As the rest of the world remains dark and still, exercise riders arise and head to work. Their morning is not spent in an office, doing paperwork or typing on a computer. Their morning is spent on the backs of Thoroughbreds - animals much bigger than themselves, creatures with minds of their own, large beings that could injure a rider in the blink of an eye. Regardless, these riders work together with these horses as a crucial part of the team that prepares the equine athletes for each race. They do not receive the same recognition that the riders of the afternoon - jockeys - do, nor do they garner the attention that the owners, trainers, or horses do. Despite this and the adversity they face, exercise riders lay it all on the line. For this, they deserve respect.
Please enjoy my first installment of a new series ("Morning Track Stars") featuring exercise riders, the first of which features Allyson Walker, Will Take Charge’s regular rider. . .
As a young girl growing up in Fort Erie, Ontario, Allyson Walker would ask her mother to pull over on the side of the road next to a chain link fence so she could catch a glimpse at the horses on the backstretch of Fort Erie Race Track. Like most little girls, Walker was horse crazy. But she never grew out of that stage.
At around age seven, Walker began riding western, beginning with pleasure and trail riding before moving on to gaming and breaking. It wasn’t long after that her connection to racing began.
“In the third grade a ‘new kid’ started in my class,” Walker said. “He had just moved back to Canada from Hong Kong because his father had been in a bad riding accident. He was the son of jockey Jack ‘Jocko’ Lauzon. I became quite close to the family, and Mr. Lauzon knew how much I loved horses. When he started back at the track he got his son, Josh, a hotwalking job. Fortunately for me, Josh was sick one week and to ensure his job, Mr. Lauzon called up my mother and asked if I would be allowed to cover for him, and if I liked it, he would find me a job. I was hooked at 16!”
Walker continued hotwalking for about two weeks before she began grooming. After a couple summers had passed, she began ponying the races in the afternoons. But one racetrack job still awaited her: exercise riding.
“Having an education was always the main focus for me and a strong value that my family instilled,” Walker stated. “Galloping race horses was too high of a risk to jeopardize that.”
As a result, Walker put exercise riding on hold while she attended Brock University, where she joined the equestrian team and began riding hunters. She showed with the team for four years, even serving as the team’s captain her senior year, in addition to showing at regional shows in the summers. But exercise riding was still on her agenda.
“I promised my mother from the start that I wouldn’t begin exercise riding until I graduated university – and the day after graduation I turned up with my helmet and boots on!”
Despite the pressure and challenges that accompany exercise riding, Walker quickly developed a love for the job. Now, four years later, that enjoyment still remains.
“There is something about sitting on someone’s investment that has a mind of its own, weighs 900 to 1,200 pounds, and having to control its direction and speed that is exciting to me,” Walker said. “Some mornings I still cannot believe it’s my job and other mornings, I think I am crazy to be doing it, but at the crack of dawn, seven days a week, I am up and looking forward to getting on my first set!”
The summer after graduating, Walker began her exercise riding career at Fort Erie Race Track. That winter, Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield hired Walker, who began working for him as a rider before becoming an assistant. On a yearly basis, Walker traveled with Attfield and his stable in Canada, Florida, and Kentucky.
“[Attfield] opened my eyes to an entirely new level of racing and training,” Walker stated. “He provided me with some of the most amazing opportunities and experiences that I will be forever grateful for.”
While working for Attfield, Walker had the opportunity to ride a multitude of high quality horses, including Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. I) winner Perfect Shirl, Canadian champions Forte dei Marmi and Hollinger, as well as the additional stakes winners Kissable, Llanarmon, and Simmard and the graded stakes-placed Perfect Timber.
But earlier this summer, a new job opportunity arose for Walker – the chance to ride for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas at North America’s most prestigious summer meet, Saratoga. With the help of a few friends, she landed a job in the legendary trainer’s barn.
“I’ll be honest; it was a really difficult transition,” Walker said. “Lukas and Attfield might both be Hall of Famers and both in it for successful horse racing careers, but I promise you that they got there on very different programs! I respect both trainers – all trainers for that matter – but their styles are different.”
While working for Lukas, Walker has learned firsthand how hard Lukas has worked to become successful – and how hard he works his employees.
