07/19/2013 7:17PM

Exercise riders: Racing's behind-the-scenes stars (expanded stories, with photos)


The below stories are slightly different versions of the print stories appearing in DRF Weekend on Saturday, July 20. 

Stories and photos by Barbara D. Livingston

Long before dawn, before the rest of the world stirs, exercise riders head to work. These men and women work outdoors in sun, rain, or snow, on sweltering and bone-chilling days. Some have no days off. Some live on-track. Many move regularly, sometimes with just a day’s notice. 

Some riders spend just a few years galloping before leaving the track. But then there are the veterans. Their faces and actions reflect their experience. These excellent riders, with figurative clocks in their heads, are the go-to journeymen that trainers seek out. They understand when to hold back and when to lay it down. They show up each morning. They know how a particular bit can improve a horse’s performance or when a horse is just the slightest bit off.

In this, and next weekend's DRF Weekend section, learn about six such exercise riders, who range in age from 31 to 50. Although most are known only to backstretch regulars, our sport could not go on without them. Each of these veterans is a star.


Birthdate: Oct. 8, 1981
Birthplace: Hialeah, Fla.
Parents involved in racing? His father, Walter Sr., is a Hall of Fame jockey and racetrack steward
Favorite racetracks: Saratoga, Gulfstream, Santa Anita
Favorite horse he has ridden: Bridgetown
Favorite horse he never rode: Kelso
Favorite jockey: Angel Cordero Jr.
Regular circuit: Florida
Goal as a rider: “Where I see it taking me, I’m not sure yet. I’m just enjoying the ride!"

Walter Blum is yelling.

“There’s no ‘I’ in team, buddy!”

It’s beach day at Hollywood Beach in Florida, and Blum is reprimanding a volleyball partner. He is nearly doubled over with laughter as he gestures, points, and yells. Blum’s brilliant blue eyes flash, and his broad smile brims with confidence.

“There’s no ‘I’ in team!” he says. “But there’s a ‘m-e!’ ”

Laughter comes easily for Blum, a fun-loving exercise rider extraordinaire who has worked for the likes of Todd Pletcher and Bobby Frankel, but he’s as competitive a person as you’ll ever meet. He is one of those guys you remember from high school – good-looking, outgoing, popular, athletic, the type who could pick up a racquet, ball, or club and be the best.

“I hate to lose more than I like to win,” Blum admits freely.  “I’m not in denial about it.  I’m competitive over anything!  It could be jacks, or hopscotch, and I’d say, ‘Hey, you stepped on the (expletive) line!  You’re out!’”

The youngest son of the Hall of Fame jockey of the same name, Blum, 31, says he has always known he would become a jockey.

“My mom has pictures from when I was maybe a year old and my dad was holding me on the pony at Hialeah,” he says. “From the time I can remember, I’ve always loved jockeys, knowing I was going to be one.”

But a twist of fate squelched Blum’s dream. Despite his father’s short stature and his mother’s height, 5-foot-8-inches, Blum shot up eight inches in one semester during in his junior year. He is 6 feet tall.   

Before his growth spurt a young Blum hung out at jocks’ rooms, talked with the athletes, and studied their methods. He was 13 the first time he rode a racehorse.

“I begged my dad to let me ride, and he took me to the Racetrack Training Center near Calder.  They call it Vietnam because it’s like a war zone back there. You don’t need a license, it’s like a 3/8 mile track, and it’s very narrow,” he recalls, laughing.  A natural storyteller, Blum’s voice quickly becomes animated. 

“So we go out there, and the guy brings the horse out.  And she’s little, and I said, ‘That’s perfect, Dad, I fit her perfect!’  I wasn’t 6-foot then, I was small.  So I jump up there, tie my knot, jack my irons up like I’m ready to go ride in the Derby.

