On first glance, what strikes me most are the relative differences between the two women. Physically, one is a head taller and a bit younger, while the other carries herself with a quieter, more unassuming presence. The first has a Swedish accent; the second is American, probably midwestern, if I had to guess.
After our conversation, though, it becomes clear to me that despite their differences, the two women are driven by the same thing: a “passion” for the racehorses.
Each is an exercise rider for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott; Marianne Scherer for 14 years, and Penny Gardiner for the last seven. Additionally, each rider will play a pivotal role in the upcoming World Championships of Thoroughbred racing: Scherer has been tasked with the daily exercise of Breeders' Cup Classic contender Yoshida, and Gardiner rode the Japanese-bred colt for his most recent workout at Churchill Downs.
Scherer rode show jumpers in Sweden until she was 13 years old, when she spent two weeks “practicing” in a Thoroughbred barn after school had ended.
“That's it, I was hooked,” she said. “And this is where I've been ever since… It's a passion, you know.”
“She was bit by the bug,” added Gardiner.
Conversely, Gardiner grew up on a cattle ranch, and was pretty much born on the back of a horse. Her older brother was a jockey who won more than 1,500 races over the course of his career. Gardiner had a brief riding stint but found she preferred the stability of the morning training schedule.
“It was definitely a case of ‘idol worship,'” Gardiner said. “I've had a long journey to get to this job… It's like Marianne said, I just love what I do. It's a passion. I can't imagine doing anything else.”
Mott has won the Classic twice before, with the great Cigar in 1995 and more recently with Drosselmeyer in 2011. Yoshida will be joining the Classic field with a slightly different twist, however, as three of his four starts this season have come on the turf. Yoshida, named for the leading family of Japanese racing, is owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, SF Racing and Head of Plains Partners.
The 4-year-old son of Heart's Cry began 2018 with a win in the Group 1 Old Forester Turf Classic at Churchill. Scherer recalls he had been training particularly well before that start, and when he paid $21.80 to win, her husband was absolutely incredulous; she hadn't bet on Yoshida.
“I don't want to jinx them,” Scherer said, laughing.
Gardiner smiles, then leads me just outside the corner of the barn.
“See that car over there?” she asks. “If I were a good handicapper, it'd be a Lamborghini.”
After the Turf Classic, Yoshida tried his luck at Royal Ascot in the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes. He finished a valiant fifth that day, but his next start in New York was a bit dull; he ran fifth in the G1 Fourstardave at Saratoga.
Mott took a bold step and entered Yoshida on the dirt in the G1 Woodward Stakes. Yoshida rewarded his connections with a two-length triumph over Gunnevera, much to Scherer's delight. She watched the race at Kentucky Downs with her father, who'd come into town, joking that she gave him 20 dollars to bet the horse; that way, she wouldn't jinx him.
Scherer added that Yoshida is training just as well now as he was before the Turf Classic in May, and she was adamant that the dirt, whether it is a fast track or not, won't be an issue for him.
As I talked to them, the two women seemed slightly shy about being interviewed. Their poise and confidence on the track that morning seemed to be in direct conflict with their on-the-ground personalities. At the same time, I found it particularly hard to imagine working for a trainer with Mott's resume. Weren't these women nervous about riding in front of him?
“He's not the kind of person who makes you nervous,” Gardiner explained. “That's probably the last thing on my list to worry about.”
“He is just a wonderful person to work for,” added Scherer. “It's a big family here.”
The job can be challenging, of course. It is seven days a week, with only brief vacations once or twice a year. Restraining an average of six different 1200-pound Thoroughbreds a day isn't easy on the body, either.
“I feel better when I'm galloping,” said Gardiner. “I feel better when I'm working. You may be sore when you wake up, but you come in and work it out… after a week away from the track, I really miss it and I'm ready to get back.”
The passion and the challenges of working as an exercise rider for a Hall of Fame trainer like Mott are what keep Scherer and Gardiner coming back every morning. It's also a given that on Breeders' Cup day, just like most race days, both of them will be standing at Yoshida's side in the paddock as he prepares for the Classic challenge.
“They are like our babies,” said Scherer, smiling. “I try to think, if I didn't work here, where would I want to work. I don't think it's really anywhere. This is home.”
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