A Jump Jockey: The Final Ride

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Here’s the third and final chapter of my final days as a jockey. Written in 2000 and somehow discovered again in 2014. Enjoy the ride. 

It was the coldest, wettest, most miserable (weather-wise) day of racing in my 13-year career. No one who didn’t have to be there was there. Every person at the races had a job at the races. There weren’t any spectators. Camden usually offers mild, warm weather. On this day, it was brutal. It rained for two days straight and got colder by the hour. What a fitting way to end it. A book should always end with a lightning strike rather than a sunset.

Three rides and that was it.

Atomistic started the day for me. I had ridden him in his first start years earlier, when he locked on the bit and ran into the corner at Morven Park, just his good sense and a three-rail post and rail fence separating us from grass and gravel. Over the years, he mellowed, learned and became a trusted soul.

Atomistic rounded the last turn with Young Dubliner, a horse I rode two years earlier, on my outside. I knew one panel of the last timber fence had been flattened (not by me) on the previous circuit. Like flattened to the ground, it had been leveled, a curb. In tiring ground, after 3 miles, I knew I wanted that panel, it was the difference in rising four feet and one foot. I knew those three feet would be the difference in winning and losing. I rode Atomistic at the last fence like it wasn’t there, which it basically wasn’t. It was part desperation, knowing this might be the last chance to ever win a race. Atomistic responded, like he knew the play ahead of time and got there first, skipping over a pile of sticks. Up the hill, he was getting tired but he was hanging tough – no horse could hang tough like Atomistic. I tried to keep my rhythm and his fortitude. He won by a half-length.

He galloped out, tired. I was exhausted. This was the first physical exertion I had done in three weeks, since rolling on the ground after Indispensable at Far Hills. Not by choice. I tried to run during my break but the headaches stopped me. I wanted to get my wind back, just get my heart pounding but it wasn’t an option. I rode out, just a few times, my balance wasn’t great. I knew I was barely fit enough to ride three races and took a deep breath when I saw that the three races were back-to-back-to-back. One down and I was tired. But, at least, I was warm for the first time all day.

I gave Atomistic a great big slap on his wet, warm neck. He shook his head, knowing what he had done. If there was ever a horse I could relate to it was Atomistic. He had to work for everything he got; not a great jumper, not a great mover, not a star. Just a worker. I taught him that sometimes you have to win ugly. He won an ugly New Jersey Hunt Cup in bottomless ground a year earlier and he won ugly again at Camden.

Years later, he broke his leg when falling at Middleburg. I had long since retired, I wished he had the same chance.

After we pulled up, I looked at the sky and thanked them for the gift. For the deal. I knew I had made the right decision to come back and ride at Camden, my gut was right, it was now worth it. If I could just catch my breath…

Atomistic jogged back to Jack Fisher and Joe and I slapped both of them with two high fives. I looked at Joe and said, “You know what that was? Five.”

Jack thought, five…and counting. Joe knew. Five wins would be the most I would ever rode on one horse. Pathetic to most, appropriate for me. To put it into perspective, Blythe Miller won 18 or something on Lonesome Glory.

I walked back to the jocks’ room and tried to brush the pounds of wet South Carolina sand and mud off my face, my saddle, my mud pants which were caked with 3 miles of timber racing. I prided myself on being fitter than anyone else, this day, I was not fitter than anyone else. My breathing was still heavy. I tried to slow it down as I prepared my tack for the Colonial Cup. Big saddle, lead pad (a rarity), two long girths for the deep barrel of Campanile.

It was time for the Colonial Cup, my last chance to win the one race above all others. I had been second in it once, three years earlier, on Rowdy Irishman. That was the closest I had ever come. Beyond that, I hadn’t jumped the last fence with a sniff of a chance in probably 10 other tries. Pinkie Swear never traveled, Master McGrath hung like a gate, Quadrigeminal was outclassed, hell, I ended the season in an ambulance a few times and missed decent chances.

