By Ryan Smith
6:15 PM CDT, April 17, 2013
Jockey Brandon Meier glances at a race program and doesn't blink at the prospect of riding the beast that had recently buried its hooves into his chest.
The last time Meier rode Bedroom Eyes was two weeks ago, when the racehorse clipped heels with Beauty of Scarlet during a race. The collision launched him out of the saddle and into the dirt at Hawthorne Race Course. The half-ton thoroughbred ran over the reed-thin, 112-pound jockey, dislocating his shoulder and puncturing both his lungs. He spent a single night at Loyola hospital and returned to the job a few days later.
"Shit happens. You gotta keep moving on," said Meier, 24, of Wheeling.
It's race time, and Meier now hovers over the top of Bedroom Eyes' back but does not sit in the saddle exactly. Instead, he stands in the stirrups—the rest of his form crouched precariously over the horse with back arched. As the race starts and the horse bolts out of the gate, only the insides of Meier's feet and ankles are in contact with the animal as everything else is balanced in midair. It's a task best described in Laura Hillenbrand's book "Seabiscuit" as "much like perching on the grill of a car while it speeds down a twisting, potholed freeway in traffic."
Bedroom Eyes is a little slow to hit the gas in this race—she's dead last out of nine horses by several lengths. Thirty seconds later, however, Meier's mount takes the outside part of the track and stages a comeback. Meier wears four pairs of goggles, which are necessary because the dirt kicked up from the horses ahead keeps flying into his face and obscuring his vision—forcing him to switch pairs one at a time. With one hand gripping the reins, he whips the horse steadily to direct it forward while also concentrating on the position of his horse and those nearby.
One misstep could become the difference between victory and disaster.
"Lots of things are happening at the same time," said Meier. "The races are like a minute and a half, but you're trying to steer, use your whip and trying to make split second decisions. You react before you think. If you see a hole, you gotta go or not. The more you think, the more you get in trouble."
"Bedroom Eyes closing ground between horses," intones the public address announcer as Meier's horse zips past several competitors. Suddenly, he's a few yards out of first. But the race is over in just 80 seconds and Bedroom Eyes earns a third place finish behind winner Beauty of Scarlet—the same horse involved in the accident earlier in the month.
"It's a tough game and a tough life," Meier later says.
'LIKE X-GAMES HORSES'
Tough is an understatement. To summarize a jockey's job as "riding a horse" is like saying that all a football player does is play catch.
"That's what a lot of people think, 'Well, you're just sitting in a saddle and riding,' " said jockey Timmy Thornton, 25, of Bridgeview. "But most people couldn't do what we do—go 40 miles an hour on a 1,200-pound animal trying to run off with you with 10 other horses all around you doing the same thing. There's a lot more to it than what most people think."
Among the uninitiated, horse racing is often saddled with the reputation as a boring old pastime for mint julep-sipping gentlemen or cigar-chomping gamblers and likewise, jockeys aren't often taken seriously as real athletes. But the young, 20-something riders at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero describe it as America's oldest extreme sport.
"It's like X-Games Horses," said apprentice rider Stephanie Slinger, 26, of Arlington Heights. "I'm an adrenaline junkie and I love intense sports, and that's exactly what this is."
Believe it or not, riding a horse in a race is considered more dangerous than any X Games event. A Medical Journal of Australia study from 2009 found that being a jockey is the second-riskiest career in the U.S. after offshore fisherman. They're more likely to be killed than skydivers, motorbike racers, boxers, loggers and pilots.
"I don't envy them. One fall could be a career-ending injury for them," said Chris Dorris, a horse owner and trainer at Hawthorne. "I know if I'd had the kind of accidents these kids have had, I'd be a little timid to be out there."
But the minute you start getting scared of what can happen is when you should retire, Thornton said.
"If you've got fear, you should get out of the game and get off the track. If you're worried and too cautious, that's when you make more mistakes and you're more dangerous to yourself and everyone around you."
With his long, shaggy dark hair, bright orange shirt with the word "California" scrawled across it, and laid-back attitude, Thornton looks like horse racing's answer to San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum.
"It's true, most people don't think I'm a jockey by looking at me," said Thornton. "They're like 'Yeah, sure you are, guy.' "
Originally from rural Louisiana, Thornton's family life always revolved around horses. His father was a quarterhorse and thoroughbred trainer, a blacksmith who made horseshoes and an equine dentist. As a teen, Thornton even rode bulls at rodeos.
