04/15/2010 12:00AM

Davis has her sights set on making it

Barbara D. Livingston
Since losing her bug Feb. 18, Jackie Davis, the 23-year-old daughter of former jockey Robbie Davis, has four wins from 81 mounts through April 13.

As time drew closer for Jackie Davis to transition from apprentice to journeyman jockey, she heard how it was going to be the beginning of the end for her riding career.

"You're going to fall off the face of the planet."

"You're never going to be heard from again."

"Everyone's going to drop you."

Davis hasn't quite fallen off the face of the planet, nor is she lighting the world on fire. She is suffering through the typical struggles of most apprentice jockeys when they become journeymen. No longer permitted to ride with the advantage of a weight allowance, a newly turned journeyman can often struggle just to get mounts, let alone good ones.

So it is with Davis, the 23-year-old daughter of former jockey Robbie Davis. Since becoming a journeyman Feb. 18, Jackie Davis has won four races from 81 mounts through April 13. The most recent of her 60 career victories came in the fifth race at Aqueduct on March 10. She has lost with her last 48 mounts. Only six of those horses were sent off at odds of less than 10-1.

"One day you'll be frustrated, one day you're not," Davis said recently. "I'm still hitting the board. I'm still riding three or four a day. I'm still here. I tell people I'm trucking. It's hard."

Hard, but typical. Most apprentice riders endure a period of growing pains once they become a journeyman. The allure for a trainer or owner to use an apprentice is that their horses carry less weight than horses ridden by journeymen, or more experienced riders. An apprentice - or bug rider, as they are commonly called because of the bug-like asterisk next to their name in the track program - begins his career with a 10-pound allowance. After the fifth victory, the weight allowance drops to seven pounds.

A rider's fifth career victory signals the official start of his one-year apprenticeship. The weight allowance drops from seven to five pounds after a jockey wins his 40th race.

Jackie Davis, the second-oldest of Robbie and Marguerite Davis's six children, always wanted to follow in her father's stirrups. As a kid, she would go to the track in the mornings with her father, often waking up an hour before she was told just so she'd be ready to go.

"I always wanted to be a jockey," she said. "When I was little, I expressed it a lot to my dad, and I was like, 'I want to learn.' He'd be like, 'You're little. You'd be great.' But when it came down to it, he said, 'Nope, my daughter is not going to be on the racetrack.' He knew how hard it was even for an up-and-coming young male rider."

Upon graduating from high school, she considered attending fashion school and studied fine arts at Hudson Valley Community College in upstate New York for one year. She didn't like it.

Davis remembered Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron telling her father a few years earlier about a jockey school he wanted to start. She received permission from her parents to enroll in the inaugural class of McCarron's North American Racing Academy in Kentucky. She figured her father thought she wouldn't stick with it.

"There are a lot of things I started and never finished," she said.


Jackie Davis is on a tougher road after losing her bug. Photos by Barbara D. Livingston.

Jackie Davis enjoys a few quiet minutes alone in the jockeys' room at Aqueduct.

Davis did stick with it and proceeded to work for Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens as part of the curriculum. She rode her first race at Saratoga on Aug. 31, 2008, and scored her first win Nov. 8, 2008 - her 33rd mount - at Aqueduct aboard Blue Hill Bay, a 64-1 shot. Davis was basically holding on for dear life as the horse crossed the finish line. She said she believes she has improved tremendously since then, something evident when she recently matched up pictures of her third career victory and her 46th, which came aboard Suttle Rich in December at Aqueduct.

"It showed me the progress," Davis said. "My positioning, from where my feet are, to where my hands are, to where my torso sits - everything."

Others have noticed the improvement, as well.

"I think she looks much better on horses, much neater," said Richard Migliore, who has ridden in New York for nearly 30 years. "She definitely has a much better idea of where she's at in a race. You don't feel like she's going to do something panicky or wrong. She seems to have a very good sense of where she's at, and that's huge. Some people never get that. Some people, it takes longer to get it. In the last 2 1/2 to 3 months I've seen her make huge strides."

Channing Hill, who rode with Davis last summer at Monmouth and again with her this winter at Aqueduct, also said he has seen a change for the better.

"She's improved from the beginning of Monmouth to now," Hill said. "She seems calm and coolheaded. As long as she continues to stay focused and ride with confidence and ride her race she's going to be fine."

Migliore and Hill are two examples of jockeys who had success as apprentices and kept the momentum going on the tough New York Racing Association circuit. One of the main reasons for their successful transition was that both had a big stable putting them on live horses, something Davis has never had.

Decades ago, jockeys were required to have contracts with trainers or owners. That was eventually outlawed in the 1970's, but some riders adhered to the practice. Migliore had a contract with trainer Stephen DiMauro in 1981, when he won the Eclipse Award as North America's leading apprentice. That year, Migliore shattered Steve Cauthen's apprentice earnings record with $5.1 million.