“The guy says to just jog her half a turn and gallop her 3 ½, so I said, OK, no problem.  So I start off and get a good hold of her and we’re jogging, and we make it around a half-turn.  Now we’re starting to gallop, so I reach up and got me a good hold and put it down on her.  But I didn’t realize how strong they were! 

“So we’re going along and I make it about ¾ around and my hands were down on her neck at first, and now they’re coming up, and up, and up…and she’s going faster.  So I did what you’re not supposed to do. I reached for another hold of her, and when I did, she went just dead-full speed, boom, in :21.

“Here I come, and there’s no outriders, and I fly by my dad, and then I come back around by him again, and he yells, “Talk to her, son!”  So I fly by him again, I’m going down the backside and I’m screaming, “Whoa!  Whoa!,” and the more I yell, the faster she goes.  By this time, every Jamaican and everyone that works back there is standing on the rail to watch the state steward’s son die out there.

“She ends up running around there five times, flat to the boards, and finally she slows down and I get her stopped.  I come off the track, and my dad and everybody’s clapping.

“My dad ran up to the horse and said, ‘Great job, son, great job!’  And I said, ‘What do you mean, great job?  She ran around here five times!’  And he said, ‘Yeah, but you didn’t jump off.’

“’Jump off?  Are you nuts? She’s going 80 miles an hour.  There was no way I was jumping off!’ 

“We went home, and the next morning I was up at 5:30, waking my dad up to go back out there. That’s when he knew, if I stayed small enough, I would make it.”

But Blum grew. He considered being a jump jockey, a career in which the question isn’t if you’ll get hurt, but when – it was not for him. He could also have played golf professionally. For a year, Blum played on a tour that prepares golfers for the PGA.

“But when I woke up in the morning, I didn’t find myself wanting to go to the driving range,” he said. “I wanted to go to the track and ride horses.”

So Blum kept studying and learning. When he was 13, he hung around every Lukas horse in the paddock before their races. There, he doggedly pursued Lukas’s assistant, a meticulously dressed young man named Todd Pletcher. Blum even told his dad he wanted a suit just like Todd’s – and he got one.

The young Blum told Pletcher that by the time Pletcher became a trainer, Blum would have his license, and he wanted to ride for him. A few years later, Pletcher was one of the first people Blum got on horses for.

After beginning his career in Florida, Blum moved to New York, at age 18, to the home of family friend Angel Cordero Jr. He’s been many places since and has worked for Rick Dutrow Jr., Ken McPeek, and Frankel. He has piloted horses such as Ventura, Ginger Punch, Proudinsky, Noble’s Promise, Tapitsfly, and Big Brown. Blum has stayed put in Florida the last few years because his mother has been ailing, but he hopes to travel again soon.

Blum is one of the tallest exercise riders you’ll see, and he can sometimes look odd on small horses, especially leaning down over their necks when jogging. But he is widely respected for his quiet hands on a horse – ‘Ride them with love,’ he says. He hates hitting a horse with a whip and rarely needs to carry one. He instead tries to get into a horse’s head and figure out how to make that horse its happiest and most productive.  Horses feel his confidence. Horses relax for him.  And when he works a horse, he is the jockey he always wanted to be.

He’ll ride anything, from the sweetest filly to the toughest colt. And while he often works primarily for one stable – lately, it’s been Frank Calabrese at Gulfstream - he freelances for others.  You’ll sometimes see Blum out there from the first set through the last – 10, 12, even 14 mounts.

Blum heads home after work, washes up and gets ready for whatever else his day may bring – golf, volleyball, surfing, tennis, the track.  His slicked-back hair is meticulously styled and maintained, and he always dresses sharply. He has even gotten modeling gigs, where, no surprise, he’s a natural. Countless friends have given him nicknames – not just the usual fare, Wally or Walt, but Hollywood and Top Gun.

“My dad told me, ‘You may not have a million bucks, but you can always look like a million bucks,’” Blum says.