Chip said to me earlier in the week, “I want one thing, to gallop down to the start together for the Colonial Cup.”

I knew I couldn’t hold Campanile galloping to the start, far off in the distance at Springdale, it was a long, arduous venture, especially the way I was feeling. I felt so weak, hoping adrenaline would take over one more time as it had so many times before. I had to go alone. Chip shook his head at me when he met me at the start.

“Sorry, man. He’s too damn strong.”

“That’s OK. Safe trip, buddy.”

“Yeah, safe trip.”

And that was it.

We set off for the two and three-quarter miles of the Colonial Cup. Down the backside, we bounded along like it was a sprint. Horses spread out all over the long straightaway. I tucked Campanile behind Arch Kingsley on Romantic and Chip on Iron County Xmas. Campanile felt great underneath me, such a professional compared to the novice I had ridden two seasons earlier. He was still strong, just pulling a touch more than I wanted, but I knew how hard he could pull, so was content. He dared me to pick up the reins and start a fight. After 13 years, I knew better, ‘Just wait it out, just wait it out, just wait it out.’ That’s what I was thinking, but only in my sub conscious. Strange game, you’re thinking but instinctively. Later, you can understand the thought process. At the moment, it’s not a process. Just computation.

Campanile met the first on a perfect stride, effortlessly rising, arcing and landing. Butter. I opened up my hands as he stretched to land, just to give him the faith that I wouldn’t interfere. He loved that. I learned it after I lost the ride to Blythe Miller, she never picked up the reins, he relished the confidence, became a multiple stakes winner.

My only goal at this stage was to get him to switch off, accepting, comfortable, conserving for the destination. He liked the way I was riding him. That felt good.

As we turned left-handed going past the stands, the thought that this was my last Colonial Cup crept into my head. Not for long, but it was there, I tried to sweep it aside. We galloped under the wire and started the one, big loop. Out into the country, away from the crowd (not that there was a crowd on this day) and into silence. It’s the separation, the separation from the crowd and the race. The separation of what you do and what others watch. Some feeling.

The race slowed down, even though the horses picked up the tempo. It’s always like this. Campanile galloped along, content, clocking miles, his antics of pulling and lugging long gone. He was polished. A pro.

As we turned down the backside, I tried to measure how everybody else was going. This was what I always did when I was riding well and when I was going well. Just take a look around, without moving your head, you see everything, before the running starts, just take inventory. Richard Boucher had Assurance jumping well, actually, going within himself for him, ‘he can’t possibly get the trip, ride like he’s not in the race.’ Gregg Ryan had Master McGrath in a decent spot, where he likes to be, ‘doing too much.’ Gus Brown has Allgrit close, ‘he’s outclassed in here. If he beats you, everybody beats you.’ Arch has Romantic in a great spot, ‘I wish I had his spot.’ Chip’s there, not bad, ‘working to stay there.’ Rowdy Irishman, my old friend, is behind me, ‘perfect, he can’t make up that much ground.’ Blythe dropped All Gong in the back, ‘Cool, we’re not going that fast, ground will be hard to make up. I got her.’

As we turned away from the backside with three fences still to jump, I knew it was a two-horse race. Assurance was still well in front but I knew we’d catch him. Romantic was the one. He was directly in front of me, handling the ground, proven horse with plenty of stamina and class. He was traveling, always going a shade better than I was, I could sense it, see it, feel it. Not miles better, but better.

Turning into the stretch, it was time to go, time to start picking it up, I switched holds, dropping my knot underneath my left hand, tightening the reins, asking for acceleration, although knowing there would be little acceleration in this ground. Campanile responded, well, he responded with his guts but not his legs. He made up nothing. ‘Don’t panic, Sean. Don’t panic. Keep asking, don’t let him know he’s tired. Don’t get desperate.’ I lowered into him again, changed holds again, nothing. I had what I had, nothing else, there is this gear, no others. Damn, I wanted another gear, needed another gear. I changed my hold once, twice, three times…nothing, he’s staying on but he’s not gaining. Romantic is in the same mode, he’s staying, not gaining.

