The thrills. The spills. The rivalries, rages, and romances. And yes, the flipping, too. It's all there in a new 12-part documentary television series, "Jockeys," that begins Friday night, Feb. 6, at 9 p.m. EST on Animal Planet.
The series, which will be broadcast in high definition in two half-hour episodes each Friday over the next six weeks, promises to take the viewer inside the world of jockeys in a way that nothing has before. Filmed mostly during last fall's Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, the previews and advertisements for the series have concentrated on the danger aspect of the profession. But all the angles will be covered, both on and off the track, promise the show's executives.
"When I was growing up my step-father bet on the horses for a living," said Liz Bronstein, who is executive producer of the series along with her best friend, Tina Gazzerro. "We used to spend Jewish holidays at the track. And when I came out here and started producing television, I really, really wanted to tell the story and wanted to make a television show about jockeys."
During a national teleconference Feb. 3, Bronstein said they developed the idea five years ago but couldn't sell it to anyone at the time.
"We really thought the idea of jockeys in this very high-stakes world was so compelling, and we couldn't get it going five years ago," Bronstein said. "And persistence pays off. Animal Planet -- we heard through the grapevine that they were looking to do a show in the world of horseracing about jockeys. And we charged in saying, 'We're the ones.' So, you know, it's been a long time coming. It's a passion project for both of us, and we really think it's just such an interesting world."
The producers -- along with Darrell Haire, western regional manager for the Jockeys' Guild, and Richard Shapiro, then the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board -- met with the Southern California Thoroughbred riding colony during last summer's Hollywood Park meeting and got the go-ahead from the riders. Haire, who has been a consultant on the show and is also featured, notes, "I've been with this from the get-go. This is special. We (the jockeys and the Guild) wouldn't have done it otherwise."
A pilot episode was developed and jockeys were interviewed. From those interviews, several were invited to participate as featured characters in the "docu-soap." Some declined, Bronstein said, because they didn't want the intrusion of cameras on their professional and personal lives.
“We looked for people who are passionate and would allow us to come into their lives,” Bronstein said. "We were given unprecedented access (to the jockeys' room). It was really incredible. We were so honored that we were allowed to film in there. We had cameras in there all day long, every day. And it definitely takes a little bit of time. I mean, it's true on every show that I do. It takes a little bit of time for people to get used to the cameras.
"We were nervous coming to the jocks' room that a couple of riders wouldn't want us in there and there would be issues and you know it actually turned out to be the opposite. The riders were all really welcoming. It ended up being really good."
Bronstein said that working with jockeys was refreshing in other ways.
"So often in this business, you're working with people who just really want to be on TV and really want to be stars, and they really want exposure desperately," she said. "And desperation has an odor. I think a lot of TV shows really suffer from that. And the audience, they just sense it, that someone is just really desperate to be on television. The jockeys were just absolutely the opposite. These were guys who didn't really care if they were on a TV show, didn't really need that sort of (fame).
"They love what they do, and I think all of them were involved with it because they love horseracing and they want more people to love horseracing and know about horseracing," Bronstein said. "They're really fun to be around. They're funny, they're lighthearted. They have a great time. I always thought that they were just going to be very serious and boring. And (it's) sort of just the opposite -- really a blast to film, a blast to be around.
"And I was surprised at how they were able to balance the competition and the friendship. You know, that they can be so competitive in the jocks' room and then everybody goes out to dinner and drinks some wine and talks through the day and give each other a hard time. But, you know, it's this very tight-knit family."
The seven jockeys who agreed to allow the cameras to follow them both at the track and in their private lives believe the series will give horse racing much needed exposure to the general public.
"I think it's great for the industry," said jockey Aaron Gryder, a 38-year-old rider whose relationship with up-and-coming Joe Talamo is a pivotal part of the opening episode. "Unfortunately over the last several years (racing's) had a lot of negative press, and it's only because we don't get the coverage. Not jockeys ... but horseracing. It's covered through the Triple Crown, which is three racing days, and the Breeder's Cup. But we get very little exposure in our sport and it's a wonderful sport.
"And I think this show's going to bring a lot of people that maybe disliked racing because they thought it might have been something different than what it is. Or it will introduce a lot of people that knew nothing about horseracing and never followed it into going to see it. It's a great sport."
Gryder, who has won more than 3,000 races in a 22-year career, says he has seen the difference in the jockeys' room at Santa Anita over the years.
"When I first started riding, it seemed like the jockey's room was a much older room," he said. "And, you know, it's a very young room now, so, I guess I am one of the older guys."
But not so much older that he can't pull a prank on the 18-year-old Talamo, whose locker is next to Gryder's. At one point, Talamo throws a fit when he finds a parking enforcement boot has been placed on his car with a note attached to the windshield, saying, "subject to arrest." Gryder said he was laughing because he was the one who had the boot put on.
"He grabs the microphone off his shirt, throws it on the ground, and says, 'Dammit, this is serious!'"
Later, Talamo is on the phone explaining his unpaid parking tickets to the track stewards, who know nothing about what he's talking about.
Gryder said he and Talamo enjoy "messing with each other."
"But I think he also looks up to me for advice, different things that might happen in a race or something that I tell him that he says or does ... and I tell him, 'That's not the way you want to be portrayed. Just leave that alone. You know, don't go in that direction,' " said Gryder.
"So I think it was pretty real with Joe and I, but there's not always that interaction with the younger riders," Gryder added. "I mean, it's hard when a young rider maybe has no job that pays him anything until they get their first license at 16 years old and now they're thrown into a man's sport where you could easily make, you know, $10,000, $12,000 a week."
The three-year relationship between Mike Smith, a Hall of Fame rider, and the Canadian jockey Chantal Sutherland, a relative newcomer in California, is also an early staple of the series.
"Mike and I are competitive when we are at the racetrack," Sutherland said. "He's a very well known rider, (so) we kind of have different business and so I kind of respect him and then I learn from him. And I'm still a learning jockey. I'm up and coming. But when we're racing against each other, deep down inside, I want to beat him so I can come home and maybe not gloat, but I could just silently gloat. And, you know, it's more of a fun thing, and also he is a very good teacher. He also is a good sport in that he'll always tell me when I ride well.
"It's nice when you ride a race and you don't do so well or you think that you could have done something different, I'll watch his races or he'll watch mine and he'll say, 'You know, you rode a good race. There's nothing you could have done. You know, you did everything you could. That horse -- you didn't have enough horse.' It's kind of supportive. So, I know it's a really interesting dynamic and I think that when you watch the show you'll see all angles of it. But it is a unique relationship for sure."
Sutherland said she came to forget about the filming even as it was going on around her.
“At first, it was kind of awkward having so many cameras in your house,” Sutherland said. “After a while, you get used to the cameras and the guys working with us and everything just got easy for us. It kind of worked out and flowed on its own.”
The other featured riders are Jon Court, Alex Solis, and Kayla Stra. Many of the other jockeys from the West Coast riding colony also make appearances.
Early on, Stra, a young female rider from Australia trying to gain a foothold in Southern California, is seen marching through the barn area at Santa Anita with her agent trying to drum up business while letting her frustration show.
Later, still in quest of an elusive first victory at the meet, she wistfully tells a friend, "Winning a race is like ... better than sex."