The Jockeys’ Room: Inside the Toughest Room in Sports
Richard Hamel, Shannon Beauregard and Jesse Campbell take readers inside the jockeys’ rooms at Hastings Park, Northlands Park and Woodbine
By: Keith McCalmont |
The ultra-competitive world of horseracing is the only professional sport that sees its stars fight for victory on the battlefield only to return to the same locker room when all is said and done.
“It’s quite challenging and it can be hard to control your temper. Sometimes, you can end up in conflict with another rider,” said Richard Hamel, leading rider at Hastings Racecourse.
And while the Clerk of the Scales is there to act as boss in the jocks’ room, with help from stewards representing the governing provincial body, Hamel says that, for the most part, the jockeys are able to police themselves.
“None of us are over 115 pounds, so if two featherweights throw a few punches they won’t hurt themselves,” he said, laughing. “We keep most of the problems in house, but if it starts to get onto the track the stewards get involved. We all try and leave at the end of the day not hating each other.”
The veteran rider notes that experience helps cooler heads prevail.
“It’s difficult sometimes. Some guys really get in your head out there, but the older you get, the better you are with that,” he said. “You just try to get in their head a little more than they get in yours, and stay out of their way out on the racetrack.”
Although fights can happen, the jock’s room is also a place for sharing, learning and camaraderie. With time to kill between races, jockeys will start up card games, play pool and banter over the day’s races.
For Hamel, who started his career riding at bush tracks in the B.C. interior, that first step into a professional jocks’ room helped bring his game forward.
“On the bush circuit, I learned how to stay on a horse and a bit about reducing weight,” said Hamel. “When I came to Vancouver, I thought I had an idea of what I was supposed to do out there and I was schooled quite quickly.
“Chris Loseth became a good friend of mine and taught me a lot about relaxing out there on the track and how to deal with people at the racetrack. I come from a small town — he did as well — and he took me under his wing.”
Hamel credits Loseth, a Hall of Fame rider and multiple Sovereign Award winner, with adding a degree of patience to his riding repertoire.
“One day we were out fishing and Chris explained that he could see I had already planned my races when I got into the gate,” said Hamel. “Chris said, ‘Instead of doing that, try counting backwards from 10 and relax and let the race happen. You have an idea of where you want to be, but if it doesn’t happen, don’t try too hard to get there. Learn how to improvise.’”
Hamel took the advice to heart and has enjoyed a successful career that has spanned some 27 years riding the bullring at Hastings. With 1,435 wins to his credit, Hamel continues to thrive having led all riders at the Vancouver track last season with 74 wins from 311 mounts.
Now, as a veteran in the room, Hamel looks to pass on his hard-earned wisdom to young riders learning the trade as they try to adjust to riding the tight turns of the bullring after competing on roomier ovals.
“I compare it to going from driving Indy to NASCAR. NASCAR is tight with a lot of bumping going on, and Indy is pretty much clean racing,” Hamel said. “You have to teach riders when and where they can make moves and where they should be going into turns.”
Of course, you can only teach a rider so much.
“It all becomes instinct,” he said. “After awhile you don’t think, it just happens. And if you have to think, it’s too late.”
BEAUREGARD FOCUSES ON THE POSITIVE
Hamel’s reach extends across the western provinces and a pair of boots sent long ago, as part of a donation of equipment for those riding the bush track circuit, proved to be a perfect fit for a young Shannon Beauregard.
“They were a little big, but I didn’t care,” said the now 33-year-old Beauregard, laughing over the phone from her temporary home at Turf Paradise, in Arizona.
Beauregard overcame a debilitating back injury to finish third in the jockey standings at Northlands Park last season with 53 wins. And like Hamel, she hasn’t forgotten her roots.
“When I started out at the bush tracks, there would be a trailer with a small area for girls that served as our jocks’ room,” said Beauregard.
Space continued to be an issue when she moved her tack to Stampede Park in Calgary.
“It was small. Maybe 7×7 with one toilet, one shower and one sink,” recalled Beauregard. “A lot of the girls’ jocks rooms I’ve been in are pretty small. Here (at Turf Paradise) its not so bad, the room is bigger, because there’s five or six girls.”
The effervescent Beauregard tends to focus on the positives.
“In Calgary, the room was pretty much a closet… but I don’t really need much space,” she said.
An important part of a jockey’s daily routine is finding quiet time to prepare for each race before heading out to the track.
“I pre-handicap my races before I get to the room. I arrive at least an hour before the card starts and I’ll pick up a program and mark it up with all my notes,” said Beauregard.
The notes cover a lot of the handicapping areas that bettors would expect.
“I look at the race in terms of running style and compare fractions. If you have five speed horses in the race, they won’t be exactly the same,” said Beauregard. “I’ll handicap the riders as well, because some riders really ship horses and some don’t. You have to learn your horses and your riders everywhere you go.”
Her program also contains a few notes handicappers wouldn’t expect.
“I write little notes to myself in my program. It’s something I’ve done since day one,” said Beauregard. “Just little blurbs like, ‘Show up. Ride hard. Win.’ and, ‘Be safe. Be smart. Be clear.’”
The jocks’ room is also a place for maintaining proper race riding fitness. Many jocks’ rooms contain small fitness centres with saunas and massage tables as well as a common lounge area with games and usually a pool table.
“I stretch a lot. Stretching and keeping flexible is very important to a rider,” said Beauregard.