Blum always tries to liven up the sport, flashing his smile at strangers, offering assistance to newcomers, and keeping people laughing with his stories and antics. He's a real 'people person,' he says happily, and he loves bringing smiles to friends he knows and those he’s meeting for the first time.

“You need some characters for the sport to survive,” he says. “The game has got to come to our generation. The game should be fun.”

Above:  Walter Blum shares a moment with Big Brown during Preakness week.  Blum was part of the Dutrow team through Big Brown's Triple Crown run.

Above:  Walter Blum looks sharp on Kentucky Derby day, assisting with his regular morning mount Noble's Promise, 2010.

Above:  Walter gets some loving from House of Grace at the 2009 Breeders' Cup.  Horses love to love on Walter.

Above:  'Top Gun' Blum.  I posted this pic on Facebook this past winter, and some brilliant FB friend noticed that Walter's abs actually form the #25!  If you look closely enough, there's that number...and no Photoshop was involved!

Above:  At the racetrack in the afternoon.

Above:  Working Whatabouthonor, trained by Mike Mareina, this past winter at Gulfstream Park.

This photo entertains me for the simple reason that Walter Blum, on Noble's Promise, just happens to be passing Humberto 'Beto' Gomez...who is featured below.



Birthdate: Aug. 21, 1974
Birthplace: Mexico City, Mexico
Parents involved in racing?: No, but his father, Antonio Portela Gomez, was a racing “super fan”
Favorite racetrack: Santa Anita
Favorite horses he has ridden: Intercontinental, Medaglia d’Oro, Square Eddie, Mentor Cane
Favorite horse he never rode: Zenyatta
Favorite jockey: Jerry Bailey
Regular circuit: Primarily California, currently New York
Goal as a rider: To ride a Kentucky Derby contender at Churchill Downs

Humberto ‘Beto’ Gomez remembers the moment he decided to become a jockey. 

His father had taken him to the racetrack, and he’d watched races on TV, but Gomez had been unimpressed.  It seemed whatever horse broke out of the gate first won.  But then there was that momentous race – the one where the horse came from dead last and zoomed by everyone to win. That caught the 13-year-old’s attention. 

“I love speed,” Gomez says.  “I thought if the horse picked up that much speed at the end, it would feel really good to ride it.”

By then Gomez already rode, in a manner of speaking, in his hometown of Mexico City.  He put buckets on top of his grandmother’s donkeys and then rode them to go fetch water.  But speed?

“I always tried to go fast but, trust me, donkeys don’t go fast,” he says with a mischievous smile.  “They’re not hard to ride or very tall, but they’re very moody. 

“Sometimes they’d stop and they wouldn’t go.  You’d have to wait until they got in a good mood and then keep going.  So you’d get a little stick from the trees to encourage them. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.”

Craving more speed than donkeys could provide, Gomez asked his stepfather to enroll him in a riding school.  Because he was underage, his mother provided a permission slip.

His first day didn’t go to plan.  His teacher asked if he knew how to ride, and he said yes, neglecting to mention the complete answer would have been, “Yes, donkeys.”

The second horse he rode ran off.  The horse kept barreling ahead at full steam despite Gomez’s efforts to pull him up until, eventually, he couldn’t feel his legs any more. 

“It seemed like he wasn’t ever going to stop, so, if he’s not stopping, I am!”

Gomez bailed.

He remembers both his body and his ego hurting, but he kept thinking of the adrenaline rush he’d felt on that horse – it was scary, yes, but so exciting.  He went back the next day.  He hid behind other students for days, hoping the teacher would not notice him.  But when the teacher said get back in the saddle or quit?  Gomez's choice was easy.

He learned how to use his hands and legs on a horse, how to balance, how to stop.  After proving he could break a horse from a starting gate, Gomez shifted to a racetrack trainer.    He galloped horses, cleaned stalls and ponied, for free, in the afternoons.  In his spare time he and a friend watched TV as an amazing rivalry unfolded in the United States between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.  They dreamed of America.

