If veteran jockey Aaron Gryder were to write out his bucket list, most everything on it would have a big check mark scrawled alongside. At age 47, Gryder has ridden all over the world, found success on some of its biggest stages, explored a career as an actor, been a motivational speaker, and even worked as a racing analyst for a number of elite television networks.
He grew up just 15 minutes away from Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles. Traipsing along behind his grandparents to the Turf Club at Santa Anita by day and Los Alamitos at night, a young Gryder got his introduction to horse racing from a gambler's perspective.
By the time he was four years old, Gryder had already decided he wanted to be a jockey, never mind that he was afraid of horses at the time and had no contacts inside the racing industry.
When the family moved from L.A. to Sacramento, 12-year-old Gryder met retired jockey Rudy Campas. The summer he turned 13, Gryder left home to join Campas on his farm in Riverside, his goal to learn how to work with horses. It was only supposed to last until the school year kicked off in the fall, but the start of the semester came and went while Gryder continued to pursue his equine education.
“Truthfully, I was scared of horses at first,” Gryder said. “Rudy told me that I was going to learn about the horses before I got to ride them; he really taught me how to be a horseman. When I finally got to my first ride, he had me on a lunge line in a little round pen and, somehow, I suddenly wasn't scared anymore.
“At the end of the ride, Rudy said, ‘Kid, you're a natural.' I said, ‘Sir, I don't know what I did right. I just didn't want to fall off.' He smiled and said, ‘Exactly, and you stayed on. You can't teach that. Several times it looked like you would come right off, but you fixed your balance and stayed upright.'”
At 15, Gryder acted in a commercial for Del Monte and was thrilled the fruit company paid him $325 for a single day's work. His grandfather laughed when the boy called to share the news and told Gryder to wait until the residuals came in. Over the next year, Gryder earned enough money from that one commercial to buy a truck and all of his jockey's equipment.
Gryder's 16th birthday was an especially exciting one because he obtained his driver's license and his exercise rider's license in the same week. He traveled to Hollywood Park full of hope and worked out a deal with a trainer friend of Campas' to gallop a few of his horses. The trainer put Gryder on an easy horse to start.
“I galloped the horse perfectly fine,” Gryder explained. “But when I went to pull him up, the buckle on my left stirrup leather broke. I fell off to the left, but my right foot was still caught in the right stirrup iron, so I was hanging off the side of the horse. I was only dragged 20 to 30 yards, and everybody walked away okay. The outrider rode up to me and asked to see my license; I handed it to her proudly but she just looked at it and rode off.”
Though Campas told Gryder not to worry about the incident, it wasn't long before a call for Gryder to appear before the stewards came over the loudspeaker on the backside. Campas argued on his behalf, but the stewards decided to rule off the young rider, asking him to get more experience on the farm before returning to the racetrack.
Devastated, Gryder drove back to Riverside with tears in his eyes, sure that he'd “blown his chances.” Again, Campas was the voice of reason, telling Gryder to head up to California's fair circuit where he could get that experience he needed. Gryder left the very same night, ending up in Stockton.
In the morning, Gryder was walking around the barn area at five in the morning looking for work. One female trainer quickly agreed to put the small-framed young kid on horses, telling him she had five to breeze that morning and two from the gate. He'd never breezed a horse before, much less broken out of a starting gate (Campas' training track was just three-eighths of a mile), but Gryder quickly agreed to take on the task.
Out on the first horse, Gryder managed to break off at the right spot, and he remembers feeling like he was absolutely flying. The trainer had told him to get the horse to finish strong, so at the head of the lane he dropped down in the saddle and drove him home.
“She was out there on the pony, and when she picked me up after the work she didn't say much,” Gryder recalled. “I was still pretty breathless, so I told her how well he'd finished the work. She didn't say anything, so I said it again. Then she said, ‘He should have finished well. You just worked five furlongs in 1:07 4/5.'”
When he got back to the barn, Gryder waited outside for the next horse to come out, but when it did another rider was aboard. He asked the trainer if his horse was coming out next, and she responded that he was done for the day.
“I'd been ruled off and fired within 48 hours of having my license,” Gryder said. “I wish I remembered that female trainer's name, so I could go back to her today and say ‘Look, I made it!'”
Again the tears flowed freely on the drive back to Riverside, and again Campas told him not to worry about it. He sent Gryder down to Mexico's Agua Caliente, where the boy could make his mistakes without any judgement from the Californian circuit. Within several months Gryder had made a name for himself, and California agents were traveling south to watch him ride.
“They really laid the groundwork for me to come up north,” said Gryder. “Those first agents spread the word that I had some talent, so when I came up with Vince DeGregory there were already guys willing to put me on horses.”
Still, it took some time before Gryder got his first U.S. victory. One afternoon, a horse in the day's final race was in need of a rider, and though the trainer waited all day to try to find any other jockey, he was eventually forced to ride Gryder or scratch the horse. At 20-1, a horse with no left eye named One Eyed Romeo gave Gryder his first win at Santa Anita Park.
Since then, Gryder has ridden across North America, earning riding titles at Churchill Downs, Aqueduct, Arlington Park, Hollywood Park and Golden Gate Fields. He shifted his tack to Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, and rode races from Ascot to Australia. He has ridden in four Kentucky Derbies and several Breeders' Cups.
Gryder's career-defining win came in the 2009 Dubai World Cup, when he guided Well Armed to a record-setting 14-length victory. The same year, Gryder took on a role in Animal Planet's “Jockeys” television show.
Though he has racked up 3,759 (North American) victories over the past 31 years of riding, Gryder is still grateful for each and every one. He knows he's in the latter part of his career but plans to keep riding for as long as he possibly can.
“You just never know when the next winner is coming,” he said. “I mean, every day you come to the track you can get fired and/or re-hired, so you just have to keep on doing the best you can do.
“That said, I don't keep a lot of photos of me riding in my house. I've got three or four mirrors, I don't need to see me every time I turn my head. I just want to relax at home.”
Gryder probably needs the time away from work because his schedule has been plenty busy in 2017. He rode at Aqueduct through February, then took a trip to Saudi Arabia for several weeks. On the way back, he stopped in Dubai and landed a job with the Racing Post and NBC Sports to help cover Arrogate's Dubai World Cup.
“I try to do as much as I can because racing is day to day,” said Gryder. “It's good for these guys to have someone who can explain what a jockey is thinking and feeling leading up to these big races, how they're preparing and making their race plans. Besides, it will give me a chance to stay in the business if I ever retire.”
Back in the States, Gryder rode at Monmouth for a couple months before returning “home” to Northern California, where he can be closer to his children. His son, 17, is preparing to leave for the Marines after high school, and his daughter is just 15.
This fall, Gryder will work for the Breeders' Cup as a simulcast analyst during the World Championships at Del Mar.
“I'm proud that the way I've conducted myself over my career allows me to be a racing ambassador,” Gryder said, then laughed. “I cry very little about my rides today.”
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