Campanile jumped the second-to-last efficiently. Not brilliantly, but efficiently. So did Romantic. I need an opening, give me an opening Romantic. Just do something wrong. I turned over my whip and hit Campanile, I got a mental response but not a physical response.

We galloped to the last, Assurance still holding on, ‘I can’t believe he’s still in front.’ For a moment, I thought we weren’t going to catch Assurance, an impossible thought, but for a moment, I thought it. Campanile jumped the last well, again, efficiently without brilliance. His way. I hit him on him landing, a move I had perfected over 13 years, to get him away from the fence, I liked to land running and get away from the fence. I always felt like I could make up ground while others regrouped. I gained inches, just inches. I needed yards. We caught Assurance, but Romantic kept plugging, kept to the task. Campanile tried, I could feel his desire, he wouldn’t give up, but then it began to go the other way. As a jockey, you can feel time running out, Romantic was resolute. Campanile was spent. I forced myself to keep my rhythm, as Campanile came out of the bridle, I lost it for a stride but gained it back. Two tired chasers sticking to the task, nothing lost, nothing gained. It was over. My last chance at winning the race I always wanted gone.

Arch stood up at the wire, exultant. I slumped for a moment, but just a moment. I was always mad when I lost, seconds felt like poison down my throat, but this time…this time, I was OK with it. I don’t know why but I wasn’t mad. Mostly because of Campanile, I guess. Partly because my career was over, I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone again. As a jockey, you ask a horse to give everything and you ask yourself to do the same. Show him there are no limits to your depths and he’ll show you there are no limits to his. That’s what Campanile did that day. There was nothing else to ask. We were simply second on the day. If it didn’t rain, maybe. If I had him closer the whole way – where Romantic was – maybe. If I was fitter, healthier, maybe.

It wouldn’t be a perfect ending but I knew nothing in my career was perfect, nothing was easy. Well, I did win a walk-over once, but for me, it was always work, always a slog. Nobody ever called me a natural. Going out on a high note, winning the Colonial Cup, not my script, not my role.

Two years earlier, when I was champion jockey I did it by one win. My last winner was a maiden claimer making his eleventh start of the year. I rode Done In Silence at Charleston for nothing, that was the only way I could get his owner/trainer/jockey Kevin Pallister to take off the horse and let me ride him. I rode four races that day, bought two of them, paid my own expenses as an incentive to owners and trainers, it cost me $150 to ride that day. My friends laughed at me, thought I was crazy hustling maiden claimers for free, “You’re four in front with two weeks to go, you’ve got the title.” I laughed at their confidence, “I don’t have anything.” A week later, Craig Thornton tripled at Aiken, neither of us won anything on Sunday and I won the title by one. A month later, my title was declared a joint title after a horse failed a drug test, giving Thornton another win for the year (he wound up winning two maiden races on the same horse). My brother called to tell me the news, I was driving through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, I got mad for a moment and then realized that’s the way it was for my riding career. A title with an asterisk, perhaps. I’m just glad I bought that ride on Done In Silence.

Campanile gave me a great ride in the Colonial Cup. Ultimately, I had him 2 lengths farther back than he should have been to win. If I had ridden him in the Breeders’ Cup – if Indispensable hadn’t buried me earlier in the day – I think I would have had him 2 lengths closer. I would have been a little more comfortable, slid my hands an inch back instead of forward. It’s a game of miles, decided by inches.

I pulled up Campanile, walked back to the wire, slid my tack off his sweat-soaked back, it had to be 5 pounds heavier than when we went out and crossed the scales. I talked to Janet Elliot, she knew her horse was right on the day and her jockey had given him a chance, that’s all a trainer can ask. We were disappointed but not despondent. I was tired but not desperate.

