Rough Rider

Injuries be damned, Chester County jump jockey Jody Petty keeps on winning.

Unionville’s Jody Petty.Jody Petty can’t recall how many bones he’s broken, but there’s no doubt about the three dreadful operations. One came after a terrifying spill three years ago in Tampa, Fla. Challenging eventual winner Hip Hop for the lead at the second to last fence, Petty’s mount, Capital Peak, bobbled badly on landing and pitched the jockey, resulting in four broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a ruptured spleen.

“It popped me out of the saddle and to the side, so I was trying to stay on—at least long enough to get my feet out of the irons,” recalls Petty, who lives in Unionville. “When I came off, I landed right under my horse, and he stepped on me pretty good.”

The next day, Petty’s spleen was removed. A Florida physician instructed him to stay off horses for eight weeks. A month later, he finished fourth in his first race and snatched the next race at Maryland’s Marlborough Hunt Races. It’s a familiar story in the jock’s world.

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Petty has always possessed an innate empathy for horses—and that bond has translated into a sizable career total of 128 victories so far. Don’t let his easygoing manner and seemingly constant smile fool you. Three-time Maryland Hunt Cup winning rider Louis “Paddy” Neilson calls Petty a natural horseman who can ride any type of horse—seasoned vet or green youngster, calm or fractious.

“Jody is one tough hombre, absolutely fearless,” says Neilson, also a Unionville resident. “He can pick himself off the ground after some of these falls as if nothing happened.”

Despite the constant threat of injury, jockeys’ competitive instincts thrust them repeatedly back in the saddle. There are no long-term contracts. If you’re sidelined too long, your horses might vanish.

Top jockeys can earn $1 million or more each year, but a jump jockey like Petty gets by on a fraction of that—maybe $50,000. Many supplement their income by exercising racehorses each morning.

Chester County’s trio of point-to-point steeplechase races begins late this month, sometimes before the ground has had a chance to soften. They are a prelude to the National Steeplechase Association season, which runs spring through fall with 32 one-day race meets in 12 states—mostly on the East Coast.

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The 2009 season concludes with Nov. 1’s $35,000 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, a 4-mile race over timber fences. Last year, Petty rode Move West to victory in the 74th edition.

Petty has been riding jumpers for 15 years. And for nearly a decade, he’s been exercising runners each morning at George Strawbridge Jr.’s Augustin Stable in the blue-pocket hills of Cochranville. At 37, he’s considered a veteran in the sport. Yet he still has the desire and skills, having won champion jockey honors in 2005. He was second last year and is the current runner-up this season. Most of his competitors are five to 10 years younger.

“I’m always the oldest guy in the room,” he says with a wide smile. “Look, most good riders are naturals. They ride better. They see spots open up better. The older I get, the more it’s about patience. I leave the horse alone, sit quietly and let him do his job. Instead of making it happen, I just let it happen.”

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There are no starting gates in steeplechasing. A drop of the starter’s flag sets the horses in motion. With heavily muscled arms and steely nerves, jump jockeys cling to the back of galloping thoroughbreds, reins held tightly and their bodies still, weight steady over the horse’s shoulders.

Good jumpers flow easily over hurdles, rising a little in the air but bending their forelegs sharply. The trick is to guide them to take off from where the hurdle or timber fence can be crossed in mid-stride.

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Safety measures in steeplechasing are at an all-time high, but no flak jacket or helmet can prevent an accident. It’s a risky business, with a dozen riders packed tightly together, aboard animals traveling close to 35 miles per hour. According to a recent Australian report, the jockey profession is more dangerous than boxing, outranked only by offshore fishing.

Petty may well be on a first-name basis with the paramedics who man their ambulances at racecourses, considering his spate of medical disasters. He shattered the bone that surrounds the eye when a horse stomped on his head in 2007. Last year, he fractured his right arm from the wrist to the elbow, requiring the insertion of a pair of rods and 11 screws. But his enthusiasm for his sport has not flagged for a single moment.

