As outrider John Garges helped slow down American Pharoah following the colt's eight-length romp in the Arkansas Derby last year, the outrider asked jockey Victor Espinoza: “Well, do you think he could go a little farther?”
“I hope so,” said Espinoza. The pair turned around, and Garges kept ahold of the colt for the journey back to the winner's circle.
Obviously, the colt did go farther — much farther.
After watching Pharoah conquer the Triple Crown and take down the first Grand Slam in racing history, Garges is grateful for the small role he played.
“It's a long road from bulldogging and milking cows to leading a Triple Crown winner back,” he said. “It's been a wild ride.”
A native of “a small town” in southern Missouri, Garges grew up on a dairy farm and spent his high school years riding bulls and team roping, among other rodeo-related sports. His first experience with racehorses was a group of Quarter Horses from Oklahoma his father purchased. “Didn't seem like we ever had anything that wanted to be a superstar, or even really win a race,” Garges remembered.
The racetrack bug had taken hold, though. A track called Blue Ribbon Downs in Sallisaw, Okla., drew the young man and his family several weekends a year.
“I kid you not,” Garges said, “we would come through there and they would have 20 races a day. I mean it just seemed amazing. And still, to me right now, it seems amazing because they would have 20 races a day and the stands would be full of people.”
Learning how to outride wasn't a huge challenge, said Garges. “Having a history of rodeoing and bulldogging and picking up horses — picking up broncs and stuff — it kinda just come natural.”
Now, Garges spends April through October in Iowa working as Prairie Meadows' outrider, then gives his horses a month or so off before shipping to Arkansas in December for the Oaklawn Park meet, which begins in January.
The hardest part of outriding is finding the right horse, Garges said. While he has bred a few of the “catch horses” in his employ, Garges likes to repurpose ex-racehorses for the job, as they are already used to the sounds and excitement of the racetrack. But that comes with its own set of issues.
“If he's fast enough to catch racehorses, everybody thinks they should still run him,” Garges said. “And they've run him so much, if he is fast enough, that he's crippled, so then you've gotta make sure you find a sound enough horse that's fast enough to do the job.”
Making a great catch horse can also be the most rewarding part of the job, especially a horse that trainers thought wouldn't be much when his career ended. For example, Brim is a gray Quarter Horse that ran a few times in Iowa. He was “a rotten, no good son-of-a-buck in the gates. He'd won $33,000, but they had to pony him and go all the way around with him every day because he wanted to buck everybody off.” Now, Brim doesn't even seem like the same horse. “To go up there, and just stand there bird-dogging them watching them go down the track and never move a muscle; that's the most rewarding thing I've got.”
While having the right horse is extremely important, so is having the right attitude. As the racetrack's first line of defense against catastrophe, outriders are responsible for not only recovering loose horses but also for keeping order during racing and training hours.
“If you've got everybody trained to follow the rules, you don't really have a lot to worry about,” said Garges. One of the most dangerous situations is when a loose horse takes off running the wrong way on the racetrack, against the flow of traffic. At Oaklawn, both a siren and flashing lights warn when a horse is loose; exercise riders are supposed to pull up and move to the outside rail when those warnings are present. There is some disagreement among outriders about how to proceed from there because exercise riders don't always do what they're supposed to do.
“I've had a few people ask what you do when there's a horse running the wrong way, and well, you catch him going the wrong way. That's what you do. You gotta make sure nobody's coming at you,” said Garges, who was in a head-on collision several years ago. When a horse gets loose, the first step Garges always takes is to look up and make sure the path is clear. “But it's on a glance, that's all it is. Mine, it was a little bit hazy and foggy when I had my accident. I looked up and didn't see nobody, and there shouldn't have been anybody coming since the sirens were going off, but there was.”
But Garges is “hardy,” and has never been seriously injured. He credits that to all the dairy cow milk he drank growing up on the farm.
Being an outrider also requires a good sense of humor because strange and wild things happen on the racetrack. Sometimes, loose horses just don't want to be caught, or when they are, they make creative efforts to get free again.
“I don't know how it happened, but no kidding, I was in Iowa and I caught him and this horse just stopped. Now I really wouldn't think I'd have enough grip to hang onto a horse going 30 miles an hour and he just stops. He jerked me right smooth off my horse.”
Other times, animals like deer or even alligators have to be chased off the track. Garges especially deals with geese at Prairie Meadows: “You know, the geese get to laying them eggs and they get a little fight-y,” he said. “A lot of times if the horse realizes that he is chasing the geese and the geese aren't chasing him, it's kind of like chasing a cow. As long as the horse is chasing the cow, they usually don't have no problem with it. But if the goose comes back at them, sometimes they get a little freaked out.”
Animals aren't the only ones that like to throw a wrench in an outrider's day. At Oaklawn, many people walk on the track during training hours, traversing the very short space along the outside rail between the gap and the grandstands. Garges recalled an incident in which a guy pushed his bicycle up onto the track during training hours.
“I loped over to him and said 'What in the hell are you doing? Are you stupid?' He looked at me and said 'Yeah, I am.' And he turned his bicycle around and pushed it back off the track. That's the strangest and funniest thing I think I've ever seen anybody do. And every year, he comes up to me and says, 'have you had anybody push a bicycle up onto the racetrack lately?'”
After 16 years on the job, Garges isn't looking to retire anytime soon. “I don't know if Churchill will ever call,” he joked. He said he'd like to be able to work the Kentucky Derby someday.
Until then, he'll just continue on his journey as a “world-travelling outrider” between Iowa and Arkansas, watching over the racetrack and picking out racehorses he'd like to turn into catch horses. One of the horses Garges has retrained is Douglas, a Thoroughbred who made one start in Iowa. Garges purchased the horse from his trainer at the end of the 2014 meeting; less than six months later, Douglas was the mount who had the honor of escorting American Pharoah back to the winner's circle.
“He just turned five years old and developed into a really nice horse.”
Reflecting back on everything he's accomplished, Garges insists he wouldn't change a thing. “It's a pretty simple story,” he said. “It's all been good.”
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