Friday, April 18, 2014
Katie Mancini-Wales, Veterinary Assistant
In a couple of weeks, 28-year-old Tampa Bay Downs jockey Gary Wales and his wife Katie will pack their belongings – including their cats, Bella and Fig – into his-and-hers Hyundais for the 1,350-mile drive to Boston for the Suffolk Downs meeting, which starts on Kentucky Derby day, May 3. While Gary seeks to improve on last summer’s sixth-place finish in the Suffolk standings, Katie will transition from working on the Tampa Bay Downs backstretch for private veterinarian Dr. Richard Gold to training a small string of Thoroughbreds. On their journey, both will have time to reflect on the afternoon of Aug. 3, when Gary’s bid to be leading jockey at Suffolk came to a screeching halt in a devastating spill that resulted in a fractured L2 vertebra – one of five lumbar vertebrae in the spinal column – and six weeks of inactivity. It was the first major injury for the native of Edinburgh, Scotland, since they got married in March of 2010. Katie was watching the race at home online when Gary’s mount broke down and crashed through the inside rail, pitching him to the ground. “The worst thing was walking into the emergency room and seeing him still on the backboard getting X-rays – I could see the pain on his face,” Katie recalls. “It’s an image that doesn’t totally go away, but if I dwelled on it, I’d go crazy every time I watch a race.” A 29-year-old graduate of the State University of New York Cobleskill equine management program, Katie accepts the risks because racing is what makes Gary whole. “I would feel guilty for the rest of my life if I ever told him he had to stop because of me,” she says. “I know how much he loves it. He lives to ride.” Gary has made a positive impression in his debut season at the Oldsmar oval; he is among the top-20 jockeys with 12 victories entering the April 18 card. In this installment of “Racing In The Sunshine,” Katie talks about the joys and personal challenges of being a jockey’s wife, as well as her own burgeoning training career.
AS A JOCKEY’S WIFE, YOU PANIC AT FIRST WHEN YOU SEE YOUR HUSBAND GO DOWN on a horse. I knew the one last summer wasn’t one of those where everybody gets up and laughs and is fine. As soon as Gary could feel his legs, he gave my telephone number to a member of the gate crew, and at that point I at least knew he was conscious and going to the hospital. One of the track executives, Sam Elliott, picked me up and drove me to the emergency room, which was nice because I didn’t need to be navigating traffic in downtown Boston in a state of high anxiety.
ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS GARY TOLD ME WHEN I GOT THERE was that he was going to quit riding. I told him that wasn’t the time to think about it, that lying in a hospital bed wasn’t the time or place to make that decision. I know how much Gary loves horses and loves racing. He has always said it is like an addiction. It’s in his blood. For the most part, I can enjoy watching his races and not really think about the danger. But it is always a comfort when he crosses the wire.
WE MET ABOUT SIX YEARS AGO WHEN I WAS WORKING for Kip Elser, a major pinhooker, in Camden, S.C., and Gary had started exercising horses there. Something definitely clicked, but it was hard for Gary to ask me out because I’m very shy and he picked up on that right away. I was running a shedrow by myself with about 50 horses and Kip wanted to reward me for doing a good job, so one day he lent me his credit card and suggested I show Gary around town. By the end of that day, though, I was totally exhausted, so I went to Gary’s apartment, gave him Kip’s card and said ‘Go out and have fun.’ I thought I might have blown it, but a couple of weeks later, Gary asked me to a movie, and the rest is history. We went to Colonial Downs that summer when he had his apprentice allowance, and we’ve been together ever since.
I DIDN’T GROW UP AROUND HORSES, BUT I REMEMBER WATCHING THE KENTUCKY DERBY when I was 7 or 8 and being fascinated. I started taking riding lessons when I was 12, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do something with horses. During the summer on weekends, my parents took me to Saratoga, which was about two hours from our home in North Adams, Mass. I kept getting drawn in and my parents encouraged me, even though they had no horse background. I went to equine college, got an internship working for Mr. Elser and stayed on as an employee.