"It was a big deal to have as good a stable as DiMauro," Migliore said. "What it said to everybody else was, this high profile trainer had confidence in your ability. It gave you some credibility right off the bat."

Shortly after he lost his apprenticeship, Migliore bought himself out of his contract so he could ride for other outfits.

While Hill was not under contract, he had the backing of Steve Asmussen's powerful stable in 2005, when he won 115 races as an apprentice and was a finalist for the Eclipse Award. Hill lost his apprentice status in late 2005, but the Asmussen barn stayed loyal to him for the 2005-06 winter meet.

"If you have an outfit to stick beside you, it just proves to other people that you can still win races," Hill said. "It's not like you've become a worse rider. If you proved that you could win races with the bug, you could win races without the bug."

Julien Leparoux became the third jockey to win an Eclipse Award as an apprentice and as a journeyman, joining McCarron and Kent Desormeaux. Leparoux, who spent the bulk of his apprenticeship in Kentucky, had the support of trainer Patrick Biancone.

Davis has not had the backing of a top stable. Most of her 16 wins at Aqueduct's inner-track meet came for little-known trainers such as Oscar Barrera Jr., Assaf Ronen, Naipaul Chatterpaul, Jimmy Iselin, and James Carrao.

Davis won three races in the winter for Barrera, who said he would continue to use Davis and has put her on five of his 12 runners since Davis lost her apprenticeship.

"I'm trying to stick with her," said Barrera, the son of one-time New York kingpin Oscar Barrera Sr. "She's got a little talent, and I think as time goes by she's going to get better."

Gary Contessa, New York's leading trainer the last several years, said he's seen "tremendous improvement" in Davis, but he acknowledged she is tough to sell to his owners when other, more experienced riders are available. He used her on Classy Jet on March 27 but did not ride her back when Classy Jet raced April 8.

"You have a lot of lower-profile journeymen like [Jose] Espinoza and [Mike] Luzzi who would like to be closer to the top, who are tried-and-true professionals who have seen it all," Contessa said. "First, you have to crack those guys. Then you have to crack the next level of guys."

This begs the question of whether Davis would be better off plying her trade at a lower-level circuit than the New York Racing Association, which conducts racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. Last summer, when things slowed for Davis at Belmont, she went to New Jersey and won 21 races between Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands.

Contessa said he believes Davis would do well at tracks such as Penn National or Suffolk Downs and that success there could lead to her returning to New York down the road.

"I was Frank Martin's assistant when he was the winningest trainer around, and when I went out on my own I had to go somewhere else," Contessa said. "It took me 11 years before I could crack the New York training colony."

Davis said she would prefer to stay in New York, where her father found his niche and recorded most of his 3,382 career victories before retiring in 2002. The Davis family lives in the Saratoga area.

"I want to stay," she said. "Saratoga's a dream. If I work hard maybe I can stay."

Davis has been trying to show horsemen she is serious about making it in New York. She is out most every morning getting on horses. She has hired a personal trainer and has gained three pounds of muscle since she lost her bug. She has also taken up yoga.

"It kicked my butt," Davis said. "Muscles that I haven't even tried to use. But with the yoga, they do a lot of jockey stances. I said, 'I know this pose, I can stay here forever.' I'm just looking to keep improving."

To succeed, Davis needs to get on better stock. Twenty of her last 25 mounts have come on horses who were 20-1 odds or higher. The sixth race at Aqueduct on April 10 typified her plight. She gave a perfect, ground-saving ride aboard 18-1 shot Casing Gold, but 3-5 favorite Simple Cat, despite being taken wide into the stretch, was simply too good and won the race.

Robbie Davis, who rode the second half of his apprentice year in New York in 1982, said opportunity is the key to success. Davis said that following his apprenticeship, he went a "month or six weeks without winning a race." He said his break came when trainer Sally Bailie put him on a few winners in New York. Then he started riding for Mike Freeman, Allen Jerkens, and Phil Johnson.

"The things is, you have to grind it out, and hopefully, one day you get a guy that has a couple of decent horses, and you get lucky on their horses, and they start riding you on a few more," said Davis, 48.

Davis, who briefly worked as an agent for his daughter, said it is difficult to decide whether to stay in New York or leave town. He said the short fields in New York could make it tougher for his daughter to get mounts.

"When I had the bug, we had 10-, 12-horse fields all the time," he said. "Now you have six- or seven-horse fields and two scratches. You have to go where you can win. You can win in New York - she's proven that - but you don't want to stay for one win every two or three months."

Through the struggles, Davis has remained positive. She said she appreciates those who have stuck with her and hopes to draw more clients. At this point, she said she sees no other vocation for herself.

"I didn't see any other career path, because that's what I grew up with," she said. "I'm the type of person that, if I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't do it."

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* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes