Thursday, February 16, 2012

Whitney Valls, Jockey

When apprentice jockey Whitney Valls scored her first Tampa Bay Downs victory Feb. 5 aboard 13-1 shot Dream Every Dream for trainer Anthony Pecoraro, she was doused with a bucket full of water by Rosemary Homeister, Jr. – the traditional greeting from veteran riders signaling a newcomer has arrived. Valls’ more formal initiation, which featured soap, baby powder and shaving cream, came at Thistledown outside Cleveland last September, when she earned her first lifetime win in her 10th race on Optimistic Bullet for trainer Burton Sipp. The Alabama native has picked a tough meeting to continue her fledgling career. Her agent Mike Bish – who has handled the book the past three seasons for top Tampa Bay Downs apprentices Michael Straight, Kristina McManigell and Angel Moreno – says this is as tough a jockey colony as he has seen in Oldsmar. But the 22-year-old Valls, who keeps busy exercising horses for such top trainers as Pecoraro, Jonathan Sheppard and Dennis Ward on the days she has no mounts, is too immersed in the horses and the lifestyle to get discouraged.

I’m a positive, upbeat person. I don’t let a whole lot get me down. It took me a while to break in as an exercise rider – there were slow weeks and good weeks – and that is an aspect of the game. There are a bunch of good riders here, and a lot of trainers have their set riders. So I knew coming in it was going to be very, very tough to get mounts.
Obviously, I would ride the card if I had the opportunity. I know that is not realistic, and I also know that as an apprentice, it is going to take time for people to see me before they start using me, even with my 10-pound weight allowance. It is kind of a Catch-22 thing, but I’m sure by the end of the meeting I’m going to be riding plenty. I know when my break comes it will be big, and I’m all kinds of prepared to handle it.
When I’m in the room between races, I make a point of studying the other riders during a race. I watch how they’re sitting on their horse, their hands, where they’re positioning their horse, and when they start making a move. Then I’ll watch the replay and see where the winner ran on the track and which horses got the best trip.
After my races, some of the journeymen have pulled me aside to watch a replay and offer me advice. They’ll say ‘Try to do this better,’ or ‘You looked real good here.’ Rosemary has been very helpful, and so has Oriana Rossi. I’ve actually gotten quality feedback from a lot of veteran riders. If they see something they think will help me the next time, they’re quick to point it out.
During a race, it can get very heated. If another jockey thinks you messed them up or got in their way, they’ll come to you during the replay and ask, ‘What was that?’ But it is never in a mean way. They know that I’m a 10-pound bug, and that I’m learning, so everything is done in a helpful manner.
I’m eager and excited to learn, but sometimes the only way you are going to learn is by making mistakes. And the only way I am going to realize what I did wrong is for the older, more experienced jockeys to come and tell me.
I credit my parents, Karen and William Valls, for helping me to become a jockey. My dad’s parents had horses, and he went to Valley Forge Military Academy and played polo. My parents put me on little ponies at fair rides, and my dad would take me on trail rides around the city. They told me I was smiling from ear to ear the first time they put me on a pony when I was 2.
When I got older, my mom found out where one of my friends boarded her horse, and she sent me to summer camps there. I started taking lessons and loved everything about it. When I was 12, my parents surprised me at Christmas with a little gelding named General. That was around the same time I watched Funny Cide win the Kentucky Derby, and he looked a lot like my gelding.
General was a very good teacher. We made mistakes, but he was very forgiving and never tried to drop me. I did everything under the sun with that horse – messing around the barrels, pole bending, going to little shows around town. He colicked and died three years ago, but he will always have a place in my heart.
My mom, who lives in Mobile, Ala., helped me go to Bluegrass Community and Technical College, where I studied equine science and was able to gallop in my spare time at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington.
I try calling Mom every day after I leave the track. She and my entire family are my biggest fans. They love every minute of it. My grandmother came to visit over the holidays, and she came to the track for the first time one day with my uncle and aunt.
I think I might have ridden one horse that day, and the poor filly tried but only beat one horse in the race. It didn’t matter to Nana. I told her I was sorry we didn’t hit the board, and she said ‘Oh, honey, I don’t care. You looked great.’ They were all ecstatic!
After I left Kentucky, I went to Ernest Oare’s EMO Stables in Ocala, which is where I polished my foundation for riding races. There were a lot of steeplechase horses and riders there, and they taught me to take a long hold and keep my hands down, because that’s how you get a horse to stay relaxed. You don’t just reach and grab if a horse starts getting tough with you – that will just make him want to go faster, too soon.
In the spring of 2010, a friend who was galloping for trainer Steve Asmussen told me they were giving out exercise riding licenses at Keeneland, and I might stumble onto something. Maybe that’s when I should have gotten nervous, but I guess it’s not in my makeup.
I started working horses for Michael Matz, and that led to an opportunity to work some for Barclay Tagg. I was just like ‘Hey, I’m Whitney Valls, an exercise rider, is there anything I can help you out with?’ You’ve got to be outgoing in this business. If a trainer tells you ‘No, we’re OK,’ I just say ‘OK, I’ll see you tomorrow,’ and come back!
I guess I didn’t really think much about the fact I was exercising horses for men who have trained Kentucky Derby winners – Barbaro for Mr. Matz and Funny Cide for Mr. Tagg.
It was the same way when I rode for Richard Small at Laurel in Maryland, right before I went to Cleveland and took out my jockey’s license. When I am at someone’s barn, I am there to do a job and I can’t worry about how famous anyone is. When I was working for Larry Murray, there was an ex-jockey who helped me on improving my technique, switching sticks, driving and developing a clock in my head. Like I said, everyone has been very helpful and I’m eager to learn.
It is a little hard sometimes, though, not to get excited. I was working for Mr. Matz when he had Nicanor. I didn’t get to ride him, but one day I was in the same set, which was cool because he is Barbaro’s brother. I texted some friends that night ‘I went out in a set with Nicanor.’ And they were like, no way!
Being a jockey doesn’t leave much time for hobbies, but I’ve doodled and drawn my whole life, and I consider myself a self-taught artist. I completed a pencil drawing of the graded stakes winner Any Given Saturday, which is one of my favorites. You can see it on the Internet at
I’ll draw some on a dark day, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. People ask me why I bother with the horses when I’m so good at art. It’s flattering, but I enjoy the horses too much. Whatever it takes to succeed in this business, that’s what I’m going to do. I can’t see myself not working around horses.

1 comment:

  1. I am looking for contact information on Lear's owner.I am interested in giving him a non-racing home when he is ready to retire from racing. Thank you.