08/02/2012 11:39AM

Homeister finds balance as mom and rider

Four-Footed Fotos
Rosemary Homeister with her daughter, Victoria, who turns 1 on Aug. 21. Homeister's career is back in full swing after she took almost all of 2011 off and gave birth to her first child at age 39.

It was early January 2011, and Rosemary Homeister, riding at Tampa Bay Downs, had been feeling increasingly tired and nauseated. She didn’t know exactly why. There had been almost no break between the end of the Churchill Downs fall meet and the start of Tampa Bay, and Homeister had been going hard since arriving in Florida.

One night, unable to sleep, thinking she might be coming down with the flu, and wishing very much not to take ill and lose mounts, she fished out a pregnancy test kit, even though pregnancy seemed unlikely. Homeister was 38, and years earlier she’d failed to get pregnant while taking a break from riding to try to start a family.

“I was like, I’m probably just getting sick, but let me just take it anyway,” she said. “And within 30 seconds, it said I was pregnant. I just started shaking, trembling. I was so scared.”

Nearly 20 years into her career, Homeister had gotten a huge break the previous autumn, having been picked up by a prominent agent, Steve Elzey, to ride at Churchill. The fall meet there had been her first try in Kentucky, and she had fared very well. Homeister figured she was ready to climb even higher in 2011. Getting pregnant – something she’d once desired – hadn’t entered the equation.

“I’m a planner, and I had all these plans,” she said. “We’re working hard, we’re succeeding, I’m going to Kentucky to ride Keeneland and Churchill in the spring, and wherever else things might take me.”

Things might not have worked out like Homeister planned – but they are working out nonetheless. Homeister’s daughter, Victoria Rose Rosendo Homeister, turns 1 on Aug. 21, and after a struggle with weight and a period of melancholy, Homeister has made it back to the track, reinvigorating her career with a move to Chicago this spring. At Arlington, she has climbed to fourth place in the jockey standings while finding a way to successfully merge work and family.

Homeister, who turned 40 on July 5, began riding at 19 and won an Eclipse Award as the leading apprentice of 1992, when she won 172 races. Riding up and down the East Coast, she carved out a very solid niche over the next several years. Homeister’s career surged somewhat in the late 1990’s, and in 2001 she had her best year, winning 226 races and more than $4.3 million in purses. By normal standards her statistics point to a comfortable level of achievement, but as a female rider, Homeister did especially well. In 2009, she won her 2,138th race, overtaking Patti Cooksey to become the second-leading all-time female rider, behind Julie Krone.

This was the crowning achievement of the second phase of Homeister’s career: In 2004, her pace of activity and success having considerably slowed, Homeister stepped away from the track. Married then to jockey Jose Ferrer, she’d become equally interested in real estate and the possibility of having children.

“I had gotten my real estate license in 2003 while I was riding, and I was at a point where I was a little burned out,” Homeister said. “So I retired and for a year I tried to get pregnant, but I couldn’t and I don’t know why I couldn’t. I went to my doctor and he said, ‘You’re healthy. Maybe it’s your husband?’ It wasn’t him. I wound up separating and getting a divorce a year later, and I was fine with it all. I was like, it if ever happens that I get pregnant, fine; if not, it’s not a big deal. It wasn’t my main focus.”

Homeister returned to riding again in 2006 and after a couple of lean years got rolling again. In 2009, she won 204 races with purse earnings of more than $4 million, and she was a nose from capturing the Breeders’ Cup Turf Marathon riding Cloudy’s Knight for trainer Jonathan Sheppard. But it was early in the fall of 2010, an age generally deep along a jockey’s career arc, that Homeister got a big break.

Homeister was riding Delaware Park and a couple of nearby tracks when she got a call from Elzey. Historically, the equation has been straightforward: Elzey plus whatever rider he represents in Kentucky equals success. Elzey wanted Homeister for the Churchill Downs fall race meet. Homeister picked up and moved as quickly as she could.
Things clicked. At Churchill that autumn Homeister found plenty of business and was on live runners. She won 16 races to finish fourth in the rider standings, her name suddenly mentioned more often than at any point since her Eclipse year.

And there she was, six weeks later, struggling to come to terms with the idea that she would have to stop riding and have a baby.

“I didn’t tell anyone for about 2 1/2 weeks,” she said. “I was so nauseous, always felt sick, and I was so stressed over it. I was so tired, and I’d wake up every morning crying and crying.”

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Finally, Homeister broke down and told Elzey what was going on. That was the easy call. The difficult one was to Rosemary Homeister Sr.

Homeister said her relationship with her mother often has felt more sister-sister than mother-daughter. Homeister Jr. is the only child of Homeister Sr., a far less successful jockey than her daughter. The elder Homeister raised Rosemary while riding, then training, teaching her to ride Thoroughbreds when Rosemary expressed an interest in becoming a jockey at about 13.

The elder Homeister lives vicariously through her daughter’s career, which she managed as closely as possible for a long as she could.

“When she got married, I guess, is when I had to give up my rights,” Homeister Sr. said. “I realized she was old enough to make her own decisions. But I watched every race she ever rode, and I was always in the shadows.”

Now Homeister had to tell her mother that her career was going on hold just as it was taking off.

“She started screaming at me, ‘Are you crazy? What are you thinking?’ ” Homeister Jr. said. “I mean, she went off on me. We didn’t speak for three weeks, and that kind of destroyed me. I really needed her support there.”
From the beginning of her pregnancy, Homeister said, she struggled with her emotional well-being. 

