07/25/2013 12:55PM

Exercise riders: Racing's behind-the-scenes stars, part 2

Barbara D. Livingston

This is part two of DRF Weekend's two-part series offering a glimpse into the lives of a few of racing's unsung heroes, otherwise known as exercise riders. If you missed part one of the series, click here to read about Walter Blum, Jane Turner, and Humberto Gomez.

THIS WEEK: Eric MessiahPatti Krotenko | Carmen Rosas


Birthdate: Jan. 3, 1963
Birthplace:  St. John, Antigua
Family in racing? No
Favorite horse he has ridden: Dominant Prospect
Favorite horse he never rode: Barbaro
Favorite jockey: Angel Cordero Jr.
Favorite track: Belmont Park
Goal: “I have some land in Antigua, left to me by my grandmother. I plan to build a barn and have racehorses retire there. When people go there on vacation, they can ride the horses on the beach, and I’ll tell them that horse won at Belmont, or Saratoga, or Gulfstream.”

The afternoon is brilliantly sunlit, with blue skies and warm winds, and along the shore of the Gulfstream Park infield pond stands a tall, slim man wearing jeans and a colorful Bob Marley T-shirt. He wears black sunglasses, his hair tucked beneath a black cap.

He holds a transmitter as he guides a 3-foot-long motorized sailboat smoothly through the water. He studies the wind’s direction. The white-and-red boat zig-zags into the wind, sailing ever farther from the shore.

It is a dark day at the track, and Eric Messiah is putting his handcrafted sailboat through its paces, just feet from the track surface where, a few hours earlier, he worked horses, fast and furious.

Messiah, a 50-year-old native Antiguan, sees the world differently than most racetrackers. True to his name, he is spiritual, not in a religious way so much as he is just in tune with the world.

“To me, everything in life is connected,” he says. “Nature and technology are connected, and I believe that all people are connected in some way.”

In his early years at the track, Messiah lived in New York. He started in the late 1970s at Belmont and rode Eclipse champion Saratoga Dew in 1992. But the city itself? Not his style. He grew up in a land of sailboats and donkeys.

Messiah was raised by his grandmother in English Harbour, Antigua. Their home had no electricity, no toys. They rarely even saw a car. He didn’t wear shoes and attended school beneath the trees. Friday afternoons after school, he and his young friends held donkey races. He also helped tend to the family’s sheep, cattle, and chickens.

Although his grandmother was very religious and involved him in the local church, he also had family up in the nearby hills who were spiritually connected to the earth. Messiah grew to respect different worlds.

At age 12 he moved in with an aunt in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands. He discovered a more Western way of life, from fast food to American cars. He learned of a Puerto Rican jockey riding in the United States who was a huge star to the people of the islands: Angel Cordero Jr.

Two years later, Messiah moved to New York to live with his mother. They were driving on a highway one day, passing the end of what looked like a huge building, when he heard the huge roar. He asked his mother what it was, and she answered, “Belmont Park.”

Messiah and a friend soon began sneaking into the track – underage children were not allowed then – until one day, when he was hanging out near the stable gate, someone asked if he’d like to go in.

He ended up accepting a job as a hotwalker, and eventually, Tom Skiffington hired him and taught him about horses and riding. He also was befriended by Cordero.

Messiah was surprised by the size and beauty of the backstretch. He took a job, and before long he was a talented, highly sought-after exercise rider. And when Messiah was still a teenager, Cordero’s family, of all people, began watching out for him.

“Here I was, this little black kid from the islands,” Messiah says. “My first time in Saratoga was 1979 or ’80, and I was living on the dorm at the track, and on days off I’d go to the lake with Angel Cordero. We used to go tubing with his whole family. I grew up with really cool people.”

Messiah took care of himself.

“I learned from a young age that your body is a gift,” he says. “If you don’t treasure it, it won’t treasure you. I never smoked cigarettes, never drank. I don’t let what other people do influence me.

“That’s why I’m as healthy as I am today. I know so many people who wasted away.”

Aside from his riding, Messiah is a very talented musician. He plays the drums and bass, sitting in with bands on occasion, even with Bob Marley’s kids. Last winter, he played a Florida jockeys’ fundraiser at his friend John Velazquez’s request.

He also builds model sailboats, like the one he guided in the pond at Gulfstream Park. When Messiah was young, his uncle was a sailor, and Messiah sometimes sailed with him. He learned how the winds, water, and sails moved the boat forward. He and his friends watched top boats visit the island yearly for one of the world’s premier sailing races. They studied the boats and crafted their own small versions, using found materials.

Messiah’s boats are more advanced now. He has a workshop and creates the hulls from fiberglass. He buys sails, paint, stickers, motors, and transmitters, and every tiny detail is lovingly crafted to be true to life.

When Messiah’s children grow up, he plans to buy a real sailboat and set sail for the Keys and Cuba. But for now, he sails his models.

Now in Florida, Messiah is still a rider, for various trainers, but he has taken on other jobs at the track, including on the starting gate crew and as a valet.

In the afternoons, Messiah, the valet, sees jockeys as friends and family. He learns about their lives, studies the horses they’re riding, the trainers they’re riding for – anything that can help.

“Being a valet is not a 9-to-5 job,” he says. “The phone could ring now − a jock looking for directions, a place to eat, a doctor to go to, an oil change.

“I can go from talking to a jockey about things he and my kids have in common” – Messiah has 3 children – “to having to call his wife to tell her, ‘Your husband just went down.’ ”

At 5 feet 11 inches, Messiah is unusually tall for an exercise rider, and fellow riders say his body is as “ripped” as they come. His smile is disarming, and his long dreadlocks are a tip to his homeland.

Messiah keeps his hair tucked beneath his helmet in the morning, and in the afternoons, while valeting, it hangs down, tied back neatly. Many racetrackers don’t realize the man they see galloping in the morning is the same one saddling their horse in the afternoon.

“Some people see me working [as a valet], and they try to be positive because I’m saddling a horse for them, but when I see them outside, they may not want to have anything to do with me because my hair’s out, and I’m not wearing my Gulfstream uniform.

“I can always tell people who’ve traveled a lot, because they accept each moment and person for what’s going on,” he says. “They don’t say, ‘I’m not going to deal with a person like that because I don’t understand them.’

“I don’t judge anyone for their beliefs or what they do, even if someone is negative. Maybe it was something tragic, or they didn’t grow up as cool as I did,” he says with a smile. “Maybe if you sit down and talk to that person, you’d understand why they’re like they are.”

This is part 2 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.