Early Days I was raised in the small town of Cut Bank, Montana. As a kid I was really into snowmobiles, sports, and art. As I got into high school the art started conflicting with sports so I hung it up. I went on to become a state champion in wrestling as a senior.
I didn't grow up around horses like most jockeys, but I had a couple friends who owned horses and I really liked being around them. I liked animals so much that I even considered becoming a vet. By the time I graduated from high school, I was tired of school, and wanted to get away from Montana and see the world. My father had a friend that trained quarter horses and the guy suggested that because of my size, and athletic ability, I should consider becoming a jockey. I figured, "Why not? I like horses and the money sounded good. I went to work with him for about 3 months, and it was enough to convince me that it was what I wanted too.
I figured that wherever I started, I would have to start on the bottom. Because of that I decided to go to California where the opportunities were better. I went to work for a ranch in Southern California in 1973. I started as a hot walker cooling out the horses after their morning workouts. After a couple months I started working around babies halter breaking them and eventually breaking yearlings. After a couple years, I went to the track as an exercise boy.
Getting a Leg Up I went out to Santa Anita and there I met trainer, Henry Moreno. Henry told me that if I got good enough that he would start me as a jockey. He was my mentor. He took me under his wing and became almost like a Father to me. He worked me hard, but he was fair man.
On Feb. 17th 1977 I rode my first horse at Santa Anita. It was a filly that Henry trained named "Zulla Road". The race was a mile and an eighth on the grass. I learned something that day about riding on the grass that benefitted me in my whole 20 years as a jockey.
Henry told me that I wasn't on the best horse so I had the save ground on the turns, and wait as long as I could. I came out of the 7 hole, and dropped right to the rail. I stayed there, and didn't flinch until we turned for home. I ended up charging from last to finish 4th, beaten a neck for 2nd. If I had know anything about race riding I would have won the race. Henry was happy that I followed his instructions, but told me I waited too long. He told me I could have inched up a little sooner. Anyway, what I learned about riding on the grass is "SAVE GROUND" especially on the first turn. You can loose ground on the second turn but if you go more than three wide on the first, it really costs you.
There were hundreds of occasions where I went into the first turn dead last on the rail and came out of the turn third or fourth and didn't even let my horse run. The reason was because a lot of my competition went 3, and 4 wide.
I was the leading apprentice in Southern Ca. in 1978. In fact I was the leading apprentice in the nation that year until about Nov. I lost my apprenticeship in July. Therefore from July to the end of the year my earnings weren't added to my total from then on. Ronnie Franklin was riding Spectacular Bid at the time, and he passed me in Nov. In 1979 I moved to Northern Ca. and remained here until I retired in 1996.
Getting Schooled The jockeys who influenced me the most and that I tried to emulate were grass specialist, Fernando Toro, and the one and only great rider Bill Shoemaker. Shoemaker had such a finesse with horses. He could get a horse to relax so well. Always knowing how much was left in the tank. Fernando Toro was the guy that I learned how to ride the turf from. He always used to lay back and make one furious charge down the lane.
Sea Cadet Is one among the many of my very favorite horses. He was trained by Ron McAnally. I won the El Camino Real Derby with him. He was born with a 4 inch stub for a tail. It sure didn't seem to bother him, because he won over $1,000.000.00 U.S. dollars.
Slew of Damascus I picked up the mount on him after jockey Ron Hansen disappeared after a hit a run accident on the San Mateo Bridge the night before the Bay Meadows Handicap. I ended up winning that race on Slew, and 5 others. As it turned out, Ron Hansen "had in fact disappeared"! Nobody heard from him for months. About 4 months after the incident, his body was found in the San Francisco Bay. It still isn't known how he died. There are some people who think there was foul play, though no one knows for sure. And if someone does know, they aren't talking.
After the Bay Meadows Handicap. I did a painting of him and sold it to one of the owners. Each of the other two owners ordered paintings of him too, and it kind of got my painting career off to a running start.
Moment to Buy I rode this filly back in 1984. She won her first 10 races, and ended up winning the Hollywood Oaks. She ended up beating Miterand, Lucky, Lucky, Lucky, and several others that certainly deserve to be mentioned but the list is long. When the gates opened . . . . she sprinted to the lead in the 1 1/8 mile race. Her fractions were 44.% for the half mile, and 1:09.% for 3/4 of a mile. Miterand came within a neck of her at the 1/8th pole, and it looked like she would run right by us. I switched my stick to my left hand, and the filly went to work. She loved to win, and she wasn't going to let anyone by her that day. She ended up holding her off to win by a neck.
Olympio I only got to ride him once. That was in the Sausalito Stakes at Golden Gate Fields. That same day rap artist, M C Hammer was on hand at Golden Gate Fields to watch his own horse race in the Sausalto Stakes. M C Hammer owned a horse by the name of "Media One". Media One was the odds on favorite in the race. As we mounted our horses, and as I was being led past where Mr. M C Hammer, and friends were standing, . . . I started singin' that famous song of his, . . . ."You Can't Touch This", as I pointed to my own mount, Olympio. And believe me I was singin' it plenty loud enough for M C Hammer to hear me, along with all of the others among that immediate crowd around the saddling paddock. And my pointing gestures demonstrative enough for all to see! Yes I was feeling my oats on that day. Jockeys are known to get overly cockey, and voicetress at times. It was an exciting race for all who watched it unfold too! As we turned for home in the race Media One looked like he had the race won. He was 3 lengths in front, and accelerating. I switched sticks to my left hand, and cracked Olympio a couple times, and this horse responded in kind. He just found a whole new gear. We caught Media One just past the 1/16th pole. We won that race going away. Olympio went on to win the Arkansas Derby later that year.
