Tuesday, 04 March 2014 11:02

The School Where Dreams Are Born: 2014 Exercise Rider Program Under Way

Written by Amanda Gregory

Some of the most highly regarded and revered people within the thoroughbred industry are our gallop people and jockeys. There is nothing more breath taking than watching the partnership of a horse and rider thunder around the track in complete harmony with each other. Though these people make it look easy, it requires a specialized skill set and finesse to handle a thousand pound athlete. Many who wish to learn how to gallop will go to farms or tracks and enlist seasoned gallop people and jockeys to take the time out of their busy schedules to teach them. Horse Racing Alberta saw a need to create a better way to bring in and educate an increased number of skilled riders into the industry. Together with Olds College, the Exercise Rider and Jockey Training Program was created.

The program made its debut in the fall of 2005 and it is the only school of its kind in all of Canada. In the beginning, the school consisted mainly of students hailing from local areas, but now it is attracting new recruits from all over Canada. This year’s class even boasts one student coming all the way from Bulgaria. “Word is spreading that it is the place to go to get skills for employment,” states Mara Coote-Freeman, program co-ordinator of Continuing Education at Olds College. “The industry has really embraced the school, loaning horses and mentoring the students, which is really helping to promote a professional workforce.”

When it comes to the success of the school, the proof is in the pudding. Among some of the most successful graduates of the program is Omar Moreno, who won a Canadian Sovereign Award for top apprentice jockey. He then went on to win an Eclipse Award as top apprentice jockey for all of North America. Moreno is a regular rider at Woodbine Racetrack and in 2013 earned over two million in purse money. 2012 marked another Sovereign Award winner as Scott Williams was granted the Outstanding Apprentice Jockey with fellow alum Jennifer Reid named runner up to the award.

Graduates Amie Pooli and Sheena Ryan are both nominated for the 2013 Sovereign Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey, of which the award ceremony will be held on April 11 at Woodbine Racetrack. Pooli was given the opportunity to take part in an international race for apprentice jockeys last November and rode in an Arabian race in Abu Dhabi.

The school gives students the skills and opportunities to work anywhere in the world, with graduates now working across Canada and in places such as California, Arizona, and Florida. There are many that stay within the Alberta industry as well and have become invaluable members of our local community. One such gallop person is Amanda Dixon, who won last year’s first annual Powder Puff Derby, an event for gallop girls to be a jockey for a day and raise awareness and money for the Breast Cancer Foundation. The personable Dixon, who always has a smile on her face, can also be occasionally seen acting as backup outrider during the races.

The program has made a large difference in many people’s lives and much of this can be attributed to the great instructors that mentor the students. There have been a few different instructors over the years, but Theresa Sealy and Nancy Huston have been teaching with the program since it started nine years ago. Both ladies were highly instrumental in getting the program going and were part of the curriculum writing team. As an instructor, Sealy pulls double duty as she is also the main instructor of the groom school.

Of all the various jobs Sealy has held at the racetrack, she says that being involved with these programs has been the hardest but most rewarding job she has ever had. Huston has been involved in racing for thirty years, much of that time she worked as a jockey. She left for a few years to start a family and returned to become an instructor for the school. For Mike Vanin, this is the first year teaching the course. Vanin has worked within the industry for eighteen years and has held various positions over that time including being a gallop person. Vanin says he is really enjoying his new job so far, which is evident by the smiles and good natured banter that occurs among the whole group during morning lessons.

For many teachers, once a student leaves a program they never see or hear of each other ever again. These instructors have the advantage of being able to follow along with the careers of their pupils. They quite often are there for the students long after the program has ended and continue to mentor and support them, even occasionally working along-side them. The chance to see how well the students do is very rewarding for the teachers and administrators of the program and Mara Coote-Freeman states, “they are very proud of them.”

The class of 2014 consists of fourteen students that are full of great potential. Morgan Buck, who came from a rodeo backround in Manitoba, would like to gallop and pony at Northlands Park. Laura Ireland of Ontario dreams of becoming a Quarter Horse jockey. Lindsay Ivany, also of Ontario, wants to gallop and work at many different tracks with the goal of one day becoming a trainer. To meet these girls and the rest of the class, come to Olds College on March 12 to see the Student Presentations on the Industry at 9 am in the Beef Center classroom. The students will also be holding riding demonstrations at 12:40 pm at the Olds Agriculture Society Track, weather permitting.

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