Taylor Cambra may be just 21 years old, but he sounds significantly older when he speaks about his horses. It could be because he has spent nearly every day in a saddle since before he was able to walk, that he spent time on the rodeo circuit riding bucking horses, or because he grew up on the backside of a racetrack; Cambra's steady nature and passion for his job as an exercise rider is palpable even in photographs.
His latest charge is leading Kentucky Derby candidate Omaha Beach, trained by Richard Mandella.
“I've never felt anything like him,” Cambra said of the 3-year-old son of War Front. “It's like riding on a cloud almost, he just floats over the ground so effortlessly. It's pretty incredible.”
“Omaha” has never finished worse than third and has found the wire first in his last three starts, including defeating champion Game Winner in the G2 Rebel and G1 winner Improbable in last Saturday's G1 Arkansas Derby. Both victories came after prolonged stretch battles, requiring Omaha Beach to demonstrate both grit and heart to finish on top.
It's not the same attitude the colt displays in the mornings, Cambra said.
“He's just nice to be around,” said Cambra. “He's cool, he doesn't care about anything. He's all about his business. He knows what he's there to do, and all he wants is to get loved on, get fed, and do his job.
“He just takes his time; he's a pleasure to ride, that's for sure.”
Cambra's father has long been an outrider at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, responsible for policing the racetrack and catching loose horses. Riding is one of Cambra's earliest memories, and he was steering and riding out on his own by the time he was five years old.
By 14, Cambra was galloping racehorses at a local training center, and by 16, when he was officially old enough to get his racetrack license, Cambra graduated to a job at Golden Gate.
In his spare time, Cambra kept up his riding skills starting young horses under saddle and enjoying rodeo sports like roping and saddle bronc riding. The bucking horse skills he learned are a clear advantage on the racetrack, where Cambra is constantly cool, calm and collected in the saddle.
“At least keeping one leg on each side and your mind in the middle, you have a chance,” he said, laughing.
By 2017 Cambra had picked up a job with Golden Gate trainer Ari Herbertson as an exercise rider and later also as his assistant trainer.
It was with Herbertson that Cambra first traveled to Churchill Downs, shipping a mare named Psycho Sister to run in the G2 Distaff Turf Mile on the 2018 Kentucky Derby undercard. The mare finished 10th that day, but Cambra remembers being blown away by the fans and the level of excitement.
“It's beautiful there,” he said. “It was amazing; I've never seen anything like that.”
Herbertson decided to send a string from Golden Gate down to Del Mar for the summer meeting in 2018, and Cambra took the lead there. The weather and quality of racing both appealed to him, and when Herbertson shipped his horses home, Cambra wasn't with them. He made the decision to stay and started looking for a job.
Cambra landed with Hall of Famer Richard Mandella's stable, for which he is particularly grateful.
“He's a real horseman,” said Cambra. “You learn a lot over there. It's not just a 'show up and do your job' kind of deal. Every day you're there you're learning something new. He cares for his horses very well, which I like a lot, and it's always nice to ride nice horses too.”
Cambra has twice made the trip to Arkansas with Omaha Beach and flew back to California this week to pack for Kentucky. He normally gallops seven or eight horses in a morning, but he will have a bit of a vacation for the next several weeks with only Omaha Beach to worry about.
The colt goes back to the track for the first time on Friday morning, so Cambra will fly in Thursday night. This year, Cambra is looking forward to experiencing the Derby from the back of one of his favorite horses.
“He's so nice to ride,” Cambra said again. “He's just the coolest dude.”
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