07/18/2013 12:58PM

Exercise riders: Racing's behind-the-scenes stars

Barbara D. Livingston
Exercise rider Walter Blum strikes a pose for the camera. "My dad told me, ‘You may not have a million bucks, but you can always look like a million bucks.’ "

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.

This is the first of two installments offering a glimpse into the lives of 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.

PART ONE: Walter Blum | Jane Turner | Humberto Gomez

PART TWO: Patti Krotenko | Eric Messiah | Carmen Rosas


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 galloped horses for trainers like 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 says. “I’m competitive over anything. It could be jacks or hopscotch.”

The youngest son of the Hall of Fame jockey and later track steward 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, Blum shot up eight inches in one semester during in his junior year. He is 6 feet tall.

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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. Blum becomes animated when he recalls an early experience in which he lost control of the first horse he galloped.

“I didn’t realize how strong they were,” he says. “I made it about three-quarters 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.

“I’m going down the backside, and I’m screaming, ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ and the more I yell, the faster she goes. By this time, 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,” Blum says. “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 – but 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 says. “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 Pletcher’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 that rode Blum in the mornings.

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 top trainers like 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 respected nationally 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. When his horses breeze, Blum becomes the jockey he 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, 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 also 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 tries to liven up the sport. He smiles at strangers, offers assistance to newcomers, and keeps people laughing with his stories and antics. He makes people happier, 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.”

This is part 1 of DRF Weekend's two-part series on exercise riders. Click here for more behind-the-scenes photos of the featured riders at Barbara Livingston's blog.