Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rosemary Homeister, Jr., Jockey
When jockey Rosemary Homeister, Jr. enters the winner’s circle after a race, she looks skyward and blows a kiss to her late grandparents, Frank and Phyllis Sangi. After posing for pictures, she celebrates with the winning connections, greets the race sponsors and signs autographs for anyone who asks. Then, on her return to the jockeys’ room, she hugs and high-fives fans lining the rail to congratulate her. It barely leaves time to prepare for the next race, but Homeister’s enthusiasm is a tonic for a sport struggling to keep its place in a rapidly evolving landscape.
The second-winningest female jockey in history, behind Hall of Famer Julie Krone, Homeister is building a case for her eventual inclusion in horse racing’s shrine. She is 17 victories shy of the 2,500 mark. Her numerous accomplishments include being the first woman to win the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey, in 1992; induction into two Thoroughbred racing Halls of Fame (Calder Race Course and Puerto Rico, where she was the first woman to win the Clasico de Caribe on a filly named Alexia out of Panama); riding in the 2003 Kentucky Derby on Supah Blitz (13th); and finishing second in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Marathon for Jonathan Sheppard on Cloudy’s Knight. In addition, she has been leading rider at the Tropical at Calder meet, Hialeah and Colonial Downs.
 More remarkably, she has returned to top form after giving birth on Aug. 21, 2011 to the love of her life, daughter Victoria Rose. Homeister – who won Tampa Bay Downs’ opening-day Lightning City Stakes aboard Jenny’s So Great for Trainer Jason Servis – is fourth in the current Tampa Bay Downs standings with 44 victories. With fellow jockey Irwin Rosendo, Victoria Rose’s father, the 39-year-old Homeister is discovering the joys of parenthood while proving women athletes can compete at a world-class level after having a child.

After the races are over my main focus is getting home to see Victoria Rose. As soon as I pick her up and hold her in my arms, nothing else matters. I’m just happy I had a safe day and am able to spend the rest of the night with her. When she smiles, it clears my mind and I know tomorrow is going to be a great day again.
Back-tracking, getting pregnant was not in any future plans or at least not yet. When I woke up one morning feeling nauseous I thought I was getting the flu. To my disbelief I was pregnant. I woke Irwin up at 4:30 a.m. to tell him. He flew out of the bed so fast, he almost knocked me over. He was so happy and excited but then realized I was in total shock and I just stood there with a blank stare.
I knew in my heart it was a blessing, but I just wasn’t prepared or ready for such a drastic change in my life. My focus was on my future plans for the summer, riding in Kentucky. I felt I was at the height of my career again; I had been fourth-leading rider at Churchill Downs the previous fall meet and wanted to continue my success there. Everything just seemed to halt and I was confused and scared.
I went through an emotional roller coaster during my pregnancy. Fortunately, Irwin gave me a lot of support and was always there for me. Hormonally, I was completely out of whack – happy, sad, not knowing what to expect. I refused to go to the track because I didn’t want anybody to see me fat. I gained 50 pounds during my pregnancy, and at times I felt embarrassed, in a sense.
It took time to adjust to all the changes my body was going through but I did it and am happy that it happened. The best part of my pregnancy was the delivery. I was at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital in Tampa, and I had the best doctor and nurse. They walked me through everything and made me feel comfortable. When I finally pushed out my little blessing, after 9 ½ hours, nothing else mattered in my life but her. She was so tiny and precious.
Every day Victoria does something new. She keeps growing and learning so fast. At just 7 months she is saying “Ma-ma and Pa-pa.” I know I sound like a typical awestruck mother, but just to see her push herself up or roll over on her back seems like a miracle.
When she gets a little older, she is going to know she has two parents who adore her and will do anything for her. I just want her to always be healthy and happy. My friends and family tell me “There is no rulebook” to raising a child, and it is so true. Instinctually, I know what is good for her.
The biggest challenge I faced after my pregnancy was losing all the weight I gained – all 50 pounds of it. A week after I had Victoria, I hired a personal trainer to help me lose the weight the right way by helping me gain my strength while I was losing weight. I had no strength and my balance was totally off.
It was a very frustrating two weeks, but after going three times a week for 30-minute sessions I began to feel better and started to notice the change in my body. Losing weight is very frustrating. But I kept my focus, changed my diet and continued to work out.
I got a call from trainer Eric Reed (Victoria’s godfather), who told me that he and his wife Kay wanted me to come to Kentucky to start getting on horses at Keeneland and at their farm for them. They wanted to help me get fit so that I could start riding for them again.
I was so excited because I knew this was the only way to get back into shape quickly and be ready to ride by the Tampa Bay Downs meeting in December. I got on 3-to-6 horses a day for the next month and little by little, the weight started to come off. I was getting anxious to ride and Eric had started to name me on horses.
I was down to about 118 pounds by the end of October. I rode my first race on Nov. 9 at the Churchill Downs meeting for Eric and Kay and finished fifth. The next day I rode another horse for them, Eden Star, and won. It was the most exciting moment for me because of all that I had accomplished in a short amount of time to get to that point. I am so grateful to them for giving me this opportunity.

