07/18/2013 1:00PM

Exercise riders: Jane Turner

Barbara D. Livingston

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”

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 Turner begins creating poems, simple lines, stories − messages about the world or the simplest of ideas, usually wrapped around a horse.

“You can solve the problems of the world when you’re sitting on a horse,” she wrote in one of her poems. “They already know how to live. We have to learn how to live.”

Turner, 49, who has worked as an exercise rider up and down the east coast for several top trainers, 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 three-day eventing. At St. Lawrence University she majored in sociology and was 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, Va. She 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.

Turner says she loved working for Mike Bell, who treated horses with class and performed tasks in traditional horseman style. And she gained priceless knowledge working with Eddie Gaudet for a year, sometimes getting on as many as 35 horses daily. With Gaudet, she learned to get tied on quickly and be ready for anything.

Turner pretty much starved herself for a few years, but when she finally became a jockey, well, she just wasn’t good enough.

“I rode a smart race the first part, but I never worked on that last quarter-mile,” she says. “That’s when you realize that you can gallop 100 horses a day for 100 years, but it’s a totally different ballgame riding a race.

“People are yelling at you and telling you how bad you are,” she says. “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, Turner 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 seven-year career, Awad raced 70 times, won four Grade 1’s, 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.

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.”

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.

The horse’s death inspired another of Turner’s many poems:

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 résumé by becoming an equine therapist. She 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.

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.
Turner realizes some may question the craft.

“Therapy won’t mask major injury, but it relieves the soreness brought on by everyday training,” she says. “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 says she’d grab a backpack, travel wherever her whims took her, and build houses with Habitat for Humanity.

When Awad died in 2011, she wrote a story about him. In part, it reads:

“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 five years, in that elevated space.

For Turner, 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.”


THIS WEEK: Walter Blum | Jane Turner | Humberto Gomez

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