The TV show “Jockeys” is an exciting behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to ride top Thoroughbreds on the lucrative and ultra-competitive Southern California racing circuit.
I watched back-to-back half-hour episodes on Animal Planet Feb. 27 where the story focused on jockeys Joe Talamo, Brendon Meier, Alex Solis and Solis’ son, bloodstock agent Alex Solis II.
Being that Talamo, Meier and Solis II are all less than 24 years old, the program was obviously slanted toward youth, at least in these episodes. The first show entitled “May the Horse Be With You” opened with the narrator telling us that Talamo, who won the 2007 Eclipse Award as the nation’s top apprentice, was losing lots of races lately.
“I’m on a cold streak and you always want to win,” said the 19-year-old Louisiana native. “I really want to win one today.”
Talamo was then shown, in three consecutive races, losing control of his horses as they swerved into the path of other runners. To display how damaging a horse fall can be, the producers showed footage of jockey Mike Smith getting tossed from a horse in 1998. Smith, who almost died from the accident, was in a body cast for a month, he said.
The jockeys on the program all seem to get along well, but they don’t take riding mistakes lightly. Bad rides can easily lead to crippling injuries or death.
After Talamo’s reckless incidents, one jockey put a white message board above Talamo’s locker, drew a racing oval and added a zig-zagged line throughout the oval. Above the drawing read: “Talamo’s path to the winner’s circle.” And another sign written by a rival above Talamo’s locker read, “What goes around comes around.”
When a horse impedes another, the jockey goes before three stewards who serve as the judge and jury for riders. They review the race replays and the rider explains what happened. If the stewards think the jockey was at fault, they are suspended for a few days and can’t make any money.
Jockeys are paid 10 percent of the owners share of the purse for winning a race, and 5 percent for second and third. Purses generally start at about $15,000 in Southern California for maiden claiming races and dramatically increase to millions of dollars for stakes races. The winning owner gets 60 percent of the purse, second place is 20 percent and third pays 10 percent.
So, riders make $900 for winning a race with a $15,000 purse and $60,000 if they win a $1 million stakes. Not bad for a couple of minutes work, but they spend hours every morning exercising horses and cultivating trainer relationships. Also, jockey booking agents take 20-25 percent of the rider’s pay.
Talamo met with the stewards and they watched his races together. The panel, who told Talamo they have no tolerance for careless riding, expected quicker reactions from Talamo when his horses were swerving during his races.
However, Talamo was riding inexperienced and sometimes unpredictable 2-year-old horses, so the stewards didn’t penalize him. “I think it’s fair to say that he was very close to suspension,” said steward Scott Cheney. “He could have acted a little bit faster.”
Viewers learn that these jockeys try to beat each other every day, but after the races they go out to dinner together, workout together and socialize with each other. During one scene, a table full of jockeys — at least the ones older than 21 — were sipping wine during dinner at an upscale restaurant. (And I thought all these guys drank was water and ate nothing more than a peanut or two a day.)
The conversation turned to how young jockeys are getting mounts on good horses today, whereas 10 or 20 years ago they would have to pay their dues first.
“It takes a long time to get good,” said Mike Smith, who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby aboard Giacomo. “You ain’t that good Joe. You aren’t going to get that good until you are in your 30’s”
In another scene, Smith had a party at his house and the wine glasses were full again. Gary Stevens attended and Talamo was amazed that he’d watched Stevens in the movie “Seabiscuit” just three years ago, and now he was hanging out at parties with him.
When Smith started riding, the veterans helped him out. So, Smith now advises Talamo and works out with him. They were shown jogging on the Santa Anita track. Afterward, he told Talamo to work hard and let trainers and owners know that he wants opportunities to ride good horses. But when given the the chance, he better make the most of it, Smith added.
“One good horse will make you famous,” Smith told Talamo.
At the beginning of the second half hour, entitled “Hands Down,” viewers are introduced to Alex Solis II, a 23-year-old bloodstock agent. Solis II, who was involved with the aquisition of Sham Stakes winner The Pamplemousse, purchases horses and solicits investors to buy shares in his runners.
If a bloodstock agent makes a good buy and the runner wins a stakes race, then the horse could be worth millions of dollars as a breeder. But pick the wrong horse, and investors can lose lots of money.
Minutes into the second half hour, viewers also meet Brandon Meier — an apprentice jockey who won 58 races in three months at Arlington Park. Meier, 20, is the son of jockey Randy Meier, who is the all-time leading rider at Sportsman’s Park and Hawthorne. But Brandon is having trouble getting mounts at Santa Anita.
The stewards keep a close eye on new riders like Meier and many trainers won’t use inexperienced jockeys, even though they get a 5-pound weight break.
“I use apprentices,” said trainer Bob Baffert. “But if you have a high profile horse, you want a veteran rider.”
In a dramatic moment, Meier finally got a mount that had a strong chance to win. His horse looked so good that, while jockey Jon Court was sitting around in the jockey’s room, he bet Aaron Gryder a Gatorade that Meier’s horse would defeat the one Talamo was riding.
Meier, who was on One Time at Band Camp, had the lead in the stretch, but Return of the King with Talamo came rolling home in the stretch to nail him by a nose.
To make matters worse, Meier drifted out in the lane, so he was summoned to the stewards office the next day for an explanation. Luckily, Meier didn’t get suspended.
One of Solis II’s horses, Lavender Sky, was ready to run and his father Alex Solis was looking forward to riding this classy animal, who trainer Dan Hendricks estimated to be worth at least $500,000.
“Normally your kids want to do great for you,” said jockey Solis, who is also the regular rider for The Pamplemousse. “I want to do great for him.”
But Solis couldn’t get Lavender Sky to run and she finished dead last.
In a couple of scenes, Meier’s girlfriend was pressuring him to come back to Arlington Park. Meier told her that if business didn’t pick up at Santa Anita then he’d think about making a move.
Journeyman jockeys either catch on or move on. And for Meier, business didn’t pick up, so he decided that after three weeks he’d had enough. He packed up his truck, said his goodbyes, and was off to the Churchill Downs/Keeneland circuit where he had some contacts.
“There are not enough horses and too many good jockeys here,” Meier said.
To horseplayers at simulcast centers watching races on TV screens, every horse looks like every other horse and the jockeys all look the same too. What a show like “Jockeys” does, is to put a human face on the game while shining a light on various racing interactions and subtleties.
But one thing I do not like about this show are the ridiculous race calls by track announcer Trevor Denman, which sound like they’re straight from an outdated video game. Denman has become one of America’s all-time great race callers because of the excitment and drama he adds that almost nobody can match. But on “Jockeys” he speaks in a monotone with lots of dead air while using riders names instead of horses names.
The show does him no justice.
Otherwise, for fans of horse racing and competitive sports, “Jockeys” is a winning ride.
“Jockeys” airs at 9 p.m Pacific Time Friday on Animal Planet. On March 6, the first half-hour “Legend of the Fallen” is about retired jockeys risking it all in one last comeback race. Also, Chantal Sutherland faces a difficult decision. The second half hour “Go Big or Go Home” sees 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin arriving at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup.