Aspiring apprentice jockey Jeffrey Alderson spends his afternoons in the Woodbine grandstand, just like dozens of other horse racing fans. The difference being, in the 18-year-old Alderson’s case, is that the youth is spending his time studying the jockeys rather than the past performances.
Jeffrey Alderson is hoping to hit his stride as a jockey at Woodbine
“I just want to get a feel for how they ride and understand the positioning and timing of how they ride the race,” explains Alderson.
Alderson comes from good racing stock. His father, Anthony Alderson, once a jockey, is now a trainer at Fort Erie.
“My mom, Kristin, is the assistant trainer and my brother, Ryan, helps out as well,” says Alderson. “We’re a family business”
At 5’4” and 107lbs, Alderson has the natural build of a jockey, a trade he knew he wanted to pursue from the very first time he got on the back of Linton Hill, a retired racehorse, with his father.
“The first time I got on a horse I was about three-years-old,” laughs Alderson. “We live in Fort Erie and we have ex-racehorses on the farm. I just started riding with my dad.”
With high school completed, Alderson is now tenaciously pursuing an education at the racetrack. It’s a course he started in the comfort of his parent’s barn walking hots and grooming horses while growin gup, and has now grown to include the fast-paced world of breezing horses at Woodbine.
“I’ve done just about everything you can do at the track,” says the soft-spoken Alderson. “A typical morning starts at 5:30AM. I’ll ride first thing for Barb Minshall and then after the break at 8AM, I get on horses for Ashley Brnjas. I’ll ride at least ten horses a day.”
Alderson with exercise rider Gemini Caine
Each gallop around the track is akin to a pilot earning hours in the air. With each turn of the track, Alderson’s career is one step closer to taking flight, and it’s a paid education.
“I get $15 for every horse I ride. Plus, the experience I get as I go along,” smiles Alderson.
His natural ability as a rider generated a bit of a buzz at Fort Erie where he worked horses last season - - enough of a buzz to catch the interest of agent, and former jockey, Jack Lauzon.
‘Jocko’ helped steer Eclipse Award winning apprentice Omar Moreno to the winners’ circle at Woodbine, and the venerable veteran is hoping to make a similar move with Alderson.
“Everybody in Fort Erie told me about Jeffrey,” laughs Lauzon. “I had a bunch of people say, ‘if you don’t take this kid you’re in trouble’. Come spring time, I asked Omar if it would be upsetting if I took on another bug boy and he had no problem with it.”
The apprentice surges to the lead
Alderson could not have asked for a better teacher than Lauzon. In his storied career, Lauzon won 12,778 races including the Queen’s Plate twice, the first victory in 1998 with Regal Intention and, again, in 1994 with Basqueian. The affable agent proved with Moreno that he has the chops to get the best out of his protégés, and that has a lot to do with Lauzon’s life experience.
“When I started out as an apprentice, I was very fortunate because I had the biggest outfit in Canada with me, Kinghaven Farms and David Willmot,” recalls Lauzon.
Lauzon also had the benefit of working under the tutelage of trainer John Tammaro, a well-respected horseman and perhaps a bit of a prophet, as Lauzon recalls the words his wise friend shared many years ago.
‘What I teach you now in life, you might be able to teach somebody else twenty, or twenty-five, years down the road.’
“It kinda went in one ear and out the other and I never thought anything of it,” says Lauzon, with a shake of the head.
Lauzon, just like his apprentice Alderson, was just 18-years-old when he started as an apprentice. Where Alderson has spent his youth on horseback, Lauzon found his speed on the back of motorcycles and snowmobiles.
“All I needed was something underneath of me that could run,” says Lauzon.
Jack 'Jocko' Lauzon at the office...
And Lauzon ran with his talents to the tune of $31M in earnings. Although his riding career is over, he’s now risen to a new level in the sport, ushering prospective riders to the track with the benefit of his experience.
“Everything John said to me has fallen into place,” says Lauzon wistfully.
And with class in session, Lauzon is busy instilling his own life and riding experience into the young apprentice.
“You really have to focus on your surroundings and study riders. You need to watch the films and you need to practice on works out of the gate,” starts Lauzon.
He also knows it’s a competitive game and that only the best can rise to the top of the profession.
“If you don’t show interest….if you just gallop in the morning and leave the barn and not show any interest in it, you’re not going to make it,” advises Lauzon. “I can see the desire in Jeffrey and that’s what appealed to me. If he didn’t show me that I’d say, ‘Son, you need another agent’. But I see the desire and fire in him. He’s breezing horses better every day.”
Alderson, who by all accounts is a polite and respectful student, has learned quickly from Lauzon.
