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Exercise rider gets into a horse's head

BRANT JAMES
Published May 2, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Carl Nafzger needed to know every minute point about My Boston Gal's workout on Thursday morning. The filly was slated to start today in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks, if she was sound and working well.

Tracey Wilkes, a 37-year-old exercise rider, pulled off her flak jacket and answered each question with equal detail. As the only person with daily on-track interaction with the horse, the exercise rider provides the crucial communication link between trainer and animal.

"Your exercise rider is critical," Nafzger said. "If your communication isn't good, you're not going to see what you want to see. And if the horse ain't happy, you're not getting 110 percent out of them."

Wilkes understands her responsibilities are more than breezing and galloping.

"We're the eyes and the ears for the trainer," Wilkes said. "The trainer can look and see, but we have to come back and tell them the horse has something bothering him. You also have to take into account (horses) are like you or I - some of them don't walk 100 percent or jog 100 percent and we have to know whether that's a training thing or just the way they go."

Most exercise riders are independent contractors, earning $15 per workout. Zipping between barns on bicycles, they ride as many horses as they can before the workout session ends at 9:15 a.m. Wilkes works full time for Nafzger, doing billing and payroll to supplement her income. Her husband, Ian, was the exercise rider for Unbridled during his wins in the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, and is one of Nafzger's assistants.

Tracey Wilkes has been an exercise rider since she was 17 and has no aspirations to train, like many of her counterparts.

"I like to ride the horses," she said. "To train the horses you have to see them all. I prefer to be on them rather than be on the ground and watch them go round."

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