After spending his life around horses, Jess Lester Malen died in the city that calls itself the Horse Capital of the World.
A retired jockey and trainer, Malen, 93, originally from Nebraska City, Neb., died Sunday, Aug. 3 in Lexington, Ky. He is survived by his wife Candice, who fondly recalled the scenes in the 2003 movie "Seabiscuit" of riders competing at the bush tracks in the 1930s.
"I remember when that movie came out I was able to tell my friends, that's what Jess used to do," Candice Malen said. "My husband would ride at these little meets, too."
Malen's life was shaped by some of the biggest events in the U.S. and the world. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s forced his family from the Midwest to the West Coast. Malen, who had dropped out of school, began riding horses as a teen at bush tracks from Washington State to Mexico. Eventually, as he put on weight, most of his competitive riding would be in steeplechase events.
"He rode in steeplechase races at Aqua Caliente where they'd just put the obstacles on the dirt track," Candice Malen said. "They didn't have turf."
Malen eventually moved east. He was riding in Aiken, S.C., when in 1943 he was drafted into the Army to serve in World War II. Malen used his horsemanship skills to train new recruits in the 1st Calvary. During the war he served in New Guinea and other Pacific Rim locations, where horses often took a back seat to armored carriers that provided some defense from enemy machine guns.
After the war, Malen continued riding in steeplechase races. He moved to training in the early 1950s, and continued to saddle horses until 1987, starting a few horses in the late 1980s at Delaware Park and Saratoga Race Course.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, Malen worked as a trainer, an assistant trainer, and as an exercise rider. His life around horses led him to meet Candice, also an exercise rider, at Laurel Park and the two married in 1979.
Candice Malen said her husband talked of match races where he faced Native American riders and their horses on improvised tracks. With no running water in some of those often mountainous areas, Malen walked his horses into the valley after competition to drink from streams.
"He had an unbelievable life," Candice Malen said.
Candice Malen said arrangements are still being planned but friends and family may check ClarkLegacyCenter.com, which will have them listed once they're finalized. Jess Malen also is survived by a sister, Bernadine Roberts, and several nieces and nephews. The family asks that donations be made to Old Friends or the Wounded Warrior Project.