“He’s gotten better with his works, and he’s gotten better mentally,” starts Lauzon. “He’s patting the horse to get it comfortable and talking to people more. When he got here, he was a little shy mouse. He’s getting better and that’s what I needed him to do.”
Standing out in a crowd
One of the first items on Lauson's educational agenda was to find Alderson some work experience. A window of opportunity opened for Alderson at the barn of Woodbine-based conditioner Ashlee Brnjas.
“Jocko told me had a new bug rider who was going to start later in the year and asked if we could work something out,” explains Brnjas. “We’re a bigger outfit with lots of breezers and gallopers every day. It was a good fit - - we needed a rider and he needed to get on horses.”
Exercise riders are a varied group and each rider has his, or her, own set of skills. A horse can be put through a variety of different exercises as they prepare for a race. Each gallop, or breeze, is a learning experience for the horse.
“Some mornings we’ll gallop a horse a mile and a half or two miles. It’s just a gallop and they’re not breaking into any sort of speed,” explains Brnjas. “A work, or a breeze, is when we set them down. Generally speaking we breeze them at different lengths to get them fitter and fitter going into a race. We start with a small breeze like a quarter-mile. Then we move them up to three-eighths and then a half. By the time they can handle five-eighths you’re usually ready to roll.”
Many of the riders who put the horses through their paces in the morning weigh significantly more than the jockeys who race the horses in the afternoon, which can be a hindrance when training younger horses, or ‘babies’, as they’re known on the backstretch. Such is not the case with the feather-light Alderson.
“It’s a luxury to have an exercise rider who can breeze, gallop, jog, everything as opposed to just those exercise riders that can only gallop, but don’t breeze,” says Brnjas. “It’s nice that he can do all three. Plus, he’s light, which is also great for us because when you have as many babies as we do, it’s great to have somebody light you can throw on them.”
One of the most important parts of being an exercise rider is gauging the speed of the horse they’re working and ensuring they train the horse at the pace the trainer expects.
“It’s tough to get a clock to figure out how fast you’re going,” says Brnjas. “In the beginning, he was going a little fast and had no horse left at the end. Now, he’s learned to rate that so he’s got horse left at the end of the work. He’s figuring it out.”
Alderson prepares for his next ride
Alderson’s vast experience around horses, combined with an absence of ego, has also impressed Brnjas.
“He’s pretty knowledgeable. He’s grown up with horses. He can tell me if a horse is hurting somewhere or if it’s not right,’ starts Brnjas. “He’ll also tell you when he doesn’t get along with a horse, or if it’s not working out, which is much more valuable than someone who just gets on a horse.”
That a horse and rider have a difference of opinion might be something of a revelation for those not making their living on the backstretch. But, sometimes, a horse just won’t respond to a rider and that impedes the training experience.
“Horses are like people, if the horse doesn’t like you it’s not helping them,” states Brnjas.
With his own lifetime of experience, and the benefit of experience of mentors such as Lauzon and Brnjas, there are many people on the backstretch pulling for Alderson.
“He’s very, very polite and he’s great to have around the barn,” says Brnjas. “He never says anything wrong. Back here a lot of people have a lot to say, but Jeffrey is great on the horses, he’s a good kid and I hope he makes it.”
In person, Alderson is everything those around him have conveyed. He’s shy, but not timid. He’s quiet or, perhaps, he just gets his words across as succinctly as possible. There’s a hint of a smile as he responds to questions.
“The best part of being on a racehorse is the speed. It’s a great feeling to be on top of a horse…,” he says.
“My strength is that I can relax a horse early and finish strong,” he offers.
In truth, his actual strength could be all those things combined with a willingness to learn. The backstretch buzz is that he sits well on a horse and has soft hands. Some say he could be a great speed rider. Come the end of August, when Alderson gets his license to ride, we’ll see how just how fast he can go.
Alderson heads to track
* * *
There are a trio of stakes races on tap to entertain the Woodbine punters this weekend. On Saturday, the Passing Mood Stakes will see seven fillies travel seven furlongs over the E.P Taylor turf course. On Sunday, there are a pair of stakes events including the G3 Ontario Matron and the G2 Nijinsky. Although Fifty Proof is favoured in the Nijinsky, jockey Jesse Campbell like his chances aboard Hailstone. Check out Campbell's comments in the WEG preview, Hailstone looks to come out of the clouds in Grade 2 Nijinsky.
Fifty Proof favoured in Sunday's Nijinksy
* * *
As always, keep track of the latest goings on in the world of horse racing by clicking into TripleDeadHeat's Woodbine News page or join in on the conversation by following TripleDeadHeat on Twitter.