As horses ship in for the Arkansas Derby and other horses ship out for the year, I find myself reminiscing on the 2021 meet at Oaklawn Park.
As I walk down D. Wayne Lukas’ half-empty shedrow I always look up at the office. Wayne sits in his black roller chair with his piano desk lamp lit. He has the condition book laid out in front of him. I stand in the shedrow for just a second, in awe of the man I am working for and the opportunities I have been given.
“Morning, Boss,” I holler as I slip into the tack room to look at the set list.
I could write a list as long as the New Testament over the opportunities I have been given, and while I believe experiences are priceless, I am just as grateful for how these opportunities have changed me on the inside, if not more grateful. When I started working for Lukas my confidence was solely based on how training had gone that morning. If my horses had galloped well I would think I was the world’s greatest gallop hand. But if the morning had hiccups I would consider quitting the game all together and think I wasn’t good enough to gallop a $5,000 claimer, so what was the point in continuing?
Over the past few months working for Lukas I have really dug deep into the life lessons I need to learn to have the grit it takes to be successful in this game. I expected to be turned into a takes-no-crap type of person who meanmugs anyone who gets in their way. But I have learned just the opposite. When we shipped into Oaklawn Wayne started telling me I needed to say hello to at least three people on the horse path.
“You have to sell yourself,” he said.
I used to think no one would want to speak to me, what did I have to offer? However, as I have begun to let my personality come out I have learned that often people just need someone to be nice to them, so in return they can allow their true personality to come out and that’s what the real reward is, seeing other people have the opportunity to be their true self around you.
I’ve also learned that we are not in competition with everyone we meet. When you’re raised in an industry that is pure competition you begin to think the way you walk, talk and ride has to be better than the way the person next to you. The truth is, everyone has strengths and weaknesses. The key is to be proud of your strengths and work on your weaknesses.
We don’t want bad things for others, we want them to be successful as well. We just want good things for ourselves, but those ideas are separate.
One of the greatest things I have learned this meet is to be calm in adversity. The Lukas barn started this meet off with four wins and a steady amount of horses who were hitting the board, but the past month has been tough. Wayne knows that the attitude in the barn has a major factor on how things will go that morning and into evening racing. Every morning I come in he has a smile on his face.
If I wouldn’t have learned all of this I wouldn’t be half the person I am or half the gallop hand.
This week I had a moment where it all came together and if I wouldn’t have known to be friendly, know my strengths and have a good attitude it would have been a disastrous situation.
As Concert Tour shipped in for the Arkansas Derby I had a chance to gallop him one more time.
My excitement was unmeasurable. As Jimmy Barnes, Bob Baffert’s assistant, legged me up on the tall handsome bay my heart was racing. Cameras waited for us as we walked out of the barn.
“Five to the half,” Jimmy instructed me.
Concert Tour and I walked on the racetrack, I took one last deep breath before starting our gallop. The big bay started off stronger than he had the time I had galloped him before the Rebel. I slipped the reins through my hands to have a tighter grip.
We passed by the three-eighths pole and he jumped up in the air. I looked down to check that my polos were in place. All looked well. As we turned down the homestretch Concert Tour began to get tougher. I pushed my feet forward to hold him but I wasn’t moving backward on his back. I realized my saddle slid about five inches toward his neck and I had no leverage. Concert Tour continued to increase in speed as well as strength.
There were no outriders around, I felt like I was reliving the two runoff incidents I had at the beginning of the meet. Each of them took off at the wire and ran full speed around to the half-mile pole.
I knew I couldn’t let the Derby contender run off two days before his big race, but I wasn't sure I was going to have another choice. I knew I would have to play my strengths, which is usually my legs but my legs pushing against what felt like air instead of the metal of the stirrups. I had to think of a new strength, staying calm.
Through prayer and the knowledge I had learned from my past mistakes on Lukas horses, Concert Tour and I were able to make it around the racetrack safe and sound.
As the meet here at Oaklawn comes to an end I’m leaving behind some amazing friends, but I know I can take the life lessons and experiences with me. I cannot wait to see what I learn at Churchill Downs in 2021.