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Dave Roepke, Published August 01 2009

Jock of ages: Veteran jockeys stay in the saddle despite risks of sport

Being thrown off a racehorse happens so violently fast there isn’t much to recall about the spill itself.

But Jim Beeson’s memory of what happened after he fell in a recent race in Kansas is still crystal clear.

“The first thing I saw when I stopped rolling was her shoes,” the jockey said of his wife, Nancy Beeson.

“She’d jumped two fences.”

Riding a horse for a living is about as dangerous of a living as it gets, so Nancy Beeson’s leaping concern makes sense.

It’s tougher to grasp how jockeys like Beeson, a 60-year-old who broke his hip a few years back, handle the inherent risk of their occupation. Like all of the veteran jockeys who ride at the North Dakota Horse Park, Beeson has shrugged off a list of injuries long enough to make visions of vacation homes dance in surgeons’ heads.

Let’s put it this way. If that desk chair you sit in all day had shattered your cheek bone, blew out your knee and landed you in intensive care for 45 days, think you’d keep coming back to the cubicle?

You might if you felt like 59-year-old Herman Fennell does when he’s racing in the saddle.

“It’s the feeling you can’t find anywhere else, can’t get in your blood,” he said. “I guess we addicted, huh?”

‘Disease’ with no cure

If being a jockey is an addiction, the high that sucks them in is the winning and the cash that comes with it.

Generally, a jock – at the track, everyone drops the “ey” – takes 10 percent of winnings. On a good weekend, that can mean $1,500 to $2,000, Fennell said.

With races running only about half the year, it’s not a huge income, but Fennell, who tore half of his knee ligaments in an accident last year, can’t fathom earning an hourly wage.

“I can’t stand still for $10 (an hour),” he said.

If he avoids injuries, Donnie Herber, 50, of Oklahoma City, said he can make up to $100,000 a year. That’s the pace he was on in 2008 before a cracked hip fused back together with three long screws sidelined him for nine months, leaving him to draw a weekly insurance check of $200.

Herber doesn’t hesitate when asked what he’s thinking about in the gate right before a race starts.

“Money,” he said. “It’s all about money.”

Still, racing is more than a job for jockeys, said Bob Johnson, the track’s top trainer in 2008. It’s a deeply ingrained lifestyle, he said.

“It’s a disease,” he said.

Perhaps that’s what kept Herber from walking away from racing about a decade ago, when six horses went down on the first turn in a race in Billings, Mont., and one of the mounts ended up on him. It was touch-and-go in the hospital for a month and a half, an ordeal that carved a cavernous scar into his lower torso.

Despite his claim that the stakes are what matters, Herber didn’t credit money with bringing him back. His reasoning was more metaphysical than fiscal.

“You’ve got to come back. That’s what we do,” said Herber, who has broken 27 bones on the way to winning nearly 2,500 races.

Coming from behind

Longtime jockeys have more to deal with than just injuries. Some like Fennell struggle with keeping their weight down. He can only have one meal a day during the season, lately a nightly spread of salad and tuna.

There’s also the ever-present threat of up-and-coming youngsters like Jake Olesiak, the 22-year-old reigning jockey of the year at the North Dakota Horse Park who won 12 out of the 20 races during the track’s first weekend.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Jake,” said Beeson before adding, “even though he is a kid.”

Though they are small for the sake of light loads, jockeys must possess enough strength to control horses weighing well more than a half ton and bred to be ripped sprinters.

“Those horses pull on them. If you can’t pull back, you’re going to go for a very long ride very fast,” said Heather Benson, horse park general manager.

Younger jocks have fresher legs, which helps down the stretch when the calves can turn to jelly. Yet Olesiak figures whatever advantage he has in youthful endurance is overcome by the older riders’ experience. Jockeys rely on their instincts, a sense of what a horse needs to run its best.

Johnson, whose horses Olesiak has the first crack at riding, said intuition is all in the hands, in the way the jockey can control a horse on the reins without slowing its forward motion. The feel takes time to hone.

That’s the trouble with Olesiak, Herber said. His hands are great, and he’s less than half Herber’s age.

“I used to think I was the best,” he said. “But Jake? It’s hard to beat youth.”

Ashes on the track

Beeson’s wife, Nancy, the one who hurdled on to the track when he crashed in Kansas, admits she gets nervous watching him race. The untested 2-year-olds worry her most.

“But Jimmy loves it,” she said. “I’m at the age, too, that I think you should do what you love.”

The only way to keep doing it is to leave the worrying to others. The riders are unanimous in their belief that the best way to get injured is

to think you might get injured.

“You don’t even think about it when you’re on the horse,” said Olesiak, who once won while riding with a broken right leg.

“If you ever let it creep in, that’s when you’ve got to quit. You can’t be scared,” Herber said,

Quitting isn’t something the veterans linger upon. They want to keep racing as long as they’re physically able. The constant in their lives also happens to be the most thrilling part.

Fennell even has plans for staying on the track after his final race is over.

“I always tell my wife, ‘Cremate me and put me in the winner’s circle.’ ”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535