On the first day that Dallas Roberts swung a leg over the colt by Kitten's Joy out of Devine Actress, she remembers instantly knowing that he was one of the better horses she had sat upon.
For Roberts, 36, that's probably saying something. She inherited a love of horses from her father, Terry, and rode hunter/jumpers as a child before switching to rodeo. As a teenager, Roberts was attending high school one or two hours a day through a special study program and spending the rest of her time on horseback, winning rodeo championships at the state level in Florida and taking trips to the International Youth Finals and National High School Finals. She did everything from breakaway calf roping to barrel racing to cutting to pole bending, competing and selling horses for other people.
But it was the racetrack that kept calling out to Roberts. Her father raced horses, and Roberts accompanied him on his trips to observe training. If she was lucky, she would get to cool out the family horses, and then it was back in the car and away from the backstretch. She remembers that he was anything but pleased when she expressed an interest in galloping – and not because the work was dangerous.
“He tried to keep me from it for years,” she said. “When I came back to it as an adult, he was not thrilled. It's a hard life. It's demanding. He did not shelter me by any means, but … the backside of the racetrack can be a little scary. You're dealing with all walks of life with people. As good and glamorous as it can be, the other side can be very dangerous.”
Roberts said she spent several years trying to find some profession to replace the racetrack. She landed a full scholarship to Vernon College thanks to her roping talent in rodeo. She tried her hand at office work and went to school for cosmetology, but that too lost its shine.
“I worked in it, I was successful, but I was still drawn back to the horses,” she said. “I fought it in my head because I wanted to please my parents, but I found out that you have to follow your heart. I'm ok with getting up at 4:00 in the morning because I enjoy what I do. It doesn't feel like work. The only time it feels like work is when there's a little more pressure, but there's so much that a horse can give you that nothing else can, and that takes most of the stress and pressures away. Take care of the horse first and foremost and the business of it will take care of itself.”
Eventually, she gave in and began galloping horses and working as a riding assistant and outrider. Roberts believes her vast experience was an asset (horsemanship is horsemanship, no matter the saddle, after all), as was her ability to read horses' body language. The trick to dealing with strong, fit, and highly reactive equine athletes of any discipline, she said, is a combination of timing and patience.
“You learn that they're so much like little children. Their attention spans are very short, and they're creatures of habit, so they learn from habit,” she said. “You can make a horse hard by making your hands hard. You have to be receptive to them, and in return they have to be receptive to you. It's as easy or as hard as you want to make it.”
She was in Bill Recio's barn at Florida's Classic Mile training center last year when she got a leg up on the chestnut son of Devine Actress. She could tell that he was both smarter and stronger than most others she had ridden, and when they began doing speed work, the colt's talent became more obvious.
“He had a different presence on the shank compared to when you were saddling him up. As soon as you threw a leg over him he grew into himself bigger and prouder. That's how he stepped out of the barn every day,” said Roberts, who recalled her fingers cramped around the reins when holding the colt during many strong gallops. “He was extremely athletic from the very beginning.
“He was wicked, scary fast. He was so talented that he didn't even realize how fast he was, and we all felt that we had to hold him back because if we would have let himself train the way he wanted to, he'd scare himself.”
That colt became Oscar Nominated, who will compete in the May 7 Kentucky Derby off a win in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes for trainer Mike Maker and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Roberts said he's the most accomplished of the horses she's breezed in her time on the track, and his success is all the sweeter because she has since hung up her exercise saddle for a job as a training barn manager at Bridlewood Farm.
As much as her heart was still in it, Roberts said her body was done with the rigors of galloping. She had
horses flip over on her in four separate accidents in the course of a single year. She estimates she's had three major concussions in her time on the track and multiple broken bones, and a separated shoulder from both rodeo riding and galloping. When she began experiencing memory problems, joint pain, and loss of vision during muscle strain, she realized it was time to step into something less dangerous.
“My body hurts bad,” she said. “I really don't want more injuries. We all know the risks are high and at some point you realize, 'I'm 36…and things don't heal as fast as they used to.' I miss galloping every day because of that connection you have with the horse, but I want to remain in the industry and be healthy.”
Her current job with Bridlewood allows her to pony trainees to the track (and occasionally send her roping horse after a loose 2-year-old), manage their care, and present some of them at sale. She admits that working in the equine world requires a healthy balance between passion for the animals and a head for business. With that balance in mind, Roberts said she'd hoped to attend this year's Derby to see Oscar Nominated in person, but she'll probably be too busy working. That doesn't mean she'll be cheering him on any less loudly.
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