And while there have been years where Beauregard has been the only female in the room, she doesn’t ever really feel lonely.
“If I’m the only woman, I can still go to the lounge and play pool with the guys and watch the races,” she said. “I get along with the guys better than I do with most girls.”
Like Hamel, Beauregard has embraced her veteran status in the room and will try her best to help out young riders.
“When there are other girls, I do try to be there for them and give advice,” said Beauregard, who has taken apprentice rider Brooke Stillion under her wing at Turf Paradise. “She’s a young girl with lots to learn. I took her to the gym with me today. It’s important to learn how to keep weight off the right way. When I started 14 years ago, there weren’t as many females and I was fortunate to have a few people give me advice.
“So, now if I have a chance to help out and they want advice I’ll help,” continued Beauregard. “And once they reach the point of, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ then the guys can have ‘em!”
CAMPBELL EARNS HIS STRIPES
Journeyman jockey Jesse Campbell has rode at nearly every track in North America from Arlington Park to Woodbine and with regard to the jocks’ room, the one thing he can attest to with utmost certainty is who holds the title of world’s best prankster.
“Emma-Jayne Wilson, no question,” laughed Campbell, who arrived at Woodbine full time in 2011. “It didn’t take her long to figure out I can be a little jumpy. She’s got me so many times… and she always has it on video.”
In one video, Wilson sits inside a box in the tunnel that stretches underneath the Woodbine grandstand from the racetrack back to the jocks’ room, waiting patiently for Campbell to come walking back after a race.
“She’d hide right beside the staircase and just as I’m walking by, she’d jump out and scare me,” said Campbell, laughing. “But, the best one she did, by far, was one Sunday when I stepped up on the scale to check in.”
Everyone in the room was in on the prank including Clerk of the Scales, Alison Read, and a few of Campbell’s fellow riders who lingered around for the show.
“I always stand up on the scale and face the opposite way,” started Campbell. “Well, Emma snuck in without me knowing and threw some firecrackers up underneath the scale…and people knew it was coming, they were taping it… and as soon as I stepped up, the firecrackers went off. I don’t want to tell you what I said, but she got me good on that one!”
The laughter helps ease the tension in the pressure cooker environment that is a professional sports locker room.
And Campbell knows a fair bit about working beside professional riders.
“It can be really night and day depending on the personalities of the guys,” said Campbell. “At Arlington Park, I was riding with guys like Mark Guidry, Carlos Silva, Earlie Fires, Garret Gomez and Aaron Gryder.
“It was a great jocks room for a younger rider to be brought up in, not only because of the talent in the room, but it was super professional. It had a good mix of camaraderie and joking. Very rarely would you see a fight. Every once in a while a few words after a race, but then it was over.”
As an American-born rider coming into Woodbine, Campbell knew he might be received as something of an outsider. After all, jockeying is a competitive business and each new arrival means one more person fighting for a piece of the purse.
“It was a little quiet at first and maybe a few people were uncomfortable with me being there,” said Campbell. “The first three months was tough on me. I don’t think I spoke a hundred words for the first thee months to anyone. It’s not that they weren’t friendly, maybe just testing the waters.”
The hard-working Campbell put his time in each morning galloping horses and his mounts picked up, going from 10th in the standings (60 wins) to sixth (86 wins) in his second season. The effort earned the respect of his fellow riders.
“I don’t know that it was me they had an issue with at first, or if they were worried about five or 10 more guys coming in behind me,” said Campbell. “But, the second year things changed. They knew I wasn’t there to just take the money and run. It’s like earning your stripes. Now, everyone is cool and jokes around with each other. This jocks’ room is the closest I’ve felt to that room in Arlington Park.”
He credits a lot of the good atmosphere in the Woodbine jock’s room to Read’s leadership.
“Alison runs a great room. Everyone has great respect that she’s the boss,” said Campbell. “She’s fun to be around and you can be her friend, it’s mutual, but she’ll let you know if something needs to be done.”
A lot can go wrong in a short period of time in the fast-paced world of racing. Jockeys need to be weighed in, saddles are checked, tack prepared, silks and helmet covers need to be changed and laundered.
“It’s important that everything is done the right way,” said Campbell. “To me, it’s the most professional room I’ve ridden out of. It’s a clean ship.”
And now, as he prepares to enter his sixth full season at Woodbine, Campbell feels like one of the guys counting riders like Gerry Olguin, Patrick Husbands, Luis Contreras and Eurico Rosa da Silva, who are also his chief rivals, as friends.
That friendship was demonstrated late in the 2015 season when Campbell was at Keeneland to ride Riker in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for trainer Nick Gonzalez.
Unbeknownst to Campbell, yet another video was being made. This video, posted on Woodbine’s social media channels, featured a number of his fellow riders, including the vocal tandem of Husbands and da Silva, cheering on Campbell as he put Riker to the lead in the $2 million, Grade 1 event.
A raucous group of riders rode along with Campbell, flailing their arms and yelling out the fractional splits and words of encouragement as Campbell led through three-quarters. Although Riker couldn’t hold on, finishing a respectable sixth, seeing that video meant a lot to Campbell.
“I went up after our race to watch American Pharoah run and Nick Gonzalez said to me, ‘You have to watch this video,’” said Campbell. “It was genuine emotion. Within the first few seconds of watching you can tell. I’m not so sure in some rooms you’d get that support. It made me feel that I really belong.”