“I’m the most positive person, but I cried every day,” she said. “It wasn’t even a bad pregnancy, but I was so emotional. I felt like I was all over the place. I’m so organized, so into planning – bim, bam, everything in place. But when I was pregnant, I didn’t want to do anything.”

At least she had the support of her boyfriend and Victoria Rose’s father, jockey Irwin Rosendo. Rosendo, 32, is a native Venezuelan and has a son back home. He and Homeister met at Calder in 2000 but didn’t form a more intimate bond until almost a decade later. Rosendo had no qualms about bringing a child into the world, but he understood the situation taxed Homeister more heavily.

“I always tried to support her, and everything she wanted, I was for her,” Rosendo said. “I just wanted to be there for her.”

In the spring, Homeister followed Rosendo to Kentucky, but when his riding business there flagged and he decided to try New York, Homeister packed up and went home to Florida, where she stayed until giving birth.

“I gained about 50 pounds during my pregnancy, and I was lost, which is totally not me,” she said. “But I had a great labor, and it was the most awesome two days. When this beautiful little girl just came out of me, I was so in love with her, and as soon as I had her, I was like, ‘I’m back!’ ”

During her pregnancy, Homeister figured she’d gained too much weight to ever return to riding, but days after Victoria Rose was born, she hired a personal trainer and started working out. The weight she’d gained began coming off, and early in the fall, Homeister, Rosendo, and their daughter moved to Kentucky to stay at the Mercury Farm of trainer Eric Reed, with whom Homeister had grown close after beginning to ride for him in 2009.

“I knew she’d get back to riding,” Reed said. “I knew she’d miss it because she’s so competitive, and I think she was just reaching her peak when she got pregnant. I told her before she had Victoria she’d be riding again before Victoria was crawling.”

Homeister said she weighed 145 pounds when she arrived in Kentucky, but she began getting on horses every morning at the farm. By the end of October she had dropped all the way down to riding weight. Last Nov. 9, Reed put Homeister on her first mount since she’d announced her pregnancy. The next day, about 2 1/2 months after she weighed more than 150 pounds and delivered a baby, Homeister rode a winner for him.

Homeister won just the one race in Kentucky last fall, but at Tampa’s 2011-12 meeting she won 52, finishing fourth in the standings. As the Tampa meet wound down, Homeister phoned Reed, pondering her next move. When she had ridden the Mid-Atlantic circuit Homeister constantly hustled, sometimes riding one track by day and another by night.

“I could do that when I didn’t have a child, and I’d still do it and find a way for it to work, because I love racing, but that’s not what I wanted,” Homeister said. “Eric said, ‘I think the best option for you would be Arlington, and I already got you an agent.’”

The agent, Jay Fedor, phoned a couple of days later, and Homeister came to Chicago in April, with one week left in the Hawthorne meet, not knowing more than a handful of horsemen on an unfamiliar circuit.

“But that was okay,” she said. “I love change, and I like meeting new people. And Arlington was perfect. Its four days of racing a week and a six-month meet. I don’t have to move and move and move.”

Another successful female jockey, Inez Karlsson, stopped riding after the Hawthorne winter-spring meet because of her young child. Karlsson made a post-childbirth comeback last fall and had success early this year, but while she lives near Hawthorne it’s a long commute to Arlington, and Karlsson didn’t want to sacrifice time with her daughter, so she suspended her career this summer. But Homeister is merging riding and mothering. She lives 15 minutes from the track, and while Rosendo spends most of the week riding in Indiana or Minnesota, his mother has been staying with Homeister in Chicago, taking care of the baby when Homeister is away.

“I get to work between 5:30 and 6 in the morning, work horses, and then I go home and lay down for an hour with my daughter,” Homeister said. “She won’t take her nap until I get back home. Then I take a shower and come back to work for the races. A lot of times, she’ll come with me to the track on weekends. It’s worked out great.”

Through Aug. 1, Homeister had 35 wins at Arlington, trailing only Cisco Torres, James Graham, and Seth Martinez in the local standings despite lacking a true go-to outfit here. Reed has put her on all four of his Arlington winners, and Homeister has booted home five for trainer Christine Janks, but she’s won no more than two races for any other trainer. Some of the success is due to Fedor’s good connections, but Homeister clearly has made a favorable impression.

“She’s fearless, and she’s exceptionally smart,” Reed said. “I’ve dealt with so many riders over the years, but I’ve never had one that comes to the barn with notes on the horses she breezes. She takes notes on her cell phone: ‘This horse likes to run in the bridle; this horse doesn’t like you to use the stick.’ She comes in and says, ‘These are the notes I have. What do you want to do?’ She’ll give you feedback after a race like none you’ll ever get.”

Homeister said she’s in better shape than ever. She tacks 108 pounds; before she had her daughter she tacked 111 or 112.

“I told her I don’t even recognize her on the TV,” Homeister Sr. said. “She always kind of had a bubble butt, and now she doesn’t.”

Homeister said she plans to ride at Hawthorne in the fall and Oaklawn in the winter and return to Chicago again next spring. The Kentucky circuit and whatever other points might’ve awaited before Homeister got pregnant are gone, at least for now, but that hasn’t turned out to be a bad thing.

“I have my beautiful daughter, a wonderful boyfriend – the end result has been awesome,” Homeister said “It’s better than anything I could have imagined.”