In the world of high-stakes horse racing, is it training, money, or luck that gets the win?
C.J. Jamieson is a young, gifted female jockey with a complicated past and a strong desire to break through in the competitive world of thoroughbred racing.
Trainer Ritchie Gallo, on the other hand, has spent half his life in the sport. He's at the top of his game, but he's never been lucky enough to train a world-class racehorse. Until now. He finally has the horse, but needs the perfect rider.
Call it luck or fate, but when Gallo comes across C.J., he knows he might finally have his ticket to the winners circle.
Follow Gallo and C.J. as they compete in the turbulent world of thoroughbred racing in a beautifully told, fast-paced story of triumph, tragedy, and perseverance. From the tracks of Saratoga to the famous Churchill Downs, their journey together teaches them that winning races on fragile legs isn't so different than winning at life with fragile hearts.
Ritchie Gallo sat on his track pony and watched the sun slowly rise. The mist and fog shrouding the Saratoga racetrack filtered the sun’s light and allowed him to look at the glowing orange ball without shading his eyes. This was his favorite time of day. The morning was still cool, so he could fully enjoy the muffled drumbeat of horses’ hooves hitting the dirt. Other trainers sat at the rail in front of the empty grandstands to watch their horses run. They measured speeds with stopwatches and made notes in their journals, detailing the progress their thoroughbreds were making in their exercise regime.
Gallo preferred to be mounted on a horse when his colts and fillies went through their paces. He was a horseman, and a horseman should be astride a horse.As he stared down the backstretch, a colt burst from the mist like an apparition charging down an apocalyptic battlefield. Backlit by the rising sun, the horse shot bolts of breath through its nostrils, creating contrails of vapor that streamed down its body. When the racer and its rider drew closer, the ghostly appearance faded, and the animal was once again a brilliant athlete sculpted for speed and endurance.
Gallo’s track pony, General Custer, stood perfectly still, even when the thoroughbred thundered by just a few feet away. The General was a gelding. The removal of his family jewels had done wonders for his personality, making him calm and docile around people and other animals. However, his bulk and strength prevented him from the speed desired in thoroughbred champions, so Gallo had purchased him eight years ago to be his mobile work platform. Together, they had spent countless hours observing some of the most expensive creatures in the world—thoroughbreds preparing themselves for the glory and riches that come with racing success.
Although Gallo now lived in Kentucky, he looked forward to these late summer races in his hometown of Saratoga. His family bred horses on a farm just a few miles from the track, so he’d been around thoroughbreds all his life, even dreamed of being a jockey as a child. His quest to develop the skills necessary to guide a twelve-hundred-pound animal around a one-mile oval at more than forty miles per hour began with a summer job working as an exercise rider. But those dreams were dashed when a growth spurt at age eighteen made a racing career impractical.With no prospects of earning a living in the saddle, Gallo decided to become a trainer. After graduating from college with a major in animal science, his father connected him with one of the nation’s top trainers at a farm in Kentucky. There, Gallo learned the art and science of developing racehorses.
He endured long hours, hard work, and low pay for thirteen racing seasons before he was asked to join the team at a small breeding and training farm near Lexington. They were looking for a young man with a great eye for horses and a willingness to use technology and science to create the ultimate methodology for turning a talented horse into a winning racehorse.
For four tough seasons, Gallo and his staff of grooms and horse attendants travelled across the country, winning races at regional tracks and then major venues like Belmont, Santa Anita, Saratoga, and Churchill Downs. He earned a reputation as a trainer who could design the right regimen for select thoroughbreds and ethically prepare them to compete and win. Gallo took on several horses that other trainers and breeding farms passed over and trained them to run in the money at good quality races. Over time, his compensation grew to six-figures—excellent pay in an industry notorious for its demanding schedules and low wages. Despite his success, Gallo knew he still hadn’t been lucky enough to train a world-class racehorse, one that could compete and win at the highest level.
At least, not until now.
Gallo pulled the reins to the right and walked General Custer down to the finish line. An exercise rider approached on a black colt that was covered in sweat and breathing heavily after a one-and-a-half-mile gallop. “How did he feel today, Hector?”
