A few rays of sunshine break through the clouds and shine brightly onto the picturesque Blue Mountain Ridge. A rainbow appears after a short storm. It seems to end near the Penn National Race Course finish line, but rainbows are actually full circles.
Jeremy Rose is here for only one mount. It is the second ride in his return to the saddle, and Capt. Candy is the 4-5 favorite. Capt. Candy makes the lead but starts to fade before the turn and finishes sixth. Rose, 43, is as competitive as he ever was and wears his disappointment across his face.
The Grantville, Pa., track lies just 90 miles from Pimlico and 180 miles from Belmont Park. It feels much farther away.
The Preakness and Belmont Stakes are home to the biggest triumphs in Rose’s career. His victory aboard Afleet Alex in the 2005 Preakness is one of the most memorable Triple Crown moments of all-time. Just as the 3-year old colt was uncoiling his devastating kick, Scrappy T ducked out sharply from Ramon Dominguez' left-handed whip and into the path of Afleet Alex. They clipped heels and before anyone could catch their breath Afleet Alex popped up with Rose deftly in tow. He regained stride immediately and powered away to win.
“It’s actually depressing this time of year when it comes to the Preakness,” Rose said from a picnic table outside the Penn National jockey’s room. “Because yeah, I was there, not there anymore. It’s love and hate.”
The Belmont was a coronation as Rose and Alex not only beat Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, but in the immortal words of Tom Durkin, “Afleet Alex just ran by Giacomo like he was standing still”.
“When I turned Alex loose, I ripped the heart right out of him (Giacomo),” Rose said with delight.
Those races in 2005 were only five years into a young career. A natural lightweight, Rose was a star wrestler and district champion at 103 pounds in Pennsylvania. But when the NCAA moved up the lightest weight class to 125 pounds, he knew he would need to change course. He was 21 years old before getting his first professional mount at Delaware Park – later than most jockeys, who usually start riding around 16-18 years old.
“I think it was an advantage that I was bigger at that point. Even as a jockey I would have been small coming at 95 to 98 pounds,” Rose said.
The wins piled up quickly for Rose, just as they did as a wrestler. Rose was the 2001 Eclipse Award winner for apprentice jockey. By the time 2005 rolled around, he already was established as a top rider on the East Coast, especially in Mid-Atlantic circles.
“You get that much success, that quickly, knowing nothing about racing really,” Rose recalled. “The first three months you are like, ‘Wow, this is happening. I’m actually getting paid to do this.’ Then it starts switching and you think you are the difference, and that’s the downfall. With that much success, you think you are the one making the horses win. You think you are the one doing it, and you get cocky.”
He won riding titles at meets in Maryland, Delaware and Arkansas. He was riding all over the U.S. and even won graded races at Woodbine in Canada. It was quite a story for a boy raised in the small town of Bellefonte, best known as being 10 miles away from Penn State University.
“I was very happy where I was at,” Rose said. “Living in the Fair hill area and had a nice house there. I was riding for good people that I was able to fly all over the country. I never had grandeurs of going to New York, I wasn’t worried about that. I felt if I went up there and had the horse I could ride with them. It didn’t matter to me, I didn’t need to be there. I’m not a big city person so New York was not really a fit for me.”
It didn’t seem like anything could slow Rose’s ascent to the top. But an innocent Monday in 2008 would alter Rose’s meteoric trajectory. He was riding a claiming turf sprint at Delaware Park aboard a mare named Appeal to the City. When the mare started getting in and approaching heels, he attempted to correct the horse’s stride.
“A lot of times when you flag a horse, they straighten up. Well, I hit her in the eye instead of flagging her. It was a mistake,” Rose said. “I didn’t mean to do it, obviously. The stewards thought I hit her twice in the head, which would mean it’s not an accident and I meant to do it. But I only hit her once in the head and once on the shoulder left-handed.”
The incident thrust Rose into the spotlight for the wrong reasons for the first time in his career. He had served typical race-riding infractions in the past, but this was more serious. He drew the ire of fans and others critical of horse racing in general. He eventually served a three-month suspension.
Rose said the event affected him mentally, but with the support of trainers and owners he quickly rebounded. Among them were the well-respected Howard Wolfendale, the trainer of Appeal to the City, and Graham Motion, who had established himself as a top trainer and true horseman.
“I had Graham Motion behind me and as soon as I got suspended he called Kidd and said. 'make sure he is getting out on horses at Fair Hill,' ” Rose recalled fondly. “Graham backed me from day one. He had me out there working horses five days a week for him, and when I came back off the suspension I think we ran 15 horses at Saratoga and won five. We were rolling.”
John “Kidd” Breeden, Rose’s longtime agent, booked over 250 mounts in the last three months of 2008 coming off of the suspension. Rose’s business stayed strong, and his 2009 season had 213 wins at a 23 percent clip, punctuated by a Grade 1 victory aboard Bullsbay for Motion.
His career survived the suspension and the stain to his reputation, but the next hurdle he faced wouldn’t be as temporary. Rose was injured in a spill during a race and was prescribed Oxycontin to help with the pain. Jockeys, much like fighters, don't get paid when they aren’t performing, so Rose used the drug to continue riding through what turned out to be fractures in his back, ribs and collarbone.
