. “They communicate with the horse, understand how it feels, and report that information to the trainer,” Baffert said. “The exercise rider is accustomed to getting on the same horse every day, so he’ll readily recognize changes in their gate and demeanor. “It’s very important they get along with the horse. We don’t want them to be tough on a horse, but at the same time, we don’t want them to spoil it. “We try to pick the right rider for the horse. Every rider has different strengths, so if necessary, I’ll make a change. “The best I’ve ever had is Dana Barnes (wife of Baffert assistant Jim Barnes), who galloped and breezed our horses for years, and although we don’t let her work too many now, at one time, she was the best.” Two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill employs as many as five exercise riders at his mega barn of about 100 runners, including some promising babies. “We strive to have continuity between the man or woman on the horse on a daily basis,” O’Neill said. “I’ve seen some magical things happen when horses are handled the right way, and that can be priceless. “Each exercise rider is special in his or her own way, particularly on a skittish or high-strung horse. The bottom line is you need someone who will go with the horse and not fight it when need be and reserve it when the occasion calls for it. There’s a happy middle ground.” Added long-time O’Neill assistant Leandro Mora: “Jonny Garcia is our main guy but we also have a few freelancing at $15 a head. Ten rides a morning for each rider is about the right number, I’d say. More than 10, they’re pushing it.” Being an exercise rider is not without its inherent dangers. Just ask Diego Sotelo, who started riding at age seven in his native Mexico, “to go hunting with my dad,” but retired as an exercise rider three years ago after an accident that still mystifies him. Now 52, Sotelo was barely out of diapers when he first rode donkeys and later horses owned by folks who used them to deliver milk. “I was punished for that, and then I began to ride in match races with no saddle, no protection, and nobody around to help if you got in trouble,” he remembered. “They were the good old days: no fear, no worries, no problems, just fun. “I was riding Quarter Horses when I was eight years old but stopped at 13 and dedicated myself to attending school until I no longer had interest in my studies. I came to the U.S. in 1986 intending to stay only one year. “But a friend invited me to the races at Hollywood Park. I liked what I saw and I told him, ‘I can do that.’” And so he did, until fate intervened. Nearly three decades and 32 broken bones later, Sotelo called it a career as an exercise rider on September 25, 2014, following a spill that remains clouded in his memory. “I tore my shoulders, my neck, my back, and to this day I don’t know how it happened,” Sotelo says of the mishap. “I was jogging a horse at Santa Anita, stopped in mid-stretch to let him look at something, and next thing I knew I was in the hospital. I remember nothing else about it. “People told me an ambulance picked me up by the finish line, and I woke up in the hospital eight hours later. I lost my memory completely for a while after it happened, and that’s when I decided to retire. “I was having episodes with dizziness, my balance wasn’t very good, I was walking like a drunk, so I decided it was enough. You have to be responsible not only to yourself, but your fellow riders. When you’re out on the track and an incident occurs, two extremes are possible: you can help somebody or you can get yourself killed. “I didn’t want to take that chance anymore, so I made the decision I was not going to put anyone’s life in jeopardy.” But all tales of the turf are not so maudlin, although riding a horse is never without risk. It takes confidence and valor. As World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker once said, “courage is doing what you’re afraid to do.” Dihigi Gladney is the Ernie Banks of exercise riders. His love of the game is only exceeded by his joie de vivre. How a black kid from Watts, California, becomes the exercise rider for California Chrome is right out of Aesop’s Fables, but Gladney, 41, dismisses it as pure luck. “When you become a part of that chain, it’s a different feeling altogether,” Gladney said of his California Chrome experience, during which an open line of communications was crucial to success. “If you work together, good things will come,” he said. “The Chrome team never had a bad day where we didn’t communicate with one another. There were times we might not have totally agreed on something, but at the end of the day, we did what was best for our horse.” Gladney has enjoyed a prosperous and pleasurable tour with Team Sherman, not always the case with exercise riders in other barns. “Normally, a trainer might promise an exercise rider so many mounts a day,” he said. “A lot of barns put an exercise rider on salary, in addition to a good stake (bonus money) if they win a big race. A job with a good salary is awesome to an exercise rider. We’re all looking for that. “Freelance riders get about $15 a mount, but there are a lot of bad (read: dangerous) horses out there. A trainer is willing to pay more to have someone get on that kind of animal, and that’s just for the exercise rider. If that horse needs to be accompanied by a pony, which takes an additional rider, then you could be looking at $20 to $55 a day.” So how many horses can a rider get on in three workout sessions that span five hours, starting before sunup and running until 10 a.m., when the main track surface is renovated and prepared for afternoon racing? “Ten is a good number,” Gladney said. “It could be more if someone is trying to break a record, but I’m not trying to break any records. Since I’ve gotten older, I’ve slowed down. It’s not about records to me; it’s about what I can teach the horse.” Gladney, who weighs “136 pounds now without a diet,” works exclusively at Los Alamitos in Cypress, California, where Sherman is headquartered. “The only time I come to Santa Anita,” he said, “is on Saturdays and Sundays for my pony ride business.” With apologies to the milk industry, Gladney calls his avocation “Got Ponies?” which he owns and has available on Family Fun Days at the Arcadia, California, track and for community events and birthday parties. He says his migration from a ghetto to the Sport of Kings was “pure luck,” but it was more than that. When he was a kid, Gladney rode horses in Gardena as a trail guide for his grandfather, John Davis, who had a pony ride business “that kept me out of trouble. “I never thought I would come from Watts to the racetrack. That never entered my mind, let alone becoming an exercise rider and then a jockey who would win nearly 300 races and have a good career. My idol growing up was Charlie Sampson, not only because he was an African-American from the Los Angeles area, but because he was the first African-American world champion bull rider. They called him ‘Pee Wee.’” Gladney followed in Pee Wee’s footsteps, riding bulls as a student at Centennial High School in Compton. He escaped relatively unscathed on the back of El Toro, but fractures later came with the territory. The worst was a broken back on January 5, 2003, that put Gladney out of action for five years, but his positive attitude never waned. “It broke my back,” he told the Fresno Bee in 2007, “but not my heart. As bad as it was, it could have been worse. I would have dreams that I was paralyzed, I could see myself in a wheelchair.” The moniker of “Pee Wee” is like Smith or Jones among popular nicknames, but a first name of Dihigi? Even Gladney isn’t sure of its origin. “Ain’t nobody ever heard of that name,” he said, emphasizing that it’s pronounced DA-ha-jee. “Many people have heard my name, and they’ve told me it sounds like another nationality. ‘What was your mom thinking?’ I said she was in hard labor with me and it was the morphine. “Really, I don’t have the slightest idea.” Here’s one: there is a city in Bangladesh called Dhormo Sagor Dihigi. Huey Barnes exercised horses for greats such as Charlie Whittingham and Buster Millerick back in the day. Now, at 83, he’s an assistant starter at southern California tracks. “An exercise rider is important,” Barnes said. “He plays a big part for the man training horses. He’s got to care about a horse, take his time with the horse, and want it to do good, and if something’s wrong, he can tell the trainer either way. “If he works a horse and the trainer says he wants to go in such and such a time, the rider shouldn’t be more than a tick off what the trainer said. It’s the clock in the boy’s head that makes him good at what he does. “If he ain’t got a clock in his head, he’s just another exercise boy on a horse.”
They’re your last source of information. As far as working horses is concerned, you need a good work rider at your barn

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.”