"Horses and animals have been my whole family's life. So it's in my blood," he said.
Don't mistake Thornton's cool-dude looks and casual demeanor for complacency, however. The 24-year-old has earned lead rider status at Hawthorne since 2008 and has won over 1,000 races and made more than $22 million for horse owners during a nine-year career, despite a spate of injuries.
His most recent major accident came in October, when his horse fell during a race and one of his competitors accidentally ran him over. The result: a broken cheekbone, eye socket, collarbone and ribs, causing him to miss five weeks. Thornton's biggest regret? That he wasn't on Peyote Patty's back when his favorite racehorse won the final event of her career.
"I'd got on her as a baby and we had five years together and we'd had so much success," said Thornton. "The fact that for her farewell race she had another jockey on her? I can't lie, I might have cried a little about that."
Slinger tries not to think about her injuries, although sometimes she can't help it. There are times when she wakes up in the morning and feels the aches and pains of previous accidents and ailments.
"Sometimes I feel like an old person around the house, holding my hip or whatever," she said.
In 2009, she broke her face—meaning she fell in a race and suffered an orbital fracture that had to be reset. Most recently, Slinger cartwheeled and hit her head, causing a mild concussion after being catapulted off her steed.
"Some of us, for some reason, are less lucky," Slinger said with a shrug. "Brandon is on the same trajectory; we break everything."
IN HIS FATHER'S FOOTSTEPS
Brandon's father, Randy Meier, tried to stop his son from following in his footsteps. Randy reigns as the all-time leading jockey at Hawthorne and the now-defunct Sportsman's Park (demolished in 2009), but nearly three decades immersed in horse racing took a major toll on both his body and his relationships.
"My parents were together 27 years, but he kept saying he was going to retire and never did, so my mom left him," Brandon said.
Despite his son's interest in the sport, Randy asked him to attend at least one year of college before taking up the reins as a rider.
"I want you to use your brain, not your back," Randy told Brandon.
The younger Meier kept up his end of the bargain by attending two semesters of school, but no more.
"I went and partied my ass off and slept with as many girls as I could, but then the spring came and I wanted to ride," said Brandon.
Father and son spent two years as a popular tandem on the track before Randy was forced to retire after suffering a fractured neck (the second of his career) and brain damage in a shocking accident at Hawthorne that nearly killed him.
Over the next several months, Brandon would help take his father to a rehab hospital in Wheaton for physical rehab and speech therapy. But despite seeing the horrific extent of his father's injuries—which included 55 broken bones and 13 concussions—Brandon refuses to give up his career, even now that he's amassing his own laundry list of ailments.
In his five years as a professional jockey, he's torn his right shoulder, suffered a collapsed lung, broken his wrist several times and lacerated his liver. He points to a 6-inch scar down his clavicle. Underneath the skin is a surgically installed plate with eight screws holding it in place. Meier seems less concerned about the injury itself and more upset at the possibility that the metal in his body might be weighing him down a few ounces before he stands on the scale.
"Every little bit matters," he said.
SCALE IS THE ENEMY
This is the enemy, said jockey Seth Martinez, pointing to a scale sitting in the center of the jockeys' equipment room.
"Yeah, it's the dreadful part of the day when you step on this," said Meier.
Every track sets weight requirements for each race and the amount horses are allowed to carry usually ranges from 112 to 126 pounds—an absurdly low figure that includes the jockey plus about 7 pounds of gear. Staying just above the minimum weight requirement often involves skipping meals, lots of time in the track's sauna or sometimes making yourself vomit.
A survey of jockeys conducted by the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute in 1995 found that 69 percent missed meals, 67 percent used "hot box" saunas, 30 percent intentionally vomited, and 14 percent used laxatives.
Hours before a recent race at Hawthorne, Meier weighs himself at 114, a pound over his target of 113, even though all he'd had to eat the entire day was half a Red Bull and a granola bar. He then spent the next hour on a treadmill and stationary bike while dressed in four layers of clothing (including a raincoat) so he could sweat off the weight as quickly as possible.
"I don't lift weights because I don't want muscle, because it weighs more than fat," Meier said, looking down at his thin frame. "I don't think I have any body fat percentage."
Meier recalls scary days when he first started his extreme diet where his hands would cramp up and he couldn't move them out of a claw-like grip for a brief time.
Thornton considers himself lucky for his amazing metabolism.