Like many caught in the throes of a growing opioid epidemic, Rose had no idea that the substance he was using to allow him to continue to ride was akin to the same class of drug as heroin.
“The way I found out, an agent friend of mine told me while we were going to New York one day,” Rose recalls. “He saw me taking an oxy and said, ‘that’s like heroin’. I had no idea what an opiate was. So I go home and look it up, holy (expletive), I am on heroin.”
Rose’s career started spiraling downward faster than its spectacular rise. The mounts, the wins and the earnings were dropping and so was the confidence in Rose at the track. He was in and out of rehabs but would turn back to Oxycontin when coming back to the track.
“What worked for me, I bought a farm for my parents back on Tusseyville Road and went back there and took off for four or five months and went cold turkey back there,” Rose said about finally beating the addiction to Oxycontin. “I stayed away from racing for a while. Withdrawals sucked but mom and dad were there and I just dealt with it. Easier to go through withdrawals if you aren't also trying to ride.”
Rose was able to get off Oxycontin in 2014, but he quickly replaced Oxycontin with alcohol. His performance fell off even further and after winning over 2,100 races in his first decade as a rider, he won only 358 races from 2011 to 2015.
“A race, you have to have a clean head and be on top of your game,” Rose said. “If you aren't, people are going to notice. Especially if you were at the level I was at. Something happened.”
He continued to ride in fits and starts through the second half of the decade. During one of those hiatuses he met his future wife, Brittney, through his mother, Cindy Robinson. Brittney runs a horse boarding and training business and had business dealings with Robinson, a horse feed sales representative. They hit it off at a family dinner in April 2016 and were married by the summer of 2018. Rose was still riding, but his business had continued to dwindle, with only 23 wins in 2018 and 35 in 2019.
“He hit rock bottom in 2019 and got sour on the racing and being away from his family. He did a stint in rehab and got sobered up,” Brittney said.
The time away from Brittney and his stepdaughter Harper took a toll on him, and he knows the difficulties of juggling a family and a career on the racetrack. He hung up his tack at the end of 2019 and walked into a new career. The Rose family took over the day-to-day operations of Gus’s Pizza Shop in Lewistown, Pa., which was purchased by Brittney’s father.
“He did his job well there. He made the dough in the morning, and he is part Italian and he fell right into it,” Brittany said.
The time at the pizza shop allowed their family to spend more time together. But the pull of the racetrack is hard to ignore. Jeremy was able to scratch his racing itch by driving to Delaware a few times a week during the summer to ride babies for long-time trainer Anthony Pecoraro.
“When you go from being competitive your whole life to making pizzas – not a demeaning job by any means, but there isn’t that excitement or competition,” Rose said. “There isn't that hooking up at the top of the lane and coming down to the wire. When that's built into you, it's hard to give up.”
The competitive fire still burns deeply inside Rose. There are many differences between a wrestler and a jockey, but the thrill of victory remains the same. The losses, like the one on Capt. Candy, eat at him.
“I put a lot of stress on myself over the years racing,” Rose said. “Because when you go from a sport where you win 94 percent of the time to a sport winning 24 percent of the time … losing 75 percent of the time is hard for me to take from a competitive standard.”
Rose, with the support of Brittney and Harper, is making his comeback to competition. He knows he is at the three-eighths pole in his career, but on Wednesday he will ride opening day at Delaware Park. The new structure of the Delaware Park meet will allow Rose to split his time between the track and his family. Its live racing dates are now Wednesday through Saturday, which will allow Rose to spend Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at home before leaving Wednesday to return to the track.
“I hope that’s a much better situation for him and for us,” Brittney said. “That it’s a more beneficial mental state for him. He’s there, but then he’s home, too.”
The last mounts for Rose before this comeback were in 2019. He rode mostly at Delaware Park and had business at other Mid-Atlantic tracks as well. His final race was a second on Golden Candy, a half brother to Capt. Candy, in a Pennsylvania-bred Stakes race. The trainer on both horses is Pecoraro.
“Pec (Pecoraro) is a big backer,” Rose said. “Tim Ritchey (is too), and Mike Gorham put me on a horse a couple days ago to work. Steve Klesaris is there (Delaware Park). I am working two for him tomorrow. Some of those guys are trying to give me a shot. I went out and saw Graham Motion, and he told me to keep in touch. He was going to put me on something, whether it’s morning or afternoon. I am just happy to go back over there (Fair Hill) and work horses.”
The competition will be fierce from a young jockey colony, but Rose has set lofty goals for the 88-day meet.
“To sit there and say I am going to ride like I was 25 years old and get those mounts is unrealistic,” Rose said. “I go into every meet trying to be the leading rider. But being realistic, if I make top five, that's probably a decent meet.”
Rose joked that after his Capt. Candy result, he doubted that his agent’s phone would be ringing off the hook. But he is named to ride four horses on the opening two days of the meet.
He rides two on Thursday – Capt. Candy for Anthony Pecoraro and a first-time starter Come on Kitty Cat for Graham Motion.
Things at the racetrack tend to come full circle.
Sam Cavalieri is a freelance writer based in Reading, Pa.