Jackie Davis aboard the Equicizer at Gulfstream Park

Jackie Davis aboard the Equicizer at Gulfstream Park

Gulfstream Park

All in the Family

Jackie Davis was three years old when she rode a horse for the first time.

Jackie Davis was three years old when she rode a horse for the first time. As a child, she continually had a pony by her side, and when not in school, she spent all of her time at the racetrack, shadowing her father, Robbie, as he made a career as a jockey.

Summers were spent at Saratoga, winters at Gulfstream Park, and the rest of the year at either Belmont or Aqueduct. That was life as Jackie knew it, with rarely a day passing when she did not watch her father ride a horse, either on television or in person. As Jackie puts it, there was never a chance that she would ever be anything except a rider.

“It always seemed fun to me," she said. "Being on a horse is exhilarating. The adrenaline is incredible. It was always my dream to ride." After graduating from high school, Jackie did try something different. She studied fashion at the Hudson Valley Community College, which she described as the total opposite of riding horses.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize it wasn’t right for me," Jackie said. "I knew I had to get back to riding.”

Jackie, 20, is indeed back in the irons again. In her final year at the North American Racing Academy (NARA) – a riding school established by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron in 2006 – she is currently completing her internship with legendary trainer Allen Jerkens and is only steps away from fulfilling her lifelong dream.

It is a dream, Jackie admits, her father was not too thrilled about initially. “He didn’t want me to be a jockey at first. He knows how hard it is to ride, not just because I’m girl, but for anyone. He knows what he went through to ride, and he wanted to make sure my heart was in it.

“When I told him I was going to riding school, he said, ‘Why don’t you become a teacher? You love kids.' But I told him it is his fault. He made us fearless when we were young.”

Robbie was a successful jockey during his more than 20-year career that began in 1981. Consistently among the top 10 riders in New York, Davis had 10 Breeders’ Cup mounts, was second with Kingpost in the 1988 Belmont (gr. I), and won grade I stakes such as the Champagne, Arlington Million, Wood Memorial, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. All told, he compiled more than 3,000 wins before retiring in 2002.

Despite his success, letting Jackie follow her dream took a while to accept. “It’s different when it’s your little girl,” said Robbie, who counts Gone West and Maria’s Mon as the best horses he ever rode. “I remember when she wore tap shoes, did gymnastics, and was a cheerleader, so to go from that to this is tough.

“This is what she wants to do though; I can see it in her eyes. She’s going to do it with or without me, so I might as well support her.”

Jackie is one of eight students that make up NARA’s inaugural class. Graduates of the two-year curriculum earn an associates degree in equine health, but NARA provides much more to prospective jockeys, such as an education in personal finance and nutrition. Students are also required to operate their own stable, just like a real trainer. They are responsible for trotting, galloping, breezing, hotwalking, bathing, cleaning stalls, and all other chores. The school, which is based at the Kentucky Training Center near Lexington, Ky., is taught by McCarron.

At the end of the first year, students receive their exercise riding certificate. After year two, they earn their associates degree. Then the internship begins. Jackie is serving her's at Gulfstream.

“My dad rode for Mr. Jenkins, so he was the perfect guy for my internship," she said. "I basically go wherever he goes. I’m taking care of three horses for him and just learning everything I can from him. He’s the best. He knows the business inside and out and does things so naturally. My main thing is to get as much experience riding as I can before I graduate in August.”

Next year, if all goes well, Jackie will officially begin her riding career. Her goal is to apply for her apprentice license at Aqueduct in January 2009. Until then, she will work with her father as much as possible.

“I want to be as good as I possibly can before next year,” she said. “My dad is going to help me perfect my skills before I get out there on my own. He basically talks to me every day about riding. He gives me advice on every aspect – like staying relaxed, how to break out properly, different tricks of the trade."

Robbie says he and Jackie will spend time riding in unrecognized races at state fairs in Idaho this fall in preparation for 2009.

“It’s a whole new ballgame when you put those silks on,” said Robbie, who lives on a 70-acre farm just outside of Saratoga Springs, where he is building a broodmare breeding operation. “You can gallop all you want, but once you break from that gate you’d better be ready. So we’ll go out there and get her that experience.

“But I have no doubt she will be a good rider. Gary Stevens called me over Christmas and gave me the scoop. He said Jackie can ride. He said she has as much talent as Julie Krone and has the gift of gab. Those are the two most important things you can have as a jockey.”