Eight months after he enrolled in riding school, his name appeared in a racing program.  With another letter of permission from his mother, an ever-supportive Evangelina Nava Flores, 15-year-old Humberto Gomez was now a jockey. 

He remembers his first race, at the beautiful Hipodromo De Las Americas, as if it were yesterday.  It was a nighttime race, so he had all day to fret.  In the jockey's room, he fussed with his tack.  He napped.  He tried to read the Racing Form but couldn't understand it.  He weighed himself countless times because, if his weight were over, he could be replaced.

But when the moment finally came, he wasn’t nervous. He’d studied countless other races and knew how other jockeys rode.  He knew his mount, Forindi, was a come-from-behind type, and Gomez knew he should be patient.

As it turned out, he was too patient.  He bided his time until the ¼-pole, when he began hustling his mount.  The horse closed strongly.  Gomez remembers the extra-bright light of the finish line as his horse swept past the frontrunner.  He thought he won, but he lost by a nose.

Although statistics are not readily available, Gomez remembers riding for 6 or 7 years, with over 700 wins, before the track closed.

With no track, he decided upon a new career: Mexican tour guide.  He took classes but needed to learn English, and friend in Canada offered to teach him. Gomez soon headed north.

Once there, he realized his visa was for jockeys, and he’d have to ride or leave.  His choice was easy.  Vancouver’s Hastings Park beckoned. Gomez rode four months before a horse broke down underneath him, causing him to fall and break his collarbone.  Two months later, in his return, his mount clipped heels, and he broke his collarbone again.

“I told my friend that I’m just going to go back to my country,” Gomez remembers.  “And I didn’t even learn any (expletive) English!” 

His friend persuaded him to go to California instead and soon settled in near Hollywood Park.

Because of his injuries, difficulties maintaining his weight and the language barrier, he became an exercise rider.

Bobby Frankel soon noticed him and, through a Spanish-speaking rider, asked Gomez to work for him.  Frankel had a tough horse he felt might be a good fit.

Gomez hadn’t heard of Aptitude but remembers the first time he saw the beautiful 3-year-old in his stall.  Just before he mounted the colt, a fellow rider mentioned it was the best horse in the barn, aiming for the Kentucky Derby.  That didn’t help Gomez relax.

He was keenly aware of Frankel watching him as he and Aptitude got to the track, and of Aptitude’s power that first morning.  He strained to keep the horse from switching leads, to keep him under control, and his arms and legs burned heading back to the barn.  Frankel told Gomez he did OK but, next time, let the horse switch leads.  Luckily for Gomez, Frankel left for a week and, by the time he returned, Gomez had figured Aptitude out.

For Frankel, Gomez galloped horses such as Megahertz, Intercontinental and Medaglia d’Oro.  Aptitude remains a favorite.

Working for Frankel inspired Gomez to get serious about learning English.  He barely knew the language, and Frankel’s New York accent made communication nearly impossible. 

What was it like working for Frankel?

“He was really difficult,” Gomez says.  “He was a perfectionist, but that’s one thing I liked about him.  I like to be under pressure, with people pushing me to the best of my abilities.”

Gomez eventually shifted barns, to Julio Canani and then to Doug O’Neill’s, where he rode until recently.  Along the way Gomez has traveled many places, including Dubai – ‘a dream come true, like going to another world’ - Japan, and numerous U.S. tracks. 

He considers the United States home and is thankful for opportunities he’s found here.  Usually based at Santa Anita, he is now at Belmont, where he, along with his wife, now work for John Shirreffs.  Two of his regular mounts, Peace and Justice and Mentor Cane, scored impressively recently. 

In addition to riding, Gomez considers eventually becoming an assistant trainer.  One of his dreams is to ride a Derby horse at Churchill Downs.  He’s come close.  He rode Aptitude until the colt went to Churchill, I’ll Have Another for a short time before the Belmont Stakes, and He’s Had Enough this past winter at Gulfstream Park. 

