When Big Brown made his Triple Crown bid in 2008, 13-year-old Kayla Jarvinen followed every moment, watching on TV with her family. She couldn't stop thinking one thing.
I want to be a jockey.
Kids want to be lots of things when they grow up, but Kayla was serious.
“I don't think my parents thought much of it at the time,” she said. “But I haven't stopped talking about it for the past four years.”
So how does a teenager with no riding experience and whose family has no equine or racing connections follow such a dream?
It's a question former jockey Frankie Lovato Jr. has found an answer to, even though his path to becoming a professional rider was very different.
Lovato's father was a jockey and by the time Frankie was four years old, he had a saddle. At age eight, he was building crude wooden horses in his garage, using planks and buckets. He practiced relentlessly, something that helped him follow in his father's footsteps. In 1980, Lovato won the Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice jockey. He was 17. His riding career lasted a quarter of a century.
These days, Lovato is helping kids like Kayla realize their own dreams of making it to the races.
“I've mentored kids my whole career,” said Lovato, a father of three. “I've always had a passion for helping them along.”
Since retiring in 2004, Lovato has slowly built what is now called Jockey World – a nonprofit website, radio show and summer camp – all designed to give kids a proper start to a potential career as a jockey and introduce them to the world of horse racing.
“It started as Internet clubs, answering questions from people,” Lovato said. “My passion was to create a jockey world where kids learn things the right way.”
Lovato's idea blossomed in 2009, with some inspiration from Kayla, who connected with Lovato through his online community.
“She was too young to get a job on her own,” Lovato said. “Her parents weren't horse people, and they didn't live near a farm. But she was starving for knowledge, just dying to get started.”
So what did Lovato do? He built a miniature racetrack in the backyard of his home in Norwalk, Ohio and invited Kayla and other kids to come for a long weekend. He called it Jockey Camp.
“It was incredible. I don't even know how to describe it really,” said Kayla, who will attend her fourth Jockey Camp later this month. “I learned a ton, and I still learn every year.”
There are no real horses at Jockey Camp. The only horses students ride are the mechanical riding simulators that Lovato himself invented. Those crude wooden horses he built in his garage as a boy were the seed for the Equicizer, a training device he created in 1982, following a spill in which he broke his leg. He used the Equicizer as a rehabilitation tool. For the past three decades, Lovato's invention has also been used by professional jockeys to train, by actors in horse racing movies, by children with disabilities in therapeutic riding programs, and now, by the participants at Lovato's camp.
“I can teach them so much using an Equicizer,” Lovato said. “We take the danger of the horse out of the equation, and they learn a lot.”
In addition to classes on racing history and race video analysis, Lovato uses group exercises to teach safety and proper technique. In one game on the “racetrack”, the participants wear belts with long straps hanging all the way to the ground. If you step on another person's strap, you're out. The lesson is to avoid “clipping heels” in a race.
“Safety is a huge issue with me,” Lovato said. “We also have a day called Jockey Diet Day. A nutritionist comes in and helps teach how to eat properly and the value of nutrition.”
Lovato said Jockey Camp isn't just for kids or even aspiring jockeys. Anyone is welcome. Last year, University of Georgia student Brittlan Wall attended the camp. Lovato said she's too tall to be a jockey, but she hopes to become an exercise rider and get into the business side of horse racing.
“It's all career-building tools,” Lovato said. “Brittlan is now interning at Three Chimneys Farm.”
Brittlan attended camp on a scholarship sponsored by jockey Mike Smith. Rider James Graham is also a sponsor, as well as the Daily Racing Form and Starlight Racing, among others. Jockey Camp costs $500 per student, which, combined with donations, helps Lovato cover some of the costs of the Jockey World project. Lovato has applied for official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status with the government, and he's hoping to gain more financial support within the racing industry for what he's trying to accomplish.
“I think people are still learning what this is all about. I don't know if people realize the benefits. The wholesomeness of what we're doing is the point.”
Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone will be assisting with this year's camp, which is set for July 27-29. Kayla Jarvinen, who also donates her time helping Lovato with the Jockey World website and radio show, will be attending once again. She's now 17, and she still wants to be a jockey, a dream she said her parents have supported, thanks to Jockey World and Jockey Camp.
“For me, it's made all the difference,” Kayla said. “It's given me direction and a path to follow.”
Thanks to the generosity of Three Chimneys Farm, the sponsor of Good News Friday, a donation of $100 will be made in support of Jockey World. Three Chimneys will be donating $100 each and every week we bring you a story of people or organizations making a positive difference in our world.
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