About 90 kilometres north of Calgary, in the agricultural town of Olds, Alberta, there is a college that is producing a new generation of jockeys who are making big noise in the industry. Four of these graduates are now competing at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. Newcomers Brandon Duchaine and Aimee Auger are just starting out, while veterans Sheena Ryan and Omar Moreno learned their lessons so well they have the awards to prove it.
The Exercise Rider and Jockey Training Program at Olds College offers a unique three month course that teaches men and women the basics of becoming a racehorse exercise rider and gives them a taste of what it would be like to be a jockey. While it isn’t the most common path taken to becoming a rider, it can go a long way towards pointing curious newcomers in the right direction.
Former champion Woodbine jockey Robbie King Jr., a two-time Sovereign Award winner in 1983-84 who now serves as President of the Jockeys’ Guild, is thrilled that the college at Olds is available to help kids get a leg up in the industry.
“I love the idea (of a jockey school). We need something. I think it’s great that we have a place where young Canadian kids can start up and learn the basics from the ground up and that’s what this school provides. It gives them an appreciation of what it takes to get a horse to the races and to respect the game itself, and that - I love it.”
While the course will help aspiring riders learn the basics, King Jr. knows that there is still more that goes into becoming a jockey.
“Being a jockey is unique,” King reflects, “in that you have to be hungry and have that desire and that fire inside of you and until you actually do it you don’t know. But having the school there it gives you the tools to work with people that have done that and can convey to them what’s needed.”
For Moreno and Ryan, they definitely had the hunger and now they are enjoying the success.
Born in El Salvador amidst the horrors of a civil war which saw his mother get killed when he was 7, the young Moreno and his family went into hiding in Honduras before he immigrated to Edmonton and was placed in a series of foster homes. A young man with a passion for life and a desire to get ahead, he found boxing at a young age and loved it.
Success came naturally in boxing to the hard-working Moreno, with three junior national titles to his credit. But while the spirit was willing, his body started to rebel. That’s when he found Olds College – or it kind of found him.
“It was like 2006-2007 (when I went to school). The boxing, actually it was my last year, at the time I was just doing painting.
“Really, it just found me because in the middle of boxing once my shoulders had started giving out on me, one of the coaches, he was also a promoter for the pro fighters, he was big time into horse racing, so he told me ‘You should try to be a jockey, you are fit, you’re small, you are strong and you are not afraid, you’d be perfect for it.’ I had no idea what a jockey was so he took me to the races one night.”
It wasn’t all glamour and awards early on at the college for the likeable Moreno.
“I really didn’t know what to expect. I just heard big talk of what could happen, what the life is if you do well, but to me that was far out of reach. I was just focusing day by day, and to me, I mean, it was hard, it wasn’t easy, you know? Everybody was so far advanced than I was, they knew a lot of things and I didn’t know anything. But also at the times that I felt I wasn’t succeeding, you know, I wasn’t getting ahead, my instructor would tell me, ‘No, you are doing a good job’, so they were very encouraging and supportive about everything.”
And it turned out that Moreno was a very good student. After starting his career at Northlands Park in Edmonton, he moved his tack to Woodbine in 2009 and had amassed 48 wins by the end of the year. He was awarded a Sovereign for top apprentice and completed the sweep by winning North America’s most prestigious award – an Eclipse – in 2010 with 146 wins that year. He received his award in a ceremony held in Miami Beach, Florida, in 2011, which he proudly accepted with an emotional speech.
“I went to the school in 2009. I always wanted to be a jockey, so I went one day to Ajax Downs and it actually turned out I met Mike Mehak (former jockey) and I didn’t know him but he’s the one who told me about the school. I was interested in getting into riding and a lady at work – I worked as an accountant before – so she’s like, ‘Why don’t you just do it before you get too old!’ and I’m like, alright, so that’s when I went to the track and said I was interested in doing it. Mike said, you know, go out to Olds and they’ll start you out because I’d never been on the racetrack before and he said it would be a good stepping stone.