When not on horseback, his need for speed has occasionally gotten him into trouble.  A few speeding tickets have caused him to now drive like ‘an old man,’ he laughs.  But when changing lanes in traffic, he sometimes chirps as if aboard a Thoroughbred. 

If the day comes when he no longer works at the track?  Gomez thinks he’d enjoy selling cars – fast ones.

Above:  Beto Gomez aboard Megahertz, during Breeders' Cup week 2004, Lone Star Park.

Above:  Gomez aboard Maryfield the week she won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, Monmouth Park, 2007.

Above:  Beto and Richard's Kid at Keeneland this spring.

Above:  Piloting Grade I winner Handsome Mike this past May at Churchill Downs.

Above:  The highly promising Mentor Cane, trained by John Shirreffs, who won recently at Belmont Park.



Birthdate: July 19, 1964
Birthplace: Warren, Ark.
Parents involved in racing? No
Favorite racetracks: Hialeah, Keeneland, Del Mar, Belmont, Santa Anita, Oaklawn, Saratoga
Favorite horse she has ridden: Awad
Favorite horse she never rode: Easy Goer
Favorite jockeys: John Velazquez, Ramon Dominguez, Eddie Maple, Angel Cordero Jr.
Regular circuit: New York and Florida
Goal as a rider: “To let go of ego and human goals and to make it all about the horse, all the time”


You can solve the problems of the world when you’re sitting on a horse.  They already know how to live.  We have to learn how to live.

                                                                                                - Jane Turner

It is before sunrise at Belmont Park, and Jane Turner is sitting quietly on her horse at the finish line.  ‘Big Sandy’ stretches seemingly endlessly in each direction.  There are no horses nearby.

Far-off sounds – cars, planes, sirens – go unnoticed.  That is the outside world.  This is a world away.

It is at times like this Jane’s mind sometimes begins creating…poems, simple lines, stories.  Messages about the world or the simplest of ideas, usually wrapped around a horse. 

I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t about a horse. Back before I can even remember, it was about a horse.

                                                                                               - Jane Turner

Turner, 48, has loved horses her entire life.   She grew up in Arkansas where, when she was 11, her parents bought her a pony. She rode in shows, attended horse camps and, eventually, learned 3-day eventing.  At St. Lawrence University she majored in sociology and rode on the riding team. 

By then, though, she knew she was heading trackside.  She’d helped break Thoroughbreds early on and had galloped in Middleburg, Virginia.  The athletic blonde worked for diehard racetrackers like the Fout family.  She burned to be a jockey.

To make her dream reality, she shifted from track to track and state to state: Virginia, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland.  She worked with different trainers, too, learning along the way. 

She loved working for Mike Bell – where the horses were treated with class, things were done in traditional horseman style.  And she learned working with Eddie Gaudet, pushing her limits as to how many horses she could get on daily – at times up to 35.  With Gaudet, she learned how to get tied on and be prepared for anything, which, she says, has served her well.

She pretty much starved herself for a few years, but when she finally became a jockey?  Well, she just wasn’t good.  She rode in 250 races or so, she says, and, for a while, hit the board at a 30% clip.  She had 7 wins.

“I rode a smart race the first part but I never worked on that last quarter-mile,” she remembers.  “That’s when you realize that you can gallop a hundred horses a day for a hundred years, but it’s a totally different ball game riding a race.

“People are yelling at you and telling you how bad you are.  One time I was on a 99-1 shot and ran second, and a guy spit on me from the stands.  Part of me was thinking, ‘You’re crazy,’ but a part of me was also saying, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Finally, she says, “I decided I wanted to eat more than just lettuce every day.”

Turner went back to galloping and traveling, and she worked with sales horses.  But it was a fledgling trainer in New York, David Donk, who changed her life. 

