The Thrill of the Ride

Horse Racing Radar
Valerie Mellema
Valerie Mellema is a Staff writer for Horse Racing Radar
Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Exercise riders are critical players in the horse racing game, but unfortunately, we rarely get to know more about them and how they got started. They are up and at the barn in the wee hours of the morning, ready to ride whatever horse they are given a leg up on. From babies to experienced runners, they ride them all, getting them fit and keeping them safe. Your horsemanship skills have to be top notch and you must be ready for whatever a horse might throw at you.

Back in the late 60's and into the early 90's, Jay Marco's father, Arthur, was a trainer at Thistledown Racetrack in Warrensville, Ohio. He started his journey in the racing industry as a hotwalker and that is how Jay was introduced to racing. 

Jay's earliest memory as a child is that of washing the water and feed buckets at the age of five. He watched the exercise riders and jockeys every morning and dreamed of being one of those guys. Like many kids dreaming of being in the saddle, he practiced on the hay bales, coming down the lane and driving to the finish line, winning every one of those races of course. 

At sixteen years old and in the early 80s, he got his first helmet and his dad put him on his first Thoroughbred. She was a big bay mare named FAITH AND CREDIT. He was to gallop her a mile and a half and no more! He was scared to go back to the barn afterwards, for the mare had run off with him for two and a half miles! When he got back to the barn, he was legged up on another horse with the same instructions - a mile and a half and no more!

After about a month, Jay became fit enough to gallop five horses a day. By the time he was eighteen, he was galloping close to twenty a day. He still held onto the dream of one day being in the winner's circle. Unfortunately, like so many others, you either grow too tall or you like food too much. For Jay, it was the latter. His love of food prevented him from making the weight to ride. At 120 pounds, he was weak and sickly. 

So, he began learning as much as he could, picking the brains of other riders such as Junior Rivera, Michael Rowland and Gerardo Madrigal. He learned to have a pretty good clock in his head and could work the horses in the time the trainer wanted and at the right distances. To this day, he knows how fast a horse is running at an 1/8th, ¼ or half mile. 

Every morning he would hustle off to the barn, getting off and on different horses - learning and connecting with each and every one. The reward for him was knowing that he had helped those horses get to the finish line or, at a minimum, improve from their last start. An intrical part of the process of training a racehorse.

After traveling to Keeneland and galloping for a few weeks, he took a job at Brookside Farm breaking babies. After working at Brookside, he moved to Mantua, Ohio managing in a thirty stall barn for seventeen years breaking horses, doing layups and after surgery care and all while running horses at Mountaineer and Thistledown. 

He doesn't gallop anymore and he's been banged up through the years, but the best years of his life were spent with horses, jockeys, trainers and grooms. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Their stories and the love for the sport is what makes it great. 

Today, Jay cares for twenty one horses at a schooling farm. Some of those are retired racehorses who he spends time with, getting to know them, asking them about their careers. They have an understanding of and a respect for each other.

Horse Racing Radar is proud to connect with people from all aspects of the racing industry. If you have a story to tell, please contact Valerie Mellema at [email protected]

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