"I've never been one to struggle; those guys that run in the sweatsuits and everything, I don't know how they do it. I don't do any of that," said Thornton. "Diet-wise, I pretty much eat what I want and I drink a lot of Red Bull."
The 5-foot-5 Slinger has trouble staying at her optimal weight of 109 pounds. She still is considered a "bug rider"—an apprentice until she wins five races at Hawthorne—and this status means she qualifies for a slight weight advantage over other jockeys. But since she's naturally about 115 pounds, Slinger regularly has to battle her own body to slim down.
The day before a recent race at Hawthorne, she drove back from St. Louis wearing a plastic sweatsuit with long johns and thermal wear underneath so some of the weight could be burned off on the trip back to Chicago. Once she arrived, Slinger runs on a treadmill and spends time in the sauna. Finally, she'll lay down and take a nap in the jockey's quarters while still in the sweatsuit.
"Some of the others can lose 8 pounds in a day, which I can't do," said Slinger, who admits she's not had anything to eat all day and won't until after her late afternoon races. "It's not fun, but it's part of it, so ... I'm in this for as long as my body holds up."
ONLY 10 PERCENT
It's important for jockeys to stay healthy, because they're considered independent contractors, meaning they have to buy their own health insurance policies. It isn't easy; jockeys tend to be walking medical bills.
"The insurance rates are so insane," said Thornton, who said he's built a large nest egg of money in case he's unable to race. "Sometimes it's hard to find someone who will actually cover you in the first place."
Their freelancer status also means jockeys aren't eligible for injury or sick pay.
"Yeah, they have to come back quick because they don't get paid while hurt," Dorris said. "I give those guys a lot of credit because they come back early sometimes, and ride through it and it doesn't seem to faze them."
Even healthy riders, however, aren't guaranteed a significant salary at the track. A horses' owner gets 60 percent of a "purse," or prize in the race, if it wins first place. The jockey gets only 10 percent of the winnings. The commission drops significantly for second- and third-place finishers.
There's no prize money for those who finish lower than that, but jockeys also earn a small fee of about $80, called a jock mount, from owners or trainers. Twenty-five percent of the jockey's share goes to his or her agent, if he or she has one. Another 5 percent is paid to their "valet"—basically horse racing's version of a golf caddy—who must help groom the horse, prepare the rider's garments and equipment for each race.
The purse for a majority of the races at Hawthorne is $10,000 to $15,000, meaning they may only take home $750 to $1,000 for winning a race. A successful jockey often participates in several hundred races a year, riding dozens of horses.
"You gotta be winning to make money. If you run last, you're paying for your own gas to get to the track," said Thornton, who has been on a hot streak of late—winning approximately 25 percent of the races he's entered. "That's hard to do. If you're winning at 15 percent, you're doing pretty good."
Slinger averages about $800 to $1,200 a week, which doesn't sound bad for a typical 25-year-old in Chicago until you break it down hourly. She works seven days a week, and often 10- to 12-hour days.
"I'm not poor, but I'm definitely not high-income. One time I got a day's check for $3,000 and I was like 'Yes! Michigan Avenue time!' " said Slinger. "Good days like that make it worth it."
WOMEN NOT ALWAYS WELCOME
In more ways than one, Slinger isn't a typical jockey.
Unlike many of her peers, she didn't grow up around horses. Instead, the 26-year-old spent her formative years in a city known more for racing on four wheels rather than four hooves—Detroit.
"I remember being 8 years old and seeing it on TV when I was a kid and telling my mom, 'I want to do that!' " said Slinger, who didn't begin to work on a farm until her teen years. At 18, Slinger fled to Kentucky with no money, car or place to live with the hope of landing at a track.
"Kentucky, you think, hey Kentucky Derby! Hell, that sounds like a good place to start," Slinger said, laughing.
She eventually found her way into a bit of riding and jockey training, but she moved to Chicago in 2011 after she found a lack of good opportunities.
"When it came down to it, they wouldn't let me on some of the top horses in the world," she said.
Part of the problem: being female in a male-dominated sport.
"As a girl, you don't really get as many opportunities," said Slinger, who is one of two female jockeys out of about 25 at Hawthorne. "I'm constantly overcoming stereotypes, especially since I have no problem being a girl. I like clothes, I like shoes. So I hear things like 'You should be someone's wife!' and I'm like 'No, I want to ride fast horses!' "
Slinger says she still runs into trainers who refuse to use her because of her sex.