I had one more race to ride. Indispensable.

Without a ride in the race, Chip carried my tack to Indispensable’s wooden slatted stall in the paddock and helped Jack Fisher tack up my old friend. It was the first race for Indispensable since his fall at Far Hills. I had schooled him two days earlier, he jumped OK, handling the Colonial Cup fences, but not relishing them. He jumped tentatively, angling right like he had always done but seemed to get better. He was a worker, similar to Atomistic, nothing came easy, he went out and tried hard every time. A fretter if things weren’t going his way, a little sore most days, a decent jumper but not a prolific one. We got along. After schooling him, I was confident enough in his confidence, I guess he felt the same way about me. One thing I had learned, don’t ever let the horse sense your fear or concern, no matter how fearful or concerned you were.  

Chip came back to the room, gave me a look and sat down. That was it. He was the only jockey in the room who knew this was it for me. I picked up my whip with my right hand, stood up, adjusted three pairs of goggles on top of my helmet and walked out of the jocks’ room for the final time. A long walk on any day, this was the longest. I looked across the paddock, at the few people bracing the elements, I looked at the horses walking, I looked down at my gloved hands, covered in mud. I looked at the sky. I looked at everything, the scene, the action, the last time as a jockey.

I stopped at Indispensable, he was trembling lightly like always, just a quiver across his shoulders. Blair Waterman jiggled the shank from his snaffle bridle. I checked my breast plate, liked where my saddle was sitting and nodded.

As the paddock judged called, “Riders up…” I turned to Jack, who had been with me since he asked if I wanted to ride first call for him in 1994 and said, well I was supposed to say, “This is it Jack. I’m retiring. This is my last ride.” Instead, I stuttered, my voice cracking, tears welled up and I stammered, “…my last ride,” as Jack gave me a leg up for the final time. Jack walked with me for a few strides, stunned, then tried to make a joke like only Jack can, “Well, don’t do anything stupid now.” I rode out of the paddock for the final time.

And Indispensable came through for me. Just like Red Raven in my first pony race in 1983, Student Dancer in my first jump race in 1988, just like Talamero in my first $100,000 stakes in 1991, just like Rowdy Irishman in the Grand National in 1997, just like Done In Silence to clinch – tie – a title, a horse came through for me. For the 152nd time, 10thall time at the time, I won a jump race.

Indispensable jumped hesitantly at the first couple, found his rhythm while I snaked inside the hoof marks on the inside, jumped for fun down the backside and turned into the stretch with an insurmountable lead. He opened up with ease. I looked back a few times, probably way more than I should have, I couldn’t believe the ease in which he was doing it, others stacked way wide, Indispensable cruised. At the wire, I stood up and saluted upward, subtly but personally, it was my goodbye. I swiped my right hand down Indispensable’s neck, a long pat. Gratitude. Galloping out, I was crying again (maybe I never stopped, I don’t know). Indispensable blew white clouds through the dark air. Gus Brown, who had clinched his first championship earlier in the day, galloped up to me and stopped. He put his arm around my shoulder as our two horses slowed to a walk.

“It’s all over,” I said.

“Yup, a long year’s over.”

“No, this is it Guster. My last ride. It’s all over.”

Gus nearly cried himself.

Indispensable turned on his own, like he wanted the day to be over and we jogged back, across the trenches we had just churned. Indispensable was tired, but content, yeah, you could feel it.

Chip met us halfway down the course and walked back. Matt McCarron met us next, guess he must have known by now. Jack, my dad, Jonathan Thomas on a crutch after breaking his back in October greeted us at the winner’s circle. Blair slipped the brass chain through the bit and snapped it to itself, patting Indispensable at the same time. I looked for Joe, but learned later he was on his way to the hospital after splitting his head on a concrete beam below the grandstand (that’s another story for another day).

We walked into the winner’s circle, a band of brothers for the final time. I rested my left hand on Indispensable’s neck and that was it. The final ride.