The Jockey Life: Family Reunion at Wyoming Downs

Horse Racing Radar
Valerie Mellema
Valerie Mellema is a Staff writer for Horse Racing Radar
Thursday, July 1, 2021

This week, new jockey Mary Bontrager, reflects on her first rides at Wyoming Downs with 20 members of her family getting to join in on the fun. This was the first horse race for many of her family members.

This weekend I found myself back at the track that built me as a rider - Wyoming Downs in Evanston, Wyoming. I was excited and terrified all at the same time. 

Wyoming Downs is a much bigger track with even tougher stock and riders. With the track change, it also meant that I would be riding new horses for new trainers. Thanks to a great friend, Nakia Teeter (who's a great jockey herself) helped me get mounts for Sunday's races. 

One Quarter Horse in the first race, coming out of the 7 hole going 330 yards. The colt broke late and was hit hard for about 150 yards. He ran very green, but I was able to get him lined out and we ran a clean, safe race. We ran last, however, the colt before had a SI of 9. In our race, he jumped up to 21 with me. I was really happy with the little guy's effort!

The next was a Thoroughbred in the last race, again coming out of the 7 hole in a field of ten going six furlongs. The biggest field and the longest race for me yet!

Clay Teeter had run the horse a few weeks before and sat down and told me how he felt the horse would go. I was so grateful he was willing to do so, even when he was in the same race as me. 

I played the waiting game until the last race when we were called to mount. I stepped out into the paddock greeted with cheers from the 20 family members who were able to make their very first horse race ever to watch! The timing was right during a huge family reunion so I had the best support this weekend!

I greeted trainer, Shaun Story, at post seven. LADAKH, the 16 hand Thoroughbred was standing so calm and quiet. Shawn asked if I was ready. I kissed LADAKH on his nose and told them I was ready.

We were called to mount and off we went. My heart raced as I tied my knot. This was the biggest field I had ever ran in as well as the longest race. We got to the gates and he walked confidently in and stood like a rock while we waited for the rest to load. 

"Locked in" the starter yelled and we were out! He broke well and we settled next to Clay teeter going down the backside. As we hit the turn, Clay made his move. With room to follow, instinct told me to but being a green rider in a larger pack, I have to admit I hesitated for a second. My mount under me however was an amazing older warrior who knows this game and he followed as if to say, "Hold on little bug and I'll show you how we do this!" 

We were getting beat with flying dirt, but LADAKH kept shifting gears under me and pulling on other horses! By the time we hit the straight away, we had stalked up and my heart was racing. 

I started screaming and telling him, "Come on boy!" and shoulder tapping to encourage him down the stretch. We hit the second turn and LADAKH came back to me very easily. We finished in the thick of them with a strong 7th out of 10. 

My friend, Nakia, pulled up beside us holding the victory! She yelled, "What'd you think girl?" I laughed and said it was the most fun I'd ever had in my life!

We came back and I was greeted by my daughter, Ariel, for the first time ever after a race and Austin, her dad! I hugged and kissed them both, then turned to be cheered by the rest of the family.

They all took a group picture with me in my silks. Many live in Florida, Texas and other places far off. Many I hadn't seen in over a decade actually. We knew we'd never be together like this for another race again. Truly, just a special day finished on a great mount for great people. 

Now if this was all roses that would be it, but unfortunately it's not. The following day I woke to an unpleasant comment made public on Facebook. You see, the Quarter Horse trainers I had rode for felt that colt lost because of me. One went as far as to call me a joke. It broke my heart. It wasn't long, however, until those that had been there and seen the race voiced how they felt it had gone. 

It was a rough race. We were hit hard coming out after a bad break. After the colt ran very green for about 15 yards, and was cut off by the 4 horse, who was also SAME TRAINERS. Keep in mind, I was sitting at about the 8 hole at this point, and almost ran over by the 4. 

While its been hard to watch these things said about me on such a public site, it was amazing to see how many trainers and riders that I saw stand up for me. 

At the end of the day, I had to try and let it roll off my back and know that I took a colt from a speed index of 9 to 21. That he and I ran a straight and clean race despite the late break, hit and barely missing being run over by the trainer's other horse. It was hard, but the support and to have a horse like LADAKH show me an amazing race, makes having harsh words said a little easier. 

It's very easy to be the target as a new rider, because what everyone sees at that finish line is you and that horse. Nothing done to prepare them before. 

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