I GOT MY TRAINER’S LICENSE TWO YEARS AGO, BUT I DIDN’T START TRAINING until last year at Suffolk. I had only one horse, a (then)-5-year-old mare named Thereisgoldahead. They have a rule that if you’re married to a jockey, you have to ride him on your horse, but Gary was injured until her fifth start so I used someone else. Gary finished fourth on her the first time he finally got a chance to ride her, and the next time, on Oct. 15, I led them into the winner’s circle after they won a two-turn allowance on the turf by six-and-a-half lengths. I had so many emotions swirling inside me -- proud, relieved, ecstatic, happy for my husband and the horse. I’m not sure how I held on to the halter. I sold Thereisgoldahead to a nice home at the end of the meeting, and she is being spoiled rotten.
WORKING AS ONE OF DR. GOLD’S ASSISTANTS HAS TAUGHT ME A LOT of things to take back into my training. We keep quite a pace – on race days, he might see 30 horses that are entered that day in the morning and another 20 that are entered the following day in the afternoon. I help with the record-keeping, jogging horses for lameness exams and holding horses when he scopes them. It has been a tremendous learning experience and I’ve met so many different people who are a credit to the sport. Horse racing receives a lot of negative publicity, but most of the people I’ve met are good-hearted horsemen trying to do the right things for their horses.
I CAN’T ALWAYS WATCH GARY’S RACES WHEN I’M WORKING WITH DR. GOLD, but in Boston I’ll get to see them all. I’d rather watch him on TVG or the computer, though, than be at the track. I enjoy going to the races, but you might run into someone who loses a bet and starts cursing the jockey. Then you’re thinking ‘Hey, buddy, watch it. That’s my husband.’ So sometimes it’s better just to watch from home.
WHEN IT COMES TO GARY’S CAREER, I TRY TO BE AS SUPPORTIVE AND UNDERSTANDING as I can. Being a jockey is a stressful job – not just riding 1,000-pound animals with minds of their own, but all that jockeys have to go through dealing with owners and trainers. A jockey can get all the praise one day, then he’s the first person everyone blames for a loss the next. So if he comes home and needs to vent about a situation that didn’t turn out for the best, I want to be there for him. Gary is not going to be intimidated by another rider, and he knows how to converse with trainers, but there are certain things he is only going to discuss with me.
IN DEALING WITH HORSES, I PROBABLY BECOME TOO ATTACHED. I get to know them inside and out, their personalities, and I fall in love with all of them. If you are willing to learn, every horse will teach you something. How to handle them; how to treat a leg; taking them to the paddock a different way so that they’re quieter and calmer. Every horse is an individual, and you learn to respect that and admire it. Building that relationship is my favorite part of working with them. You know you’re not going to have that horse forever, but the time you have with them can be pretty special.
THIS IS OUR FIRST WINTER AT TAMPA BAY DOWNS, AND WE ARE LOOKING FORWARD to coming back. Everything is run very professionally, the gate crew and the track maintenance staff do a great job and you always see good-sized crowds here. We’ve enjoyed the area, too. We are both beachgoers, and Gary likes to play golf on off-days. We don’t spend a lot of time at the end of the day rehashing races. There are always little funny stories to tell, but we don’t want to make the racetrack our whole life. Tomorrow will get here soon enough.
WE MOVE AROUND A LOT AND WE’VE BEEN THROUGH SOME TOUGH TIMES, but Gary is always the person I can count on and the person I can talk to. Even if I don’t come out and say something, he understands what I’m thinking and how I feel about a situation. He is the one in the spotlight, but he respects the fact I want a career in this industry, too. I think we are each other’s most important support system. More than anything, I know he is my best friend.
I HAVE A DREAM – I SHOULD CALL IT A GOAL – of being able to buy a house and settle in one place and raise a family. You always take those kind of things for granted growing up, but this sport isn’t always like that. You have to go where the action is. We were fortunate that our landlord in Boston let us keep our furniture there this winter, so we don’t have as much to pack. Gary has done a good job saving money, and there really isn’t anything we need that we don’t have. I know that once we get more established, even more good things will come into our lives.