The Outside Rail

Thirty feet in the air on a lift fixing a gutter on the barn, Jack Fisher heard Connor Hankin call out, "Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?"

The trainer looked down and said, "Why, what's going on?" It could have been anything, really. A loose shoe on a horse, some broken tack, a stuck tractor, Roscoe the donkey was lost, maybe Hankin had an exam to study for and would have to miss the next week's jump races. But Fisher had a gutter to fix.

"You might want to come down from the lift for this," Hankin said.

Fisher lowered to the ground, and Hankin - a University of Virginia senior with a double major in history and economics and part-time steeplechase jockey - delivered the news. He had enrolled in the United States Marine Corps' officer candidate school and would soon give up riding races in favor of serving his country.

Fisher the horse trainer was flabbergasted. Fisher the person, not so much.

"My first reaction was, 'Are you kidding me?' " he said. "My second reaction was that's going to make him a better person and he's a pretty good person already. For the rest of us, thank God we have people like Connor Hankin in the military."

Hankin, 22, rides what could be the final jump races of his life this week at Saratoga. He finished second aboard All For Us Wednesday and rides Scorpiancer in the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup today. He's won nine races this year, two behind Jack Doyle in the National Steeplechase Association standings and is the rare American-born steeplechase jockey in an increasingly Irish/English colony. 

And the racing-crazy Marylander will give it up to be a Marine. He starts the 10-week Officer Candidate School program Sept. 10 in Quantico, Va. and he'll be commissioned as a second lieutenant. Then it's basic training, more preparation and an assignment with a platoon for two years where he will be in charge of between 12 and 80 Marines almost anywhere in the world.

Hankin's firm handshake, fitness and look-you-in-the-eye conversation skills have been there for years, but the idea of joining the military took root last summer. He interned with a private-equity firm in Washington, D.C., saw himself in the corporate world after graduation and blinked. That's the professional world of Hankin's father Michael, the CEO of the Baltimore-based Brown Advisory and not necessarily Connor.

"Not that I didn't enjoy that, but it really made me realize I wanted to do something else," he said. "And that something else was some form of military service. It was a way to serve my country, make a difference and do something meaningful."

Hankin's grandfather was in the Navy briefly, and a close family friend was a colonel in the Army, but otherwise there's no strong military connection other than admiration.

"I've idolized military members for a long time and I thought about a service academy, more to myself, coming out of high school," Hankin said. "I would talk a lot with my dad and he said it was one thing he regretted not doing. It would be one thing I would regret not doing if I decided not to do it."

So he's doing it. Like Fisher, most people were floored by the news. Then they were proud.

"Everyone is very excited but very nervous too and continue to be," Hankin said. "My parents were extremely, extremely proud. Everyone's been really supportive, my entire extended family is very excited. It's been a completely positive reaction that I've gotten, which has helped."

Fisher loses a jockey and Hankin loses a promising career, but being a jump jockey in the United States is not the full-time, potentially lucrative job it is in England or Ireland, nor is it comparable to the life of an American flat jockey. Jump jockeys hold down other jobs - exercising horses, training on the side, whatever - and careers rarely last longer than 10 years. With his college degree and background, Hankin was always going to do something else. 

"We've had conversations in the past where I said that you don't want to do this for your livelihood," Fisher said. "But my plan was he was going to go into the financial world and make a lot of money and then support me with some horses to train."

Not that Hankin considered riding races a hobby. He was 11 when his family's Bug River won the Maryland Hunt Cup and helped ignite the idea. Then came a pony named Scooby Do, pony races, point-to-points, galloping racehorses, riding in the Hunt Cup, getting on horses for Fisher and a spot in the top five. He's won 19 NSA races in his life, 15 in the last two years without riding full-time until this year.

Racing became his "fifth class" at school and, in part because of the looming career choice, he dove in further this spring. He kept an Equiciser and a horse at school, came home every weekend to get on horses, rode races and was as busy as any jockey on the circuit from March through May. 

"We set out to have a great spring and do it the way we've done it," Hankin said, "but nothing about the way the spring went was going to change my decision. If anything, being successful has made it more difficult. It makes leaving it behind a little bit harder."

He says he's only had one "oh crap" moment, in early May after a busy weekend of riding races on back-to-back days, but then he moved on. 

After today, he moves on again and - as even Fisher will admit - we're all better for it.