The first horse she rode for Donk was Awad.  In a 7-year career, Awad raced 70 times, won 4 Grade Is and raced competitively at the top level.  The turf specialist took Turner around the country, to three Breeders’ Cups, and to Japan.  He introduced her to countless people she still knows today.

Despite the perception that he could be tough – he could scream and prance - Turner says otherwise. 

“He was an easy horse to ride,” she says.  “He helped give me confidence, and he made me believe in me.  It’s a great teacher that does that.

“I don’t know if he’s the most talented horse I ever sat on, but he was a horse who showed up every time he stepped on a racetrack.  People know me because I rode Awad.  As much as you can be in love, that’s my boy.”

Awad is my home.  He possesses freedom within himself.  Although I guide him around the oval, his spirit soars to far-off places.  I look in his eye and see a power unknown to mankind.  He gazes beyond our consciousness.  In living the moment he knows a freedom that escapes mankind.  Even in his captivity he finds peace.  Perhaps this is why he is a champion.  He willingly forgoes his own desires and gives me his heart.

After Awad’s retirement, Turner eventually shifted barns again, keeping good company wherever she went: Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement.  She worked for Clement five years, not just riding but also vanning his horses.

She also tried her hand at breeding, leasing a mare to breed to Awad.  She owned and trained the resulting filly, Awad’s Quest, taking her time and using natural horsemanship.  Turner proudly remembers the filly raced competitively at good tracks (12 starts, 1 win, 2 seconds, 3 thirds, $43,794).  When Awad’s Quest came up with a minor injury after breaking her maiden, Turner erred on the side of caution and turned her filly out for a break.  Tragically, Awad’s Quest was struck by lightning and killed.

For Awad’s Quest:

No reins can hold me

nor fences high

I live now

where the grass grows high.

My hoofbeats pound

a thunderous rhythm

through the sky.

We shall meet again some day

you and I

For at your river’s end

Begins my sky.

Turner, who still rides, recently expanded her resume by becoming an equine therapist.  Learning from the highly respected Diane Volz, Turner now spends time going stall-to stall at barns, hooking horses to the wall, using confusing-looking machines to help horses heal or keep them from pain.  Words like ultrasound and photon light and electro-stem come easily.

Turner presses along various points of each horse to see its reactions.  A machine hums quietly.  Electrodes are hooked up on the horse’s problem areas, and the animals relax beneath her touch, resting their heads or chomping at hay.

“We don’t make them any faster than they are,” she says. “They’re an athletic performer. Therapy won't mask major injury but it relieves the soreness brought on by everyday training. It helps as a preventive to injury, speeds recovery and keeps them more comfortable and happier.”

To keep herself more comfortable and happier, Turner took a break last year to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.  In her dream world, she’d grab a backpack, travel wherever her whims took her, and build houses with Habitat for Humanity.

When Turner’s life-changing friend Awad died in 2011, she wrote a story about him.  In part, it read:

When I sit on one that gives me goose bumps, that feeling of floating on air; one that takes you into your own little world, where it's just you and a horse and hooves barely touching the ground; it's Awad I compare them to, because we spent 365 days a year, for 5 years, in that elevated space.

For Turner, nowadays, it is still all about the horse.

“Everyone says you’re not supposed to love them, but if you don’t love them, why are you here, really?

“I know that’s not the way it really is in a lot of places, it’s a business.  But for me, if I can’t love them, I won’t be here. They’re my connection to something beyond me.”

Above:  Jane aboard Awad during 1995 Breeders' Cup week at Belmont Park.

Above:  With Grade I winner Ordway at Woodbine during 1996 Breeders' Cup week.

Above/below:  It is beautiful to watch Jane in action with a horse.  You can actually see the horse relax, and look more comfortable, as she works patiently with them.

Above:  On a recent morning at Saratoga.  Portrait of a true professional.

With a heartfelt thanks to these remarkable people for sharing their stories with me.  Next week's DRF Weekend section will feature three more extraordinary riders:  Eric Messiah, Patti Krotenko and Carmen Rosas.