Hoedown's Day This was a local horse that I rode in the 1981 Kentucky Derby. It was the year that Pleasant Colony won the race. The race had 23 horses in it, and we were part of the field. When the gate opened my horse broke very well but by the time we went into the first turn we had been shuffled back to about mid pack. We got bumped around as we were going around in the turn, and down the backstretch. My horse really didn't care too much for that, and didn't fire much at all. He ended up running 12th. He also didn't like the loose, sandy track at Churchill Downs. He was the type of horse that didn't like a loose track, or a muddy track, or anything else that would count as off, or even out of place. The horse was picky about the particulars. I always used to say, "if you spit on the track, he wouldn't like it".
A couple years later I rode him in the Sea Biscuit Stakes at Bay Meadows. He was a great horse on that day. He set a new world record for the 1 1/16 mile race on the dirt. The fractions we set were 21.% for the first 1/4 mile, 43.% for the 1/2 mile, 1:07.2 for the 3/4 mile, 1:32. flat for the mile, and 1:38.2 for the 1 1/16 mile. Not much can compare to what that felt like. I would rank it right up there with my very first race, or better still, . . . my very first win!! How does a rider top that?
HANGIN' UP MY TACK I quit riding because I wanted to spend more time with my family. Race riding has it's benefits, but it also has it's drawbacks. One of them is that you work year round every weekend, and every holiday except Christmas. During all of the important family times, and even the not so important times, a jockey is at work. Missing most of the ball games, birthday parties, teaching them to ride that first two-wheeler, just being a part of their lives. I had my family, . . . . yet even still, I longed to be with them more. Not having enough time for my family which is everything to me, began to be a constant ache in my heart.
Most jocks get to the track by 6:00 a.m., and get on anywhere from 6 to 10 horses, or more daily. After morning workouts, I'd usually have to drop a couple pounds in the sauna. I couldn't eat much more than a piece of toast or fruit.
When I got home at night I was tired and hungry, and sometimes body sore, and the last thing I wanted to do was interact with family. Anyway it wasn't a happy family atmosphere. When I started painting, and selling some of my work, I figured it would be something else that I could do when I quit riding.
THE CINCH THAT CLINCHED IT What really helped me to make up my mind to quit, was really a series of events. In 1995 I had a bad spill at Bay Meadows. I was riding a big clumsy maiden for trainer, Allen Severinson. The horse stood 17 hands, and weighed over 1200 pounds. We were in a 1 1/16th mile race, and going into the first turn the big clutz crossed his front legs. We fell. All I remember is seeing the ground rushing up at me. The horse ended up rolling over me, and I was struck by another trailing horse.
I ended up spending the night in the hospital with a concussion. I was so sore. It felt like the horse had done a cannon ball, . . . . I was the pool! All my ribs were bruised, my back was really sore. I took a week off, and went back to work. A race was coming up for Slew Of Damascus the next weekend, and I just couldn't miss it. I went back to work, and was so sore on the first few horses that I got on, that I almost couldn't pull them up after the race. How stupid was I? That's another thing about race riding. If you miss a race on one of your horses, someone else gets to ride it. If the horse wins, the jockey usually gets to ride him back. So when you get in a crash, unless you break something, you try to get back to work as soon as possible even if you are in pain. Slew ran a good race that weekend but he still got beat.
It was 3 months before I could sleep in a bed. I slept in a reclining chair instead. I got to thinking, . . . "Man, I'm over 40 now, . . . I'm out here taking these spills, and it sure takes a lot longer to heal than it used to. I don't know if it's worth it anymore."
The clincher came on a Friday night after the races at Bay Meadows. I came home, and my wife Katherine began telling me about a conversation she'd had with our 10 year old son earlier that evening. She said about 10:00 p.m. he had come into our room, and asked her why I hadn't come home yet. She told him I was riding in the later races, and just hadn't gotten home yet. He actually asked her if I had died in a crash, and she just didn't want to tell him.
When she told me that, it brought tears to my eyes. I didn't realize how much he worried about me being injured, or worse. It just hit me. I decided right then, something was going to be forever changed. Now, . . . I just needed to figure out "how" to make that happen. I decided to finish out the meet there at Bay Meadows, and then I would retire.
I hung up my tack on November 6th 1996. Once I quit Kathy told me how much she had worried about that dreaded phone call. Someone from the racetrack calling to say they were sorry but your husband, . . . has been killed, or paralyzed.
THE ART OF LIFE I am very glad that I went from riding horses to painting them. It is safer, saner, and to my own surprise, very rewarding work in a different sort of way. As much as I love riding horses, I was able to give it up because I went from doing one thing I love, to another thing I love. I actually took up art again at the behest of my wife, Katherine, because she figured it might help to relieve the stress of race-riding for me. She was right too, it did. The rewards these days are rich for me, . . . as I have my family here with me, all safe, and all the more time to spend with them. Katherine, and I recently celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary, with our three sons, Matt who is now a young man at age 35 years, Luke who is age 25 years, and our newest gift Daniel, just 12 years old. I haven't had to miss any of his growing years. Yes I would say I feel rich, and now I have the greatest reward of all. It is a joy. My life. . .
By Tom Chapman