Guest Column: Life-changing experience

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“Keep your knees together when you gallop,” D. Wayne Lukas told me, “actually, that’s a good thing for a young lady to do anyway.”

I knew we were going to get along well after that.

When you’re raised on the racetrack you hear the name D. Wayne Lukas on the regular, but since I have spent most of my racetrack years in Oklahoma and not many Hall of Fame trainers spend their time in the Midwest anymore.

Their names become like those of celebrities, people you admire, maybe meet once or say good morning to on the racetrack if you ship in for a race, but never in a million years did I imagine I would be sitting in his office drinking coffee with him every morning after galloping horses.

I’ve been on the track since I was 11. I helped with my mom’s horses, walked hots for multiple trainers and worked as a vet assistant before falling into galloping for Danny Pish. When I say I “fell” into the position that’s exactly what happened I walked into the barn one day and my stepdad asked me if I wanted to backtrack one of my mom’s racehorses.

The only other time I had been on the back of a racehorse was when I was 12. I took my now pony, on the track in Lincoln, Nebraska, after training hours and jogged him. After my stepdad legged me up that morning, Pish’s assistant, Jasmine Daniels, told me I could start backtracking their horses as well.

I don’t suggest learning to gallop on a racetrack in the midst of a meeting versus a farm, as there were a lot of unintentional dismounts that could have been avoided if I were a little more knowledgeable, including a horse that took off full speed and ran me into the outside rail at Louisiana Downs. I worked for Pish for seven years while earning my bachelor’s degree from University of Oklahoma.

Pish was very understanding of me taking the spring off for school and always welcomed me back during the fall meet at Remington Park. During the summer I’d work as his assistant at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas. Upon graduating from OU I assumed I would accept the full-time position as Pish’s assistant but due to a really difficult time in my life I moved back to Nashville to be close to family. I had actually sworn off the racetrack, but I couldn’t swear off the horses. No matter how hard I tried to find a different passion I couldn’t forget about my horses.

I was working in Nashville at a local coffee shop when my apartment lease ended in September. I had no clue what my next move would be, but I felt I wasn’t any closer to making a life for myself or getting over my love for the track than I had been a year before when I signed that lease.

I sent a text to my friend Samantha Perry asking her to keep an eye out for any gallop or assistant jobs that might become available at Churchill Downs. I didn’t expect to make any moves until after the new year. She told me the trainer she was galloping for, Brendan Walsh, was in need of a rider. Within a week I had packed my bags, and my two dogs, and moved to Kentucky. After being in Pish’s barn for seven years, being in a different barn was uncomfortable. After working for Walsh for only three weeks we lost horses and Mr. Brendan let me go. Walsh was very kind and allowed me to finish out the work week. I spent the next few days wondering if I should go back to Texas and work for Danny or if I should go back home to Nashville. I thought maybe God had allowed me to come back to the track just to show me it definitely wasn’t the place I was supposed to be.

As the days counted down to the end of the work week, I became scared and angry. My last day at work for Walsh was the Sunday after the Breeders’ Cup. I drove over to Lexington for Breeders’ Cup; it was a nice distraction given that I would be jobless the next morning.

After watching Authentic win the Breeders’ Cup Classic I started walking back toward the barn area. I was discouraged and everyone else seemed to be leaving to celebrate or take care of their horses. Everyone else’s life was continuing on, everyone’s but mine. I had no clue where I was going to go or if I would continue to pursue my passion of becoming a trainer. I had reached out to all the trainers I knew in Kentucky who might need help, but no one did. Kentucky was new territory for me. In Oklahoma or Texas I was known, but in Kentucky no one knew me or my ability.

When I reached the barn area it was dark, the excitement had died down, all the lights were off in the barns and only a few cars were left in the barn area. It’s funny sometimes when the big races end, things can feel insignificant. Like an entire chapter of your life just ended. Which we know isn’t true as the horses still need to be taken care of the following morning, but this year was different because I was convinced it was the end of that chapter of my life, the end of the horses, the end of having a racetrack family and the end of pursuing a training career.

Something told me to walk through the barn I had helped walked hots in that day. I walked through the center aisle and I noticed Bret Calhoun’s crew was still there. I looked down the shedrow and saw a familiar face I hadn’t seen in years, Jade Lowder, Calhoun’s assistant. I asked if he knew of anyone looking for an exercise rider. He said they were full, but I guess he could see the defeat in my eyes.

“I just saw someone with the same lost look on their face that I had when I first got to Kentucky and someone that had everything they needed except a helping hand,” Lowder told me later.

Fortunately, he didn’t let me just walk out of the barn because I believe I would have loaded up my dogs the next day and went back to Tennessee, never to return to the track. Lowder asked about my goals and I told him I wanted to work under someone who would truly teach me because I want to be a trainer in the future. He told me he had been the assistant for Lukas the previous year and knew Danielle Rosier, Lukas’s main gallop hand in Kentucky. He texted her while I was standing there and she told him to have me come by the barn.

The next morning I showed up at the Lukas barn to introduce myself. I spent about 15 minutes in Lukas’ office and he hired me on the spot. He is that kind of person, seeing potential in people. From that day forward he has made me feel like part of the team and a family.

When we moved to Oaklawn Park I found out my grandma was in ICU, my mind was in the gutter and it was affecting my galloping. I was runoff with two days in a row. I was sure he would fire me when I pulled up on the second runoff. I walked that horse a sixteenth of a mile down the track because I couldn’t stand to see the disappointment on Wayne’s face. I finally ran out of racetrack and had to jog my horse home. After some constructive criticism from Wayne he looked at me and said, “I’m not going to give up on you.”

Lowder told me Wayne would change my life and he hasn’t disappointed. He pushes me in more areas than just being a better hand on and around the horses. He wants to push to improve me in every area of my life. One morning he rode up on his pony and said, “you need to compliment three people today.”

Wayne inspects my boots every morning to see if they’ve been polished. He wants you to reach your full potential, a lot of people just use you and get you to the “good enough” point. Wayne wants you to go above and beyond. I plan to stay in his barn as long as possible and soak up any and all the knowledge he is willing to share. My mom always says, “he’s forgotten more than most trainers know.” My dream has always been to train, I have a horrible habit of thinking everything is a rush in life because my life has been so unpredictable, but Wayne says the only time you rush with horses is from the quarter pole to the wire.

When I look back at my life, a girl from Tennessee, who was an assistant trainer at age 19, who was sent to gallop at the Breeders’ Cup twice, who tried to give up the track but is now working under D. Wayne Lukas, I realize God’s timing will always be better than my own. I’m working under the most well-respected trainer of all time and I am beyond blessed to be here, I will stay in his barn as long as he will have me.