“He gives you ‘driving instructions’, a total play by play of how he wants each horse to train and what should happen,” Walker stated. “He looks for his riders to tell and teach each animal step by step how to be a better athlete. He looks for solid, even gallops versus long and pace-building sets. He likes his horses focused on business and keeping high energy levels. It is a fast paced morning and he takes organization to the next level.”
Although riding for Lukas certainly isn’t an easy task, Walker has gained a world of knowledge and skill in her time spent working for him.
“The best part would simply be listening to him,” Walker said. “They don’t call him ‘Coach’ for nothing. He picks you up when need be, and can knock you down a level if you deserve it. He has done a lot for the racing game and can only help turn me into a better horsewoman.”
In addition to the prestige of riding for Lukas, Walker has found great awe at the chance to work at Saratoga. Like many others who work in the Thoroughbred industry, the opportunity to spend a summer at the historic racetrack has been a dream Walker has long wished would come to fruition.
“It was on my ‘bucket list’!” Walker stated. “This is the place to be for East Coast summer racing. The best of the best are here: horses, trainers, riders, and barn help. You cannot ask to be at a more exciting place in the summer and it is like a working vacation. I wake up excited each morning to see what the day will hold. Knowing that each day I will see some of America’s top race horses, as well as riding some of them. . . It is just amazing to be here.”
With joining Lukas’ barn at Saratoga came the fortune of being around top-class racehorses, including 2013 Champion Three-Year-Old Male Will Take Charge. Simply delighted at the chance to be around the popular champion, Walker did not expect the opportunity she was soon granted.
“I shipped into Saratoga and the next day, Will Take Charge did,” Walker stated. “I never imagined I would ever sit on him. I was just excited to pet him in his stall!”
But surely enough, Walker soon found herself aboard the eye-catching chestnut. Like the rest of the racing world, she was well aware of his achievements and stature, but when she first met the colt, she couldn’t help but think, “Oh my goodness, he’s huge!”
“When I walked out to the walking ring and reached up to his withers to grab my lines for my first leg up on him, I could not believe the size of him,” Walker said. “First set, day two, Will Take Charge and I headed to the Oklahoma track at 5:25 AM. I have never been so nervous to not screw up or excited to say I rode a particular horse in my life!”
Although riding a top class horse such as Will Take Charge has been a blessing for Walker, she will admit that it does come with a high level of pressure. However, this aspect does not prevent her from enjoying her job.
“This is my first time riding a horse that is headed for a number of very prestigious races, and also a horse that has this big of a fan following,” Walker stated. “He is a star and it is a ton of pressure. To be honest, I try not to think about it because it is kind of scary knowing that our every move will be scrutinized up until game day and depending on the results, we will be judged after. On the flip side, it is exhilarating. I never imagined this opportunity and it isn’t every day that a horse like this comes into your life. I just try to focus on doing my best for the horse day by day and ignore the rest!”
|Allyson Walker aboard Will Take Charge|
Photo by Victoria Solzbach
Walker has quickly acquired a strong sense of respect for Will Take Charge in the short amount of time they have spent as a team. She has come to know the colt very well, learning his quirks off and on the racetrack while developing a growing admiration for his demeanor and professionalism.
“Will Take Charge is just a cool horse; he is constantly looking to please,” Walker said. “He utilizes all of his time wisely, which I love. When we are training, he is focused on that. When he is cooling out, he relaxes. When grazing, nothing else matters. And when he is in his stall, he is completely at rest. He likes attention and loves scratched being scratched under his chin. He responds well to verbal and physical encouragement, and overall, is an extremely happy animal. He is simply a class act. In my short time riding him, I have experienced him playful, strong, focused, relaxed, and competitive. He is smart. He knows exactly what he can and can’t get away with. And hold on tight at the quarter pole, because he also knows that’s when he makes his strongest run!”
On Saturday, Will Take Charge will hopefully show up with his strongest run in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I), a race in which he is expected to face the likes of Palace Malice , Itsmyluckyday Departing, Golden Ticket, and Moreno. Although the colt has not won since the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) on April 12, he is returning to the same surface where he achieved one of the greatest victories of his career in last year’s Travers Stakes (gr. I).
“I have high hopes for Will Take Charge’s Whitney debut,” Walker stated. “I believe he is training well and he is in the right frame of mind. It is going to be an extremely difficult race, but he is an amazing athlete and no one knows the horse better than Mr. Wayne Lukas. The trainer seems happy with him and the horse is doing everything we ask of him; that is all the assurance I need!”