Victory starts on the backside
Claire Novak [ARCHIVE]
Special to
April 30, 2013
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"When Allah created the horse, he said to the magnificent creature: 'I have made thee as no other. All the treasures of the earth lie between thy eyes. Thy shalt carry my friends upon thy back. Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me. And thou shalt fly without wings, and conquer without sword …'" -- Bedouin legend

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Every morning this Kentucky Derby week, as owners and jockeys fly into town and trainers oversee final preparations for the chance of a lifetime, unheralded men and women quietly swing astride the runners they have guided to the first Saturday in May.

Their names are not known to the public. Still, these exercise riders clock more time in the saddle aboard the nation's top 3-year-olds than any of their jockeys will ever spend. They are relied upon by owners to prepare and safeguard contenders during training routines, trusted by horsemen to carry out each conditioning plan to the letter and depended upon by race riders to log the hundreds of hours it takes to ready a young thoroughbred for the greatest two minutes in sports.

In all but the most unusual cases, the link between Derby contenders and their exercise riders forms months before these horses are even remotely considered for the race. Even a year ago, starters like Florida Derby winner Orb and Wood Memorial runner-up Normandy Invasion were just unknown youngsters whose Derby chances could have been derailed by one misstep. One trouble-marred gallop. One ill-timed breeze. It took hours of day-to-day education, hard work and physical risk to bring each horse along to the challenge that now lies ahead -- but when the limelight shines upon front-and-center figures of the game, it is easy to forget that exercise riders play a vital role.

As is the case with grooms and hot walkers, these individuals are not listed on the official race chart, or in the program, or in most of the media coverage leading up to or following the big event. There will be no trophy or postrace TV interview on a national network for the one whose horse wins the Derby. Ask how they feel as they gallop their charges beneath the Twin Spires, however, and every one of them will tell you -- in the days leading up to the big event, there's nowhere else they'd rather be.

* * *

"It's just a surreal feeling. The track is so wide and open -- you have all that space, and you see all those people looking at you. As exciting as it is, it's nerve-wracking, too … I've never felt like this before." -- Jen Patterson, exercise rider for Orb

Standing in the stable area next to Barn 43 at Churchill Downs on the morning of April 28, 32-year-old Jen Patterson shared what it's like to guide top Derby contender Orb through his paces. The responsibility resting on her shoulders is mixed with the thrill of how far they've come, she said, and the potential of what could be.

It's what we do and it's what we're comfortable doing, when you ride horses like this for these kinds of races, there is pressure on us, too.

” -- Jen Patterson, Orb's exercise rider

"Obviously you want everything to go as well as it can go, and if something goes wrong, you kind of take it and put it on yourself," Patterson said. "So even though we do this every day, it's what we do and it's what we're comfortable doing, when you ride horses like this for these kinds of races, there is pressure on us, too."

Orb stood quietly nearby for a routine cold-hosing -- water run over his slender legs to help optimize athletic performance. In an earlier gallop under Patterson, he crossed the finish line and let out a playful buck, the rambunctious strides of a good-feeling runner. The rider said these are the signs that thrill her: the rhythmic breath of a galloping runner, the responsive flick of a colt's expressive ears and the brilliance she feels beneath her when he bows his neck into the bridle and strides effortlessly over the racetrack that will be his path to history.

"He's getting into it now," she said. "He didn't mind anything and he galloped around there really relaxed. I watch the way he's carrying his head, the way his ears are … I know him so well now, the way his body language is just when he's galloping. He speaks a lot, just the way he carries himself."

Although Patterson has ridden top-class horses before (she's the regular rider for multiple grade 1-winning turf star Point of Entry), Orb is her first Derby contender. She started working for trainer Shug McGaughey seven years ago, but grew up around the business and worked for steeplechase trainer Ricky Hendriks from the time she was 17 until she was 24. Her first flat racing job was with Eoin Harty; when he took his string to California, she picked up the New York-based McGaughey job.

A Delaware native who graduated Gettysburg College with a business management degree, Patterson said life with thoroughbreds was supposed to be a yearlong diversion at best, to "just get away from stuff." Now she's a key part of McGaughey's operation. This is her life.

"It's kind of like home now, to me. It just fits," she said. "With Orb, we never expected this at all. To watch this horse grow into what he's grown into is really special for everybody. He's really completely brought us here, and it's been fun. He keeps getting better, and everything's just kind of developed into where we are now."

* * *

"Not only are they riding, but they're getting into their horses' heads and forging a partnership … They all just look like people so happily connected with their horses, almost like they don't care what the rest of the world is doing, because they're just so proud to be on their animals." -- Barbara Livingston, equine photographer

One row down and across the way from Orb's cold-water treatment, 24-year-old Jake Nelson smiled in the shadow of Todd Pletcher's shedrow as he recounted the story of first getting aboard Palace Malice. The son of Curlin ran second in the Blue Grass Stakes last time out and breezed a bullet in company with Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze on April 27.

"The first day in Saratoga we had all the babies there. All of them are pretty easy, but I got on him and he took a good hold of me around that racetrack," said Nelson, speaking of the horse's pull on the bridle as he galloped. "I told the assistant, 'I like this horse,' and ever since then, there's never been a different [exercise] rider on him. Breezing him, you could just tell there's something about him."

A Californian whose father used to be an assistant to trainer Jeff Bonde, Nelson started riding four years ago with aspirations of becoming a jockey. When he grew too big, he chose to stay around the horses.

"I love riding and I love my job," said the rider, who has worked for Pletcher for...
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