“Ah, he’s okay, Mister Gallo. He is a big, strong, fast horse, but el es un niño obstinado. He don’t want to do what he don’t want to do.”
“Yeah, I know. He’s giving me some sleepless nights. Okay, take him back to the stable and let the boys cool him down, give him a shower, and feed him breakfast.”The rider guided the colt to the northeast corner of the track, where security guards waited to halt Union Avenue traffic at the crossing to the stabling area. The drivers didn’t seem to mind the wait, and never honked. Why would they? It was a chance to see these magnificent athletes at close range. Some horses were moving from the stables to the track, fidgeting in anticipation of the activity for which they are bred. Others walked from the track to the stables, drenched in sweat, muscles quivering, and blood vessels popping through their skin. It seemed to Gallo that people were always a little overwhelmed by this sight. When did you ever see humans give 110 percent effort in their daily lives? These horses didn’t know any other way to live.Five of the six thoroughbreds Gallo had brought to Saratoga had now completed their daily workout. The black colt that had just left the track was Tackle Tim Tom. He held tremendous potential but was difficult to train. Only two years old, the horse had already run impressive split times in his last four races. Gallo didn’t want to geld the colt because he still felt he could train him to compete effectively. He hoped he could find a jockey that could connect with the horse and ride him to victory. If Tackle Tim Tom found success on the track, he would be worth a lot of money as a breeding stallion. Gallo also had a hunch that this thoroughbred was that one-in-a-million colt who could compete and win in the highest stakes races. To win a Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Travers, or Breeders’ Cup Classic was only a dream for most trainers. More than twenty thousand foals were born every year, but only a handful could win the biggest races.
As Tackle Tim Tom disappeared across Union Avenue and headed for the stable, Gallo’s other great hope moved across the street and stepped onto the track. Hit the Bid was one of the most beautiful horses Gallo had ever seen: a dark bay with white sox below her knees. Physically, she was the perfect horse—superb conformation from her head to her tail. She was big for a filly at 17.2 hands, and now that she was a three-year-old, she tipped the scales at 1,215 pounds. When she ran, she was what trainers referred to as an “A” mover: a low, smooth stride with no wasted energy. Her limbs moved forward and back on a straight line, and when she navigated the turns on a course, there was no lateral movement in her body. She carried herself with a sense of majesty and had a great personality—often playfully nudging the grooms that worked in the stable and entertaining the patrons at the racetrack with the prancing dance moves she made on her way to the starting gate. The only problem with this horse was that she loved to run too much. Unlike Tackle Tim Tom, who had to be in the right mood to run his fastest, Hit the Bid never wanted to do anything except breeze at top speed.
As soon as she stepped on the racetrack, she began to dance, moving her hindquarters left and then right. Her head bobbed up and down, and her ears stood upright as though searching for the roar of an adoring crowd in the gallery. In the saddle was Jacinto Robles, a jockey that had never ridden the filly before and was scheduled to be in the stirrups for her first race at Saratoga just eight days away. Gallo wanted Robles to put her through an exercise run to see how she handled and to get a feel for her ability.Hit the Bid had already achieved substantial success as a racehorse, having won several Grade Two and Grade One races. She was on the industry’s radar as an up-and-coming star, and Gallo’s goal was to prepare her to race on the biggest stages against not only other fillies and mares, but colts as well.
“Are you ready to go, Jacinto?”
“Sure, Mister Gallo. Boy, she is really a rambunctious filly. Is she always this excited when she gets to the track?”“Yeah, but it’s excited in a good way. Here’s what I want you to do: let her canter for a quarter-mile and then bring her up to a gallop. Don’t go faster than eighteen seconds per furlong. She doesn’t like to gallop—she wants to run, so she’ll fight it all the way. We have a heart monitor on her, and I don’t want her heart rate to get too high during the gallop. Once you’ve covered a quarter-mile at a gallop, back her up just before the three-eighth pole and let her breeze to the finish line. Make sure you get a running start at the three-eighth pole, because I want to see what her top speed is for the final three furlongs.”
“No problem, jefe. I got it!”
