Photos by Jim Graham
Meet teen riding sensation Parker Hendriks, who was born into a family of jockeys, riders, and trainers in the region.
In 2022, the day before his 19th birthday, Parker Hendriks locked up his first championship. It was only his third year on the National Steeplechase Association circuit. Coming into this spring’s jump races, he’ll be more than six months shy of his 20th birthday. “I got hooked on racing when I was 13 and rode in pony races,” he says. “I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Hendriks was born to the saddle. His late grandfather, Louis “Paddy” Neilson, was a legendary jockey and trainer, the standard bearer for a family that’s been competing in the saddle since 1875. His father, Ricky Hendriks, also a champion jump rider, is a successful trainer. Parker’s mother, Sanna Neilson, and his aunt Katherine Neilson are both respected trainers who also have excelled as riders. Their brother, Stewart Strawbridge, rode to victory in the Maryland Hunt Cup in 2007 aboard The Bruce, a horse trained by Sanna. She was just 22 when she first won the race, edging out her father.
As first-call rider for trainer Keri Brion, Hendriks rode 24 mounts across the finish line first in 92 rides for the year to become the youngest champion ever. He doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t ride. To him, it comes as naturally as walking. His mother recalls the day he first took the reins. “He was 3, and we put him on Willy, our tiny, sweet pony,” she says.
Juggling high school and a burgeoning career required a lot of discipline. Hendriks would ride out early in the morning at Fair Hill, Maryland, then drive 50 minutes to Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, before heading home to his mother’s farm in Concordville, where he’d ride again. “He’s always been very organized—the kind of kid you don’t have to remind to take his lunch or do his homework,” his mother says. “Parker is laser-focused.”
When he was 17, he rode for his dad at Saratoga, “the pinnacle of jump racing, flat and fast.” Like his father before him, Hendriks turned professional at 18. The elder Hendriks is sometimes asked if he thinks his son is a better jockey than he was in his heyday. “I look at my son and say, ‘Yes, Parker is better than I was,’” he says. “His work ethic is unbelievable, and he handles pressure beautifully.”
The younger Hendriks and his mother talk race strategy in depth before each event. “If there’s a big card coming up, we’re on the phone for two hours,” he says. “My mom has so much experience and has been in the game so long. She’s critical to my development as a rider.”
That includes a commitment to fitness and conditioning. Hendriks weighs himself twice a day and keeps a close eye on the scales to maintain his ideal weight of 140 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame. He drinks only water and runs daily to burn calories and enhance his endurance. It isn’t easy to say no to the temptations that can derail training, but Hendriks is intent on maintaining his edge. “At the beginning of the season, those horses will come out like a scalded cat. You have to be fit, you have to be light and you have to be 100% prepared,” his mother notes. “I get anxious about safety.”
If Hendriks could persuade mother nature to provide ideal weather for steeplechase racing, it would be the day after a soaking rain. “If it rained a ton on Friday and we raced on soft ground on Saturday, it would be perfect,” he says.
Hendriks recently spent a month in Ireland, where steeplechase racing is a national passion. He rode for celebrated trainer Gordon Elliot, who has 250 horses under his tutelage. He and Elliot were on the rail when unbeaten mare Honeysuckle, winner of more than £1 million, thundered to victory in a Grade 1 race. “It’s a huge part of the culture, as big as football is for us,” Hendriks says. “The roar from the crowd behind us was unbelievable, like an NFL game.”
On this side of the pond, Hendriks and his family are ardent supporters of jump racing and the hunt clubs that are the life blood of the sport. “The hunts are the glue that keeps it all together,” he says.
If Hendriks could persuade Mother Nature to provide ideal weather for steeplechase racing, it would be the day after a soaking rain. “If it rained a ton on Friday and we raced on soft ground on Saturday, it would be perfect,” he says. “The temperature would be slightly cool, about 55 degrees for the horses.”
If he had to pick a favorite mount, it would be He’ll Do, a 7-year-old jet-black gelding with white socks and a lightning-bolt blaze. His mother is part owner of He’ll Do, who lives on her farm. “I’ve ridden him a lot and won four races on him,” says Hendriks. “He’s a big boy—a beast. I admire him because he doesn’t have much natural ability, but he puts it out there every time he goes out. He keeps stepping up to the bar.”
The secret to Hendriks’ success? “Good horses,” he says. “I keep it simple and help them get to where they need to be to win.”