Lexington jockey school instructs Derby hopefuls

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- What does it take to be a successful, winning jockey at the Kentucky Derby? WDRB visits the country's first jockey school of its kind where students find out.

Attending the Kentucky Derby is something many file under 'someday' on the bucket list. For most, riding in it is fantasy.

However, steering the most exciting two minutes in sports has to begin somewhere.

"If everything goes according to plan -- hopefully, at least -- I will ride in the Kentucky Derby, hopefully win it. I mean anything's a dream but that probably would be my dream," says 20-year-old Cheyenne Jones.

Derby hopefuls like Jones come to Lexington to attend the North American Racing Academy. "We've got riders and horsemen throughout the world. They've served employment and internships in Abu Dhabi and France and Australia," says Dixie Hayes, Program Coordinator and Lead Instructor at NARA.

Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron founded the jockey school in 2006. "This is the only school of its kind in the United States," Hayes said.

The first and only accredited community college in the country is all hands-on, and now also specializes in training for other horse racing jobs.

"It's not like teaching chemistry where you're trying to get them [students] to want to learn. These guys want to learn. They want to be here and that's what makes it really enjoyable," Hayes said.

However, the students have to get into the Thoroughbred Training Center first.  

Hayes took over for McCarron a few years ago. She receives around 15 to 20 applicants per year. "This year, we only accepted five students that were able to pass the requirements and of those five, we have four remaining after 15 weeks in this semester," Hayes said.

The year-long program is through the Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

"It's a very high attrition rate for these students to come in and really see what goes into a racing environment, but that's our goal. We want to simulate what it's going to be like in the racetrack so that they come out prepared and are going to be a good asset for the industry," Hayes said.

It includes a competitive physical fitness and balance test and eventually, a strict weight requirement. "For our jockeys, we're hoping that they'll leave the program at around 105 pounds," Hayes said.

Graduates will be licensed through the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and hopefully be placed with top trainers.

"If I've got a kid who I feel is ready, I pick up the phone and I call Todd Pletcher and he says, 'send them.' That's it. That's all he needs to know," says Remi Bellocq, Executive Director for NARA.

Getting their apprentice license is the goal. Hayes said being too shy and not getting in front of the 'right' people can be an end to a career before it ever starts.

"It's a lot of marketing yourself. Can you promote yourself as an athlete so that people want to give you a chance to further your career?" Hayes said.

Jockeys don't have time to waste. "If you want to be a jockey, you're lucky if you make it to 30 without an injury," Bellocq said.

According to Hayes, jockeys usually get paid a flat rate of $50 a mount and earn five percent of the winnings.

"They earn probably close to $7 million in their career, but that's all entirely performance based," Hayes said. "You have to be dynamic, you have to be able to get up and speak in front of people and have that type of way, but you also have to love the horses and love the early mornings and the long nights."

Hayes said when she goes to races, she's looking for her students.

"They're all working for top trainers, galloping horses at places like Keeneland and Churchill and Saratoga and living the dream that they always hoped they would," Hayes said.

The passion turns into a dream for you to one day know their name.

"I like riding crazy horses, going fast, the adrenaline, ever since I could remember," Jones said.

Only the fearless few who have finesse will make it come true.

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