Welcome to the majors, kid: Saratoga Springs High School grad Davis makes riding debut
SARATOGA SPRINGS Dylan Davis wasn’t in a hurry to wipe the dirt off his upper lip.
For the baby-faced apprentice jockey, making his career debut in a pair of races at Saratoga Race Course on Monday, it was like a faint brown right of passage.
As good as a full-blown, hairy handlebar hung from his nose.
It remained there while the 18-year-old son of trainer and former jockey Robbie Davis talked to a horde of reporters in the winner’s circle after finishing eighth in the last of his two races.
“It’s very exciting, the whole crowd and everything, it was just a blast,” Dylan Davis said. “You can’t get better than this. It’s Saratoga!”
The 2011 Saratoga Springs High School graduate finished fourth in the fourth race aboard Black Rhino and last of eight aboard Fierce in the fifth race.
In those two dirt sprints Monday, though, he learned the difference between working horses in the morning and riding them in the afternoon.
“I’ve been galloping almost two years, and this is nothing like it,” he said