“I took a one-way ticket (to the school). It was the scariest thing I had ever done because I went out there, I didn’t even know if I was accepted, I was just going there for the testing, for one weekend, and I flew out there and got on a Greyhound bus and ended up in Olds. I had my suitcase, I had no idea where I was going, I was just lugging this suitcase around going, ‘What did I do – I just threw my whole career away!’ But it turned out to be good.”
Good is an understatement. Ryan, much like Moreno, never expected to get awards for riding, but that is exactly what happened. She captured the top apprentice honour in 2014.
“Winning a Sovereign was surreal. There was a point in time where I never thought I could do this, but now I know I can do this, this is my job, I’m living my dream. I’m so lucky, you know?”
Her advice for anyone thinking about following a dream, even if it seems far-fetched?
“Don’t be afraid. Don’t think you can’t do it because you are the only one stopping yourself. Chase after your dreams and take that leap of faith because it’s always worth it in the end. It might be scary at first but it always works out.
“I had no idea what the racetrack was. My parents don’t go to the racetrack, so the school taught us in baby steps, you had to learn ground work and grooming and chores. They gradually brought you into it and then placed you with a trainer, and those trainers it’s their responsibility to take care of you, and I was lucky I was placed with (Alberta trainer) Ron Grieves. I still talk to him, he’s like my mentor. So I feel really lucky to be placed with him, I learned so much in his barn.”
Two young apprentices followed the same path through Olds and are now at Woodbine trying to make their dreams become reality.
“I was born in Toronto but I was raised in Alliston, Ontario. The school definitely was a specific destination for me, just to get in the business, just to learn. I originally wanted to stay out there (Alberta) but I just came home and it blossomed here.
“I was eighteen when I went out in 2010 and it was such a great experience. They just took me under their wings because I was the youngest one there. They just took me under their wing and taught me so much.”
Although her parents had hoped that Auger would turn to a career in architectural design, they had to accept that her love of horses was going to win out. Her experience at the college helped her solidify her dream into reality.
“I was doing hunter jumper, and one of my instructors was flipping through the college book and said, ‘Hey, Aimee, there’s a college for horse racing you should check it out!’ So I just applied. It had always been my dream to be a jockey so I applied. They actually teach you how to ride horses so if you have no experience they are okay with that. But for me it was nice because I could kind of advance faster than everybody. I could get on more of the racehorses rather than the ponies.
“It was tons of fun, like lots and lots of fun. I learned so much, the people are amazing there. They are very friendly, if you have any questions they are just willing to help out and point important little things out. It’s definitely worth going there if anybody wants to get in the business. It’s a great way to get into the business of horse racing.”
From Mississauga, Ontario, Duchaine worked for a few stables in Ontario at their training centres, because “everybody told me the farm is the best place in today’s society to learn and start riding from fresh because I had no riding experience previous to it.”
Feeling that he wanted to learn in a different way, he found the college and packed his bags to head west. “I just decided that it was the right decision to go forward and I’d heard about the other people coming out and how they got riding so I thought for me to pursue a career in riding maybe it was my only option.”
The college provided him with a taste for being a jockey and he made good contacts along the way.
“It was excellent just to get me going and they introduce you to people so it gets you in the industry and gets you going a little bit. The teachers set me up with the right people to get race-riding and all that, and those people took me up to the B tracks.”
He was soon missing Ontario, though, and after winning a few races in Alberta he came to Woodbine to pursue his dream on the big stage.
“This is home. Besides that, I want to get here for the long run so I thought I’ve got to get here eventually and get to meet the people and get to know them.
“I hope I could follow in their footsteps (Omar and Sheena) but I mean it’s also about longevity. To not get the apprentice award wouldn’t hurt my feelings as much as that – I could be riding here full-time for years to come.”
The awards are already coming. On August 23, 2015, Duchaine represented Canada at the World Apprentice Championship in Warsaw, Poland and won his way to Abu Dhabi where he will compete in the world finals in November.
Olds College is proving to be the fast track to success for jockeys both in Canada and all over the world!