The jockey guided the horse away at a canter, moving in a clockwise direction around the outer periphery of the track where horses could walk, canter, or gallop. Once he had covered a quarter-mile at a canter, he eased up a little on the reins and stood in the stirrups, raising his butt off the saddle.
Just as Gallo had predicted, Hit the Bid wanted to run, and Robles had to use his hands, arms, and knees to hold her back. When the filly passed the finish line—where Ritchie Gallo and General Custer were standing—Robles let her gallop for another minute before turning her around and moving her down along the inside rail. He asked her to run just before the three-eighth pole. He didn’t have to ask twice; in a matter of five strides, Hit the Bid was at top speed, hurtling around the far turn and approaching the top of the stretch.
Gallo clicked his stopwatch when she was at the pole, watching her make the turn through his binoculars. Every time he watched her run, he was astounded by the athletic grace of this beautiful lady. As thoroughbreds run through a turn, they generate a force on their legs more than eight times their body weight. Despite this physical pressure, Hit the Bid maintained her line as she ran through the turn and kept a constant distance from the inside rail on her left. Her strides were straight, smooth, and powerful, and her head was in perfect alignment with her body.
As she transitioned from the turn to the straightaway, she made a lead change to her right front foot and accelerated toward the finish line. When the filly crossed the line, Ritchie hit the stopwatch and immediately looked at the time. He shook his head and shared the good news with General Custer. “We got us one hell of a horse here, big guy. Three furlongs in thirty-four seconds after a mile-and-a-quarter gallop. Damn, she’s good!”
It took a concerted effort by Robles to bring the filly to a trot after her breeze, but he finally got her to slow down and turn around, moving to the outside of the track. When he met up with Gallo, Ritchie bent over and hooked a rein to the filly’s bridal so he and General Custer could walk her slowly back to the stables, allowing the jockey to relax in the saddle.
Once they got back to her stall, Gallo checked her nose for any traces of blood and then took the wraps off her lower legs to examine her knees, cannon bones, ankles, and feet. Everything looked good, so he had his grooms unsaddle the horse and walk her around a paddock ring to slow down her heart rate. After that, she would be thoroughly washed down, brushed, and given a breakfast of oats, hay, and a small amount of other grains.
“So, what do you think, Jacinto?” asked the trainer.
“At first, I think she got a problem because she dances so much, but once you ask her to run, she does everything right. She’s got heart—un gran corazón. I think she can win against the boys.”
“Yeah, me too. Okay, she’s entered in the American Oaks on July 22. It’s a Grade One race for three-year-olds and up. As far as I’m concerned, you’re my rider. That work for you?”
“Yes sir, Mister Gallo. Just close the loop with my agent and we’re good to go. If we win that one, it’s a big payday for both of us!”
Satisfied that all six of his horses were being serviced by his grooms, Gallo made his way to a trailer that served as a temporary office for himself and several other trainers. Inside the trailer were a cluster of desks equally spaced throughout the interior with a couple of chairs at each station. It wasn’t an elegant workplace, but rather a functional one, where trainers could make phone calls to agents, racetrack officials, owners, and the farms where they each trained horses.
Now that the athletic activities for the day were done, Gallo spent the rest of the workday completing race entry paperwork, lining up jockeys, and giving upbeat progress reports to the owners of the horses he trained and to his partners at Stone Fence Farms in Kentucky. He enjoyed the business side of his job, but sometimes he felt it took too much time away from the horses, forcing him to rely on his chief groom to be sure the horses were safe, healthy, comfortable, and properly fed. As he had become more successful, the commercial aspects of being a winning trainer became more demanding. Keeping up with the increasing value of the horses, as well as the size of the purses in the major stakes races, was a lot of work—but his love for the horses and the competition made it all worthwhile.
At 4:30 p.m., he decided to call it quits. Since his workday began at five o’clock in the morning, he needed to be in bed early, which only left a couple of hours every evening to do something other than be a horse trainer. He liked to hit the gym several times each week, but tonight, he just didn’t have the energy for it and decided to enjoy a quiet dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in Saratoga Springs. After one last check on the horses, he got in his truck and began to drive towards the section of town where the eateries and nightclubs were located. Whether by accident or just drawn by nostalgia, he reached the street he considered to be his favorite in this small upstate New York town. Even though it was where he suffered the worst heartbreak of his life, he couldn’t resist its charm, so he made the left turn he had made so many times as a young man.
