Sunday, January 12, 2014

SHANNON USKE, JOCKEY




Shannon Uske knew breaking in would be difficult at Tampa Bay Downs, where an abundance of returning journeymen ride for most of the leading stables. But the 27-year-old native of Freehold, N.J., has never discouraged easily. After visiting Monmouth Park with her mother for the first time, when she was 4, Uske declared her intention to be a jockey. At 7, she started taking riding lessons; at 13, she began competing in horse shows; and two years later, she placed eighth in the nation in the Capital Challenge Horse Show in Maryland on a former Thoroughbred she describes as “a cheap racehorse but an excellent jumper.” She had already practiced galloping horses on a nearby 3/8-mile racetrack, and at 16 she headed to Belmont Park to pursue her ambition. After working for a few other stables, Uske was hired by Allen Jerkens, the Hall of Fame trainer perhaps best known as the man who beat Secretariat twice in 1973 with two different horses. Uske learned the game from the ground up under “The Chief,” accompanying Jerkens to Gulfstream in 2003 after her mom agreed to let her finish high school online. Uske is 2-for-25 locally, but her agent, Michelle Patrick, says her enthusiasm and faith have never wavered. “Shannon has a great attitude and goes into every day with a positive approach. If a horse has got it, she’ll get you there. She just needs to show people,” Patrick says. In this latest installment of Tampa Bay Downs’ blog, “Racing In The Sunshine,” Uske reflects on her career and what she finds special about racing.

I KNEW I HAD TO BE REALISTIC ABOUT COMING HERE because there are so many jockeys and a lot of them came with outfits they’re already established with. I had a good meet this summer at Monmouth (18 victories), but after staying up north the last three winters I wanted to be somewhere a lot warmer. People told me it might take two or three years here to establish myself, but I’m comfortable with that because I felt it could open up some new opportunities to meet people and expand my future business. I didn’t realize this area was so nice, and I’ve been riding almost every day, which I’m happy about. If I don’t have any mounts, or I’m only on one or two early on the card, I go to the gym to stay fit or watch the races on TV to see how the track is playing.
I’VE ALWAYS FELT GOOD ABOUT BEING ON A HORSE. My issue when I first got to the track was being quiet. I was a shy kid growing up who didn’t talk much, and I knew getting into the business I had to be more outgoing, especially being a female. Once I wound up in Allen Jerkens’ barn, that’s where I learned a lot and started becoming a ‘racetracker.’ You learn to be outgoing in that barn, because there is no other like it on the racetrack.
I HAD BREEZED A FEW OF HIS HORSES BEFORE HE GOT BACK FROM SARATOGA in 2002, but when I first told him in person I wanted to work for him, he gave me a hard time. He starts in a high-pitched voice, ‘I want somebody who is a serious rider. You’re probably just here to mess around. You think it’s going to be fun to say you’re a jockey. You need to want to work – are you really sure you can handle this?’ I was pretty determined, so I showed him the best way I knew. Besides galloping and riding, I worked all day at his barn, doing the horses up, icing them, taking care of their legs.
THOSE FIVE YEARS WITH THE CHIEF might have been the best years of my life. He had some of the toughest horses I’ve ever been on, and that makes it so much easier now to get on any kind of horse. He wants his horses fired up. If he thought a horse was being too quiet, he might have me ride them behind the starting gate for 5 minutes, just to get them hyped up, then tell me to gallop them a mile-and-a-half. Or he would smooch at one when I was galloping past if he didn’t think it was pulling me hard enough. I won some big New York stakes for The Chief with horses like Chilly Rooster (2004 Grade III Fort Marcy), Smokume and Miss Shop.
WHEN I WAS A YOUNG GIRL, I liked to follow Julie Krone. She was riding at Monmouth then, and I was at the races almost every weekend. I was also a big fan of Jerry Bailey, because he was the jockey on Cigar and that was the first big horse that caught my attention. Then, when I started riding races in New York, Mr. Bailey gave me a lot of good pointers, especially about riding the turf. To be 16 or 17 and have him help me out – that was the coolest thing ever.
I WON THE FIRST RACE I EVER RODE on a mare named Lilah, at Calder in 2003 when I was 16. And to me, it really shows what a great man The Chief is. My mother Diane had come to visit me for the holidays, and Allen Jerkens put me on a 4-5 shot that ran even better than her odds. We drew the outside going five-and-a-half furlongs, and all I really had to do was just sit there. I won seven races on Lilah, and she became a graded stakes winner, but it was really special having my mom with me in the winner’s circle after my first race.
I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I MIGHT BE DOING if I wasn’t a jockey. Nothing holds my interest like horse racing. I actually started riding my German shepherd before I could walk, and I was in awe of the power and competitiveness and beauty of Thoroughbreds from the get-go. Maybe I would be a trainer, or find a job training racehorses to become jumpers. I like to take horses off the track and retrain them and help them find good homes whenever I can. I have a horse back home in Jersey I call ‘Playboy;’ his racing name was Gimme Shelter, and he’s my big pet. Another I have at home is Exchange Partner, who I rode for (trainer) John Tammaro III and I’d started to jump before I came here.
IN 2009, I RODE A HORSE NAMED TWO NOTCH ROAD in his first start sprinting for trainer Glenn Thompson, and he only beat one horse. I told Glenn I really wanted to ride him a mile on the turf, but it was hard to find that kind of race at Monmouth, so Glenn dropped him from maiden special weight to maiden claiming and was going to have Jose Velez, Jr., ride him. But Two Notch Road dropped Jose in the post parade and got loose and had to be scratched. A week later, I got to ride him in the Continental Mile Stakes going a mile on the turf at Monmouth. He was still a maiden, but I was very confident going into the race.
I’VE NEVER WANTED MY MOM TO BET ON ME, because I thought it was a jinx. But I’d told her all week that I loved Two Notch Road and that he was going to love the turf. We came through on the rail and he won by a length-and-a-quarter. When I galloped him back, I saw the odds were 99-1 and thought ‘Wow, we just blew up the tote board.’ As you can guess, my mom did not bet on him. She told me ‘I should have just bet and not told you.’ He paid $216.40 to win, but I took my mom to dinner and she got to be in the win picture, so I guess it turned out OK.
MY MOTHER WILL ALWAYS BE MY NO. 1 FAN. She was here Dec. 29 when I won two races, for Kathleen O’Connell and David Hinsley. On the one hand, she is petrified watching me ride, but she also gets so excited it’s funny. I know I will always be her little girl.

I’M DETERMINED TO MAKE RACE-RIDING MY CAREER. I’ve seen what other riders go through with injuries, and I’ve been hurt a few times myself. I broke three vertebrae in my neck in 2007 and came back too soon, and that slowed me down. But I never think about those kind of things, or slumps, as being low points. It’s easy keeping a positive attitude when you love something as much as I do. Plus, I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of good people who have been loyal to me, and I try to return that loyalty to them.
YOU’RE ALWAYS GOING TO GET PEOPLE WHO SAY they can’t ride a girl, but I figure the best thing to do in that case is go out and beat them. But it’s really not an issue, and that is because of people such as Julie Krone and the other women jockeys who came before her and opened doors for people like me. I can’t imagine what they went through. For the most part, if you show people you’re strong and capable of doing everything a male jockey can do, you get treated equal.

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