On top of everything, Eric Reed’s mother and father would watch Victoria Rose for me and Irwin while we worked for about four hours in the morning. We would then pick her up and spend the rest of the day with her. One of the biggest things when you’re a working parent is finding the right babysitter, and we were blessed to have Eric Reed’s parents help us in Kentucky.
Now, we have my friend Brenda Jones. She sings to her, teaches her shapes and colors and speaks to her in English and Spanish. Brenda adores Victoria. She comes to my house at 6 a.m. and stays until I get done racing in the late afternoon. I can stay focused on my work and know that Victoria is in good hands.
I’ve been a jockey for the past 20 years now, and a few years ago I had it in my mind I would retire when I turned 40 and maybe go back to doing real estate. But when horse racing is in your blood, you can’t get away from it. I love to be with horses, I love to compete and I love the fans.
Being a jockey is a continuous learning process. You’re always trying to perfect your style and devising new strategies to win, even with a horse you have ridden on a consistent basis. It’s mentally and physically challenging because you have the instructions from the trainer, you are trying to get to know your horse in the seven-minute post parade and you are deciding what you’ll do if plan A doesn’t work out.
Being a professional jockey takes total focus. You can’t be half-fit or ride half-ass. You are either full-force, competitive, work hard every day and want to win, or you might as well do something else. There are too many decisions and quick reactions to be made in any given race.
Riding the turf is very strategic – knowing what position I want to be in, who else is going to try to get there, and who is going to get in my way or be stopping in front of me. The main thing is getting good position the first sixteenth of a mile. If I’m on a speed horse, we’re going to go, but you still have to get yourself in position or you’re going to get swallowed up and run the risk of losing your position.
Down the backside, unless I’m in front, I’m constantly looking to see who might be stopping because you don’t want to get blocked. You want to save ground, but if the rail isn’t open you’ve got to start weaving out and finding room. It’s a constant process of quick thinking and quick actions. Riding the turf is all about making the right moves and the right decisions in a split-second and hoping your horse will do what you ask of him.
When I think about all the things I love about horse racing, I can’t say enough about the fans. I appreciate them appreciating our business. I want them to feel the excitement I feel when I win a race.
I give high-fives to all little kids, sign autographs and take pictures with the fans. It gives them a little piece of the action and excitement. When the meeting here ends, my plans are to go to Chicago to ride at Arlington Park for the summer.
My mother, Rosemary Homeister, Sr., is a trainer in south Florida at Calder Race Course. She has always been my No. 1 fan and biggest supporter. I never would have made it this far without her. Thanks, Mom!
I look at my life as a total blessing. I’m so grateful to be able to do what I am passionate about and I want owners, trainers and the fans to know how determined I am to win and how passionate I am about this game. And if I don’t win this race, I am going to try and win the next race and every race after that!

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