“I have a couple more years of timber riding, then I’ll move into something else—but I’m just not sure how I can replace it,” Petty admits. “On a good jumper, it’s like you’re in a movie, almost like you can’t do anything wrong. It’s speed, it’s accuracy, it’s rhythm. When a horse leaves the ground, it’s the biggest thrill in the world.”

Steeplechase jockeys have an enormous respect for one another. That alone can prevent nasty falls and crushing injuries.

“[We] are a pretty close-knit group,” says Xavier Aizpuru, the leading steeplechase jockey in 2008, who grew up in England’s Cotswolds region. “They’re all nice guys. We all want to win, but no one is out to hurt you. Still, anything can happen, because the animals we ride are so unpredictable.”

Steeplechasing traces its roots to 1752, when two Irishmen decided to settle a bet as to whose horse was faster. They organized a race between two churches—hence the sport’s name—in County Cork. Today, most of the horses are converted flat racers, where the premium is on speed. But in steeplechasing, the concern is focused squarely on the jumps.

American steeplechase races take place over hurdles/hedges and solid timber fences. Generally, hurdles are constructed so a horse can safely crash through the top foot of the hurdle. Hurdlers don’t have to jump quite as cleanly as horses in timber races.

Started in 1894 outside Baltimore, the Maryland Hunt Cup is the top steeplechase event in the country. England’s Grand National may be longer and its jumps a little higher, but the Hunt Cup has special hazards of its own. Instead of hedges that a horse can brush without falling, jumps are timber fences with the top rail (upwards of 5 feet high) securely nailed down. There is no forgiveness.

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Jonathan Sheppard arrived in America in 1961 to exercise racehorses and ride jumpers in races. A few years later, he started an apprenticeship with legendary steeplechase trainer W. Burling Cocks of Unionville. Sheppard reigns as the all-time leading money-winning trainer and was the sport’s leading trainer for 18 straight years. In the 1980s, his jumper, Flatterer, was America’s top steeplechase horse for an unprecedented four consecutive years.  

Sheppard talks about the early stages of a race, when the horse establishes a steady, rhythmic gallop, then gradually speeds up. The jockey holds the reins lightly, the stirrups anchored on the ball of his foot. His legs squeeze the mount forward while a small, scrubbing motion by his arms sends a message of urgency to the horse’s mouth.

“The horse’s mouth is soft and sensitive, so he’s thinking, ‘Is this guy going to hurt me, or be kind and work with me?’” explains the 68-year-old National Racing Hall of Famer. “Good hands are born, not made.”

Petty grew up with those good hands in Elkton, Md. At age 15, he acquired a former racehorse he renamed Macaroni, and guided him to a second career in three-day eventing. “In eventing, people take hundreds of lessons to improve, and here I was out there just winging it,” recalls Petty. “I got to the intermediate level of competition. About that time, my friend, [jockey] Billy Meister, said I had the size and temperament of a jockey, so I gave it a whirl.”

Petty is most frequently recognized for piloting superstar McDynamo, a half-brother to Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro. A strapping bay runner, McDynamo had issues on the racetrack—mostly with being confined in the starting gate. After two years, he was switched to steeplechase racing—the perfect fit for a horse that hated tight enclosures.

Petty came into his own in 2005 at the $250,000 Breeders’ Cup Grand National Steeplechase at Far Hills, N.J. When regular jockey Craig Thornton was unable to ride McDynamo due to a racing commitment in his native New Zealand, trainer Sanna Hendriks tagged Petty. He knew the horse, having ridden him during morning workouts.

With Petty aboard, McDynamo gobbled up ground and fences to win by a nine-length margin. He captured the race a stunning five times in a row. McDynamo went on to win the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Steeplechaser three times.

“When he walked out of the paddock, he walked out like he was home,” Petty says. “He knew where he was and what he was doing. Watching him gave you chills. The horse of a lifetime—there’s no denying that.”

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