Serious doubts accompanied Mshawish as he entered the gate for the Grade 3 Hal's Hope Stakes last Saturday; he went off as the third choice in the field of five. The Grade 1 winner on turf had only one prior start on the dirt — a fourth in the Cigar Mile. When Mshawish rallied from last to nail the pacesetting Valid on the wire at Gulfstream Park, there was at least one face in the stands registering no surprise at all.
Exercise rider Nick Bush knew his big horse was ready for a strong effort because “he's always worked really well on the dirt.” He should know – Bush has worked for trainer Todd Pletcher for over eight years now.
Bush, 29, grew up in the heart of horse racing country in Versailles, Ky. He recalls weekend trips to Keeneland and the Red Mile with his father, as well as watching the Kentucky Derby on television every year. A love for the sport permeated his formative years, but Bush never thought he might one day be piloting the horses he so enjoyed watching.
“I never thought I could actually do it; the opportunity just wasn't there because I really had no mentor around,” Bush said. “One day I was working as a groom at Parrish Hill Farm, now Southern Equine, around age 14 when Fupeg (Fusaichi Pegasus) won the Derby. A blacksmith who used to ride, named Sam Hackel, asked me what I was going to do when I got out of high school. I told him I didn't know. He said I was the right size to be an exercise rider, maybe not a jockey, but that I should definitely ride.”
The young Bush spent weekends getting on anything with four legs at the Thoroughbred Center while he was in high school. Upon his graduation, he went to Keeneland to work for John Ward, whom he followed to Saratoga. After several intervening galloping jobs, Bush happened to walk into Pletcher's barn at the Spa; he hasn't looked back since.
Bush can't imagine any other job than the one he begins six mornings a week before the sun rises: “This is just something I love to do – I get along with horses better than most people. A lot of people make good money but it's not doing something that they love. I love riding and I love horses; having a physical job that keeps you fit, and I get paid for it. On top of that, every horse has the potential to be a stakes horse, which is so exciting.”
Mshawish isn't the only graded stakes winner Bush has been tasked with exercising. He also galloped the 2015 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Liam's Map, his favorite horse of all time.
“He's the best horse I ever sat on – I knew he was talented from the very beginning,” said Bush. “A horse like Liam, I just knew he would win. It was amazing to experience that at my home track. I had the best time ever. He had to overcome adversity because they said he was one dimensional but he proved them all wrong.”
With the handsome gray off to stud at Lane's End Farm, Bush is looking to the future with Mshawish. Last year, he accompanied the Al Shaqab-owned son of Medaglia d'Oro to Dubai, where the horse was a competitive third in the Group 1 Dubai Turf. This year, Bush hopes to return.
“We have unfinished business there this year. If he goes back, I'll get to go with him… We should have a better chance of winning this time; I want to win that race!”
Pletcher reported that Mshawish's future plans are still undecided: his next race will either be the Donn Handicap on dirt or the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, both on Feb. 6. Either way, the veteran trainer is cautiously optimistic about charting a course to Dubai in March for the big dark bay.
Bush relishes the chance to head back to the Middle East with his toughest morning mount, the “bull dog,” as he calls the horse. When Mshawish first arrived at Pletcher's barn in the winter of 2014, the exercise rider remembers that he was “a difficult horse to gallop.” In fact, two days before his Ft. Lauderdale Stakes victory in 2015, Bush specifically recalls that Mshawish “got to feeling good, threw his head up in the air and ran off with me! We clipped around in :46, not a planned exercise.
“I came into the barn the next morning and, when I was setting tack, Todd told me to put the draw reins on Mshawish. He's kind of a high-headed horse, but he's very relaxed in the draw reins. Not all the horses like them. Riders really have to keep their hands still on the horse, but he goes great in them.”
The physical toll of exercise riding is something Bush keeps in the back of his mind. While he has no plans to retire anytime soon, he has put some thought into what the next step will be.
“Maybe I'll be an assistant, or maybe I'll win the lottery and be an owner,” Bush joked. “I definitely want to be around racing. My cousin Gary Bush is a manager at Denali. He always told me there was a spot there for me. I just know I wanna be somebody in this game – I wanna win races, too.”
Above all, Bush isn't afraid to give back to the sport that's given him so much. He's always free with advice for anyone who wants to learn, including a Lexington-based class of kindergarteners.
“A friend of my sister's, Melissa Duncan, she does this unit on the Derby with her kindergarten class, and she asked if I would come in and talk to the kids. I honestly thought it would be a train wreck, but it was actually very interesting,” said Bush. “The kids were interested in everything I had to say, and they really enjoyed looking through my pictures and were really well behaved. It makes you feel like you're really somebody, the kids putting on your helmet. I love the kids, and I really hope she asks me back again this year.”
In the meantime, Bush will continue to show up at the barn like clockwork every morning, guiding his equine charges through their daily exercise – and cheering them on in the afternoons, of course.
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