Piloting 1,200 pounds of fire-breathing horseflesh takes more than a gentle hand and good instincts—it requires an athlete. Jockeys are recognized, pound for pound, as some of the strongest professional athletes in all of sports.
While tales of Laffit Pincay and his single-peanut diet might stick in the public's memory, North American Racing Academy executive director Remi Bellocq stresses fitness in his Intro to Race Riding class far more than diet. For the aspiring jockeys and exercise riders remaining in the course after one month, fitness assessments take the place of biweekly written tests, and they're proving more challenging for some than others.
In order to begin the course, female students had to do 30 sit-ups in two minutes (40 for males), 25 push-ups (30 for males), two minutes of jump rope, and a 10-minute mile run (eight for males) . Each exercise becomes more challenging every two weeks. By midterms, those requirements will have gotten significantly tougher. The men must run two miles in 16 minutes, complete a total of 150 sit-ups in six minutes, two minutes of plank, 90 push-ups in just over six minutes, two minutes of jump rope and a 60-second wall sit. Women will run two miles in 18 minutes, 100 sit-ups in six minutes, two minutes of plank, 60 sit-ups in just over six minutes, two minutes of jump rope and a 60-second wall sit.
Bellocq's structure of gender-specific requirements is in keeping with the Presidential fitness tests many of these students had to pass in high school. If the women want to hold themselves to the men's standards, however, they are welcome to.
“The horses don't care if you're a guy or a gal,” he tells the class halfway through one gym session in early February. “They run just as fast for Rosie Napravnik and Julie Krone. I got my ass kicked by plenty of women on the track all the time.”
From the comfort of a living room couch, it's easy to see where the need for triceps of steel and crushing core muscles comes in as riders hover above their horses from starting gate to gallop out. What may be less obvious from that side of the screen is that the push-ups and sit-ups the students breathlessly count out are only a piece of the puzzle. Even a jockey's palms and fingers have to develop strength to handle the thick, rubber-coated reins and to grab hold of mane when necessary. The students say wall sits are the bane of their existence, but the agonizing burn tones the muscles and tendons on the backs of their legs, which will hold their center of gravity steady as they begin canter work.
“These guys have to learn to handle a horse that's going to grab ahold of them,” said Bellocq. “There's no way to really replace that, so it's just about getting them fit with a lot of trot sets and cantering for their lower legs. For the upper body, we do a lot of sit-ups and push-ups.”
Bellocq pointed out that the muscles needed to restrain an on-the-muscle Thoroughbred during a workout are different from those a jockey uses during a race, but the students don't have the advantage of learning from either just yet. Instead, they're spending a lot of time in the gym.
“Me and Kody, we hit it every day,” said David Mussad. “We usually get bored with the machines, so we'll jump around a lot.”
The Academy recently announced a partnership with the North Lexington YMCA, so students always have someplace to work out. Mussad estimated that he spends three hours a day in the gym with his classmates. He didn't even let the record snowfall break his routine—he and fellow student Ray Holassie hired a Lyft driver to take them to Planet Fitness when they couldn't get their cars out of their parking lots.
“The guy's like, 'You're going to the gym?' He thought we were going to work or something,” Mussad laughed. “And then we got a Lyft out of there. You've got to do what you've got to do. It throws you off if you skip it for like three days. You can easily get out of shape, so you've got to stay on top of it.”
Students like Mussad and Holassie, who are aiming for the school's jockey pathway, hope the cycle of meal plans and push-ups is the start of a lifelong routine. For others, like aspiring trainer Melissa Myszka, the class is actually a departure from her original plan.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian coming into college; I wanted to be a track vet. Hearing about Barbaro and Eight Belles breaking down, I had this big dream that I would help horses,” said Myszka, who is aiming for NARA's management and training certificate. “I went to UK for management, but sitting in a classroom reading books just isn't my thing. Training definitely is my path.
“Honestly, when I started the school, I hadn't even expected to ride or to get up on a racehorse in those itty bitty saddles, but starting this class and seeing that it's going to help me in that long term training goal, it's a big challenge for me.”
At 5'9, Myszka has dreaded the weekly weigh-ins (which Bellocq conducts not for a grade but for the students' reference), and the mile runs. She had initially decided the fitness component was just something to survive to get the time she wanted in the saddle. Then, she saw her mile time go from 11:45 minutes on the first week of class to 9:55 minutes in three weeks. Now, she's warming up to whole thing. “I'm five or six inches taller than everyone else so I do expect to be a little heavier,” she said. “I'm down to 800 to 900 calories a day. I think the weight's going to come [down] but right now I'm focusing on the fitness aspect and just becoming stronger in those certain aspects I'm going to need like my lower legs, thighs, and arms; all the stuff I need just to be able to hold a horse.”
Three weeks later after her 9:55 mile, Myszka is keeping up with her more diminutive classmates, and she has dropped eight pounds. A trip to her doctor uncovered a gluten allergy she didn't realize she had. The new diet has brought her a better metabolism, and the results have sparked renewed determination.
“I've never been the fastest or the strongest and seeing that I'm starting to get better… it definitely is putting me in a determined mindset,” she said.
For weeks, the students have been asking Bellocq, 'When do we begin cantering?' The trot sets in the shedrow of Barn 30 might be still be challenging (Bellocq has upped the length and number of their drills), but human eyes are glazing over and the horses are looking for mischevious ways to break up the boredom. He reminds the students each time of the importance of fundamentals, but Bellocq has also been growing impatient waiting for the ground to thaw since the fifth week of class. Mother Nature has had other plans.
By late February, Lexington has seen two rounds of snow and temperatures below zero, with what would ultimately be a record-breaking storm still ahead. The extreme cold hasn't been kind to Bellocq and his syllabus. NARA farm manager Francois Parisel has had his hands full treating respiratory bugs among the program's horses, courtesy of the drastic temperature changes. Classes were cancelled for several days, and when they resume, the students get the excitement they'd been craving.
Fresh off a week's vacation, the normally docile school horses are steam-blowing monsters; cantering, bucking, and wheeling in the confined shedrow. A small bay gelding named Marbles has choreographed a creative 'rocking horse' dance, demanding every ounce of Myszka's patience and newfound strength. They're moving so fast I can barely keep them in frame of my camera. It's all the students can do to stay aboard during the first trot set, and all they can do to keep going by the third.
Despite the weather setbacks, Bellocq is seeing progress.
“So, unlike Day 1, now the saddles are actually pointing in the right direction,” he joked. “The bridles, for the most part, are on properly.”
Even in their bundled state, the students are somehow slicker now, a month or so in—they've found boots and jeans and gloves that are trimmer, lending warmth without bulk. They're switching reins from hand to hand without looking, and leaning along with their horses' crow hops by feel instead of by study. They're finding their wings.
Next, he says, it will be time to let them get a taste of flight.
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