Both sides of the street boasted large, older homes that screamed “old Saratoga money” to anyone that knew the grand history of this neighborhood. His pickup truck was the only vehicle on the street, so he slowed down to give himself time to admire the handsome and exquisitely maintained houses. Halfway down the block, he pulled over to look at a home he remembered all too well from his days as an exercise rider—over twenty years ago, now. He turned off the ignition and found himself just sitting there, looking at the soaring grey-shingled house with green trim around the windows and thick columns framing a porch that wrapped around the width of the dwelling.
The porch swing he’d enjoyed on cool summer evenings was still there, right in the same place—just to the left of the large mahogany front door. In his mind’s eye, he could see himself laughing with Channing Mellon. They used to tease one another and kiss when they thought nobody was looking. Dark eyes, olive skin, and long black hair framed an amazing smile that wouldn’t let him forget he was with the sweetest girl in the world. Gallo was only five feet seven inches in height, but he would still think about how tall he felt when he placed his arms around her petite frame and held her close. He still thought about her a lot, actually, if he were being honest with himself.
Gallo had taken the time to stop in front of this house many times over the last two decades, whenever he returned to Saratoga for the racing season. And somehow, whenever he did, he always thought about the lyrics of a song entitled Summer of ‘69:
“Standing on your momma’s porch,
You told me that you’d wait forever,
Oh the way you held my hand,
I knew that it was now or never,
He’d had some great moments since the days of holding Channing Mellon’s hand on that porch swing—but he always wondered how his life might’ve looked if she’d been his partner through the years, rather than a memory. Life imitated art as the story of his love for this young woman unfolded. He was the farm boy and exercise rider who thought the greatest place in the world was on the backstretch of a racetrack among the horses, stables, and horsemen. She was the daughter of a Wall Street scion who truly believed that horse racing was the sport of kings, and he wasn’t about to let his princess commingle with the help.
Gallo kept his eyes on that porch swing. It swayed in the breeze, as though still pushed by the ghosts of his memories. He fought off a frown, thinking about how Channing’s father had felt he’d made a mistake allowing her to pursue her love for horses by working at the racetrack—even though it was only during the summertime, when they resided at their Saratoga home. Perhaps it had been a mistake, but not for Gallo. That’s when he’d met her.
She was mucking stalls, helping the grooms with the thoroughbreds, and walking the horses in the cooldown ring. It didn’t take long for him to find out she’d considered him handsome, funny, and a person whose work ethic and love for the racetrack had earned him the respect of everyone working behind the scenes. He’d introduced her to several trainers who paid her to exercise the horses. Her father was appalled when he’d found out about that. He didn’t mind her wearing riding britches, a black jacket, and a helmet with a visor if she was jumping over fences that were only three feet high and competing in equestrian dressage. Breezing racehorses, to him, just seemed so blue-collar. It was a job carried out by small men with foreign accents or white trash who couldn’t do anything else for a living.
This time, Gallo couldn’t fight off his frown. Channing’s father had eventually insisted she bring her relationship with him to an end and shipped her back to Manhattan as quickly as he could.
That was another thing he’d never forget: Channing tearfully telling him goodbye in their final moments together. She’d promised she would be back after graduation from Wellesley, as an independent woman who would take control of her life. He’d waited hopefully for that event, but over time it became clear that she wasn’t going to keep that promise. Whenever he drove by this house, he wondered if her family still owned it and if she continued to summer in Saratoga. He had never seen her or her father again. He guessed that she’d chosen to put a love affair that lasted two summers in her past, moving on toward a very different future—one without him.
Gallo started up his pickup truck and pulled away from the curb. As he drove to the downtown section of Saratoga Springs, he knew that in his future, he would always compare every horse he trained to Hit the Bid and, hopefully, Tackle Tim Tom. Trainers measured potential by comparing a colt or filly to a benchmark. He also knew that he had never married because when it came to women, Channing Mellon had always been his benchmark.