Fearless: Snohomish native thrives as jockey
Kevin Nortz / The Herald
Jennifer Whitaker, 36, waits her turn to take Call Me Emily, a 3-year-old filly, for a gallop during training Monday at Emerald Downs in Auburn. Whitaker, who grew up in Snohomish, has the most wins for a female jockey in Emerald Downs history.
Whitaker speaks with her sister, Darline Whitaker-Snowden, during a short break between training sessions at Emerald Downs. A 1985 horse racing accident left Whitaker-Snowden a paraplegic.
There is, for example, that instant when the gates swing open, the horses surge forward and the race is on. Or when a horse and rider are absolutely working as one, a true partnership formed over many long hours of training. And perhaps the ultimate joy, which is the celebration of victory.
Jennifer Whitaker knows all this and knows it well. She is the leading female jockey in Emerald Downs history with 295 wins in eight years at the Auburn track, including 28 in 2007. She hopes to add to her career total this evening when Emerald Downs opens its 2008 season.
"I love it," said the 36-year-old Whitaker, who was raised in Snohomish. "The adrenaline, the excitement and the satisfaction of knowing you did something good for the owners and the trainer. The money is great, but everybody loves to win."
Still, this is racing and there are perils, which is something else Whitaker knows well.
Her older sister, Darline Whitaker-Snowden, was once a jockey. Years ago she was good enough to leave the Northwest and ride at prestigious Hollywood Park and other top tracks in the Los Angeles area, but her career ended tragically in 1985 when she was thrown from a horse during a training workout. She fell into the rail surrounding the inside edge of the track and broke three vertebrae in her neck, leaving her a quadriplegic. She was 22 at the time.
Whitaker-Snowden later regained movement in her arms, but she remains in a wheelchair.
Like her older sister, Whitaker grew up with horses. She was 14 at the time of the accident and for a few years she drifted into other activities, including ice hockey, before finally returning to riding. She was hired to do morning training workouts at Emerald Downs -- galloping, in the language of the track -- but in 2000 she decided to compete. Since then, she has been riding almost exclusively for longtime Emerald Downs trainer Howard Belvoir.
"(Injuries) can happen doing anything," she said. "So you don't think about them and you don't think about the accidents."
Until they happen, that is.
Climbing back up
Whitaker, who graduated from Snohomish High School in 1989, has been thrown from horses more times than she can count. Easily over 100, she said, leading to broken bones, separated joints, torn muscles and tendons, resulting in multiple surgeries.
"When horses break down, (break a leg) sometimes you can hold them up," she said. "But when they break shoulders, you can't. So you're going 35 miles an hour and then you're on the ground, and anything can happen at any point. But it's just not something you think about. Because if you start thinking about it, then maybe it's time to start thinking about being done."
In other words, every jockey falls, every jockey is sometimes injured and every jockey needs to get back in the saddle. Those that can, anyway.
"If Darline could get up out of that chair, she'd be riding again," Whitaker said.
It's true, confirmed Whitaker-Snowden, a 1980 Snohomish High grad who began racing at the old Longacres race track in Renton when she was 16.
"I just loved it," she said of her own racing career, however brief. "If I could walk tomorrow, I'd be right back out there.
"I love seeing Jennifer doing what I wanted to do," she added, meaning a long racing career. "And I'm glad my injury didn't scare her. I wish her all the best. And I don't think about her getting hurt because it was a freak thing that happened to me."
Whitaker-Snowden lives with her four children -- her fourth is a recently adopted 3-year-old son -- on her parents' 40-acre property near Clearview, the same acreage where both women learned to ride as youngsters. Bob and Mary Ann Whitaker still have horses, and they usually drive to Emerald Downs to watch Jennifer race.
Watching his younger daughter ride "is scary," Bob Whitaker admitted. "You're always torn that you might have another one in the chair or even worse. But (Jennifer) loves the sport.
"And whenever she wins a race, I do one of these," he added, holding his hands together in prayer, "because I thank God she's not being hauled off the track."
"My dad worries, for sure," Jennifer said. "But he loves seeing me win. He's the proud papa, you could say. And that's part of it for me. It's making dad proud, it's making mom proud, and it's making Howard proud. The money's great, but it's not about the money for me."
Mary Ann Whitaker said she was troubled when Jennifer decided to ride, "but I just relied on her to be careful and to do the best she could. Because you can't tell them, 'No, don't do that.' She loves it. And Darline loved it, too. She didn't want to do anything else."
No time to walk away
Neither, it seems, does Jennifer. She has interests outside of racing; she has considered studying forensic science in the offseason but has no plans to leave racing anytime soon.
"I hope (to do this) forever," she said. "I don't think there's a set time to retire. It depends on your body and how long it holds up. But I still love it today."
That said, racing is a demanding, often punishing occupation. She rides anywhere from one to seven races a day during the 91-day season, which continues until late September, along with the almost daily morning workouts. And daily application of ice.
"I love ice," she said with a smile. "A lot of ice. … People don't realize the toll this puts on your body. I get tired and my body gets sore."
In addition to all the ordinary aches last season, Whitaker tore the biceps muscle in her right arm and broke her left wrist. Both injuries required surgery, but she endured the discomfort to finish the season. In the fall she then had two operations six weeks apart.
"Last summer my pain tolerance was the highest it could possibly be, and it was every single day," she said. "But it was the middle of the season, and the season was going great, even with the injuries I had."
Belvoir, her trainer, says Whitaker "is kind of like a daughter to me. We sometimes have our differences, but we try to be a team. And we work pretty good together."
Some of her most important contributions come during the morning workouts, he went on, "because that's a big part of keeping the horses sound. She knows them because she gets on them in the morning and works them all. She's honest, and I know she's going to come back and tell me what's wrong."
After all these years, Whitaker said, "I still like galloping. And my work shows when a horse is good in the paddock, good in the post parade and he goes to the gate and he leaves there straight and he leaves there running. That's gratifying to me, when I can see that I've actually helped one.
"Even if they don't win," she said, "I can still see where my work paid off. I pretty much know these horses inside and out, and as long as they do everything right, then I did my job."
Off and running
Emerald Downs in Auburn begins its 13th season of thoroughbred racing at 6 p.m. today. The 91-day season continues through Sept. 28 and features 35 stakes events worth more than $2.3 million.
Racing is held Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through the first six weeks of the season, with Thursday racing beginning May 29. Post time is 6 p.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on weekends and holidays. Exceptions are 5 p.m. on July 3, and 2 p.m. on July 4.
The centerpiece of the season is the 73rd running of the $300,000 Longacres Mile on Aug. 17. Other top races include the $100,000 Washington Oaks on Aug. 16, the $100,000 Emerald Derby on Sept. 1, and the $100,000 Gottstein Futurity on Sept. 27.
Ricky Frazier, who set an Emerald Downs single-season record with 157 wins in 2007, is back to defend his title as leading jockey. Gallyn Mitchell, the track’s all-time leader with 966 wins, is on pace to hit the 1,000 mark by midseason.
More information: www.emeralddowns.com
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