Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Aaron Gryder A Racing Renaissance Man

by | 09.13.2017 | 2:04pm
Aaron Gryder

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.

Aaron Gryder, red silks, was one of the stars of Animals Planet's “Jockeys”

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.

Calidoscopio wins the 2012 Breeders' Cup Marathon, Aaron Gryder up

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.”

  • Leslie Navarro

    Very nice article! It is always interesting to hear about how a person gets into horse racing.

    • Oldtimer

      Fantastic story & hearing about the Rudy Campas connection, wonderful. Much good luck to Mr. Gryder!

      • Beau Geste

        Everyone should have a Rudy Campas in his life. What a difference he made in Aaron Gryder’s.

  • john

    Gryder is a handsome, classy guy who has a bright career in broadcasting after riding. Clean cut articulate, humble and well spoken and really knows horses….reminds me of a young Jerry Bailey in the booth

    • J

      GRYDER is everything you say & more.
      In my Opinion – Bailey is Full of Himself. He was arguably a Top Rider – HE did his Homework. But, on a personal level – very conceited
      & not someone you would care to know. He had a superiority complex. I saw him quite a bit in NY and FL.
      Those were my personal observations.

  • Tinky

    Nice article, Chelsea. I have had a few connections to Aaron over the years, and always found him to be both intelligent and personable.

  • David Worley

    This is a good article Chelsea. The aspect that most stands out to me is the way you were able to convey the way Gryder felt in these different scenarios. I enjoyed reading it.

  • Al Milano

    Gryder the Rider is a jockey I never hesitated to bet when he had a mount on a horse I liked. You can’t win them all, but you hate losing when a jockey messes up. This guy is one of the ones who inspires a bettor’s confidence.

  • Ida Lee

    I absolutely loved watching “Jockeys” …. I think it was one of the best reality series ever and hated it when it was cancelled….Aaron looked so young back then and so adorable ….. and of course, Mike and Chantal were an item and that was more fun than Liz & Richard….what an enjoyable article….and that Well Armed win in Dubai… of the best ever …

  • GloriaU

    Enjoyed the article. It will be fun to see Aaron as analyst for the Breeders’ Cup this year, although I wouldn’t mind seeing him get a couple of rides. I enjoyed watching him on HRTV as an analyst until…well, RIP HRTV.

  • Drew Mollica

    I a word Arron is “class.” My love for him knows no bounds, I root for him every day! He is a gentlemen in the truest sense of he word! Health, happiness and much success my friend, you are the BEST!

  • john

    Any owner would be honored to have this guy ride his horses……..Smart and honest rider. A gem in our sport!

  • Stephanie Childress Mihalovits

    I’d love to see the Del Monte commercial from when he was a kid!

  • Minneola

    Aaron is one of three jockeys in my Virtual Stable. It was very interesting seeing him return to GGF as well as racing at other West Coast tracks. Hope he sticks around for a long time. It’s nice to see him back here. Not only does he have outstanding abilities as a jockey, he also has great communication skills. I loved hearing Aaron on HRTV when he was a guest host and analyst. He could describe a race from a jockey’s perspective so exceptionally well that, for those of us who are not jockeys, he could convey the nuances of a race unlike anyone else. Almost could envision being on a horse in a race and understanding how the race was unfolding.

    By the way, a big thank you to Chelsea for writing such a great story!!

  • Erin Casseday

    Thank you for a nice article about one of my favorite jockeys!

  • Dan Barrett

    I’m in one of Aaron’s winner circle photos at Golden Gate riding for the late Dennis Patterson. He’s a hell of a nice guy. I was also happy here when he won the BC Marathon at Santa Anita. Bot was he happy. Good job Aaron.

  • Al McBean

    gryder the Ryder one of my favorite jockeys can ride any type of horse with very good hands, not prado hands but good hands nonetheless…keep going Aaron.

  • Beau Geste

    I remember Aaron Gryder early in his career. You always knew he would give an honest effort in every race. I thought highly of him then; even more so after reading this article. In a lifetime of following horse racing, Gryder’s Well Armed’s Dubai victory is very special to me. People might not know or remember, but the analysts were not high on Well Armed that day and for some reason, I had no doubt. It was one of the most exhilarating moments in my life as a horse racing fan when he drew off to win. As a fan, you feel a connection to the horse and rider at a moment like that, so Aaron Gryder has a special place.

  • Birdy2

    One of the nicest guys I ever knew at the track… that’s Aaron! He wins a lot and is a gracious loser, too — rare in today’s culture. A few years back, a used-up hard-knocker I’d bought for $2.5K (hadn’t hit the board in 12 previous starts), taken to the farm, rehabbed and trail rode came back (at very long odds) above his previous class and beat the heavy favorite, an Asmussen colt with Aaron aboard. It was raining that night; I was over the moon yet almost catatonic with shock; Asmussen turned away; Aaron grinned and hugged me with a big ol’ grin. True story — he’s a class act all the way.

  • Don’thaveaclue

    Whew, who’d have known that you struck a nerve, PR, with Aaron Gryder fans! We know.

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