"A couple days ago I went to a trainer and was like 'Hey, if you ever need any help … I'd love an opportunity.' He goes, 'Actually, I don't use girls. I don't think you're tough enough and you're too easily intimidated.' And I was like 'Really?' And then he wanted to keep me there and talk like it was socially acceptable. You get that and then some people who are like, 'Yeah, I don't mind girls, I can use you,' but then they don't really. But [Hawthorne] is one of the better places I've ever seen."
Sometimes it's not sexism nor skill that holds a rider back. It's bad luck.
Part of the jockey's job is to constantly lobby trainers and owners (or hiring an agent to do the bargaining for them) so they're able to ride their best horses. Because Meier doesn't have an agent, he often comes to Hawthorne when it opens at 6:30 a.m. and spends much of the morning talking to trainers.
There's some mornings you can get 10 races, some you won't get any, but you need to show your face every day, because it can be out of sight, out of mind," Meier said. "You gotta show up and you're selling yourself constantly."
Dorris, who trains 35 horses at Hawthorne and owns half of them, acts as a matchmaker with jockey and horse.
"You let them get a feel for the horse and establish a relationship before you go into the race," he said. "Each rider's different. Some riders are speed riders, some are closers, some are better on routes and some on sprints. It's just the same as each horse is different so you pair them up the best you can."
Competition can be fierce for the top horses.
"If you get a good horse, there's going to be 10 jocks there and five different agents trying to get on him," Meier said. "You're fighting for it every time. So don't screw up and stay on the trainer's good side, because it's an excuse to lose your spot and get someone else on it."
HORSE RACING'S STRUGGLES
Many of the jockeys at Hawthorne are under 40, but their spectators are not. It's a Wednesday afternoon and the grandstand is quiet. Only a few hundred people are around to see the day's races—many of them sitting in front of TVs so they can bet on races held elsewhere. And many of them appear to be in their 50s or 60s.
A study conducted by research company McKinsey & Co. found that few 18- to 34-year-olds watch thoroughbred racing except for the 1.8 million people in the demographic who view the Kentucky Derby on TV once a year. In response, the Jockey Club, the sport's governing body, recently commissioned a publicity tour to try to attract a younger audience. It started an ad campaign, a website and a bus tour that hit South by Southwest last month in Austin, Texas.
Meanwhile, Hawthorne has more problems than gray hair.
Horses have been sprinting around the country's fifth oldest track since May 20, 1891, when 6,000 fans came to see a five-race card at a place that was then in a rural area outside Chicago. Since then Cicero has become one of the biggest industrial centers in the country and hasn't exactly retained its pastoral charm.
Al Capone started Sportsman's Park in Cicero as a dog track and a shady way to make money by fixing races, but it eventually hosted many horse races. In 1973, 40,000 people came to Arlington Park in Chicago's northwest suburbs to see Secretariat race a few weeks after winning the Triple Crown. Over the next two decades, the sport drew in lots of interest and money, setting a wagering record of $1.29 billion in 1992, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
But over the last two decades, casinos have drawn bettors away and wagering has fallen off a cliff. The Illinois Gaming Board rejected Hawthorne's $500 million proposal to put a casino on its grounds and renovate the racing facility in 2008, and it took another hit last year when the Illinois Derby, its biggest race of the year, was excluded from the list of Kentucky Derby qualifying races.
To add to the course's misery, an outbreak of an equine herpes virus hit its fall meet in 2012 and killed six horses and infected many more. It's created a cycle where purse money has shrunk and there are fewer quality animals to ride.
"It's bad right now," Meier said. "Some of these horses are being made to race every week or 10 days and they can't handle it—they're tired or hurt. Ideally, they should only be out there every three or four weeks."
On May 1, Meier is moving to Canturbury Park in Minnesota—a track thriving because it doubles as a casino-resort. The purses are bigger there, he said.
It also represents a fresh start for Meier, who feels like his bad injury history is causing trainers to use him less. He was in saddle only once during Saturday's slate of nine races—finishing third in a $10,000-purse race.
"I hear 'I don't want to get you hurt again,' and it's discouraging," he said. "It might be nice to go to a new place where people don't know me or my dad and I can kind of start over from scratch."
But for now, Meier, and the rest of the young jockeys will focus on Saturday's annual Illinois Derby, still a high stakes race with a hefty $750,000 prize.
"My next race could be my last one. I hope not, but you never know," Thornton said. "Things can go wrong. You just hope for the best and have fun while you're doing it and maybe win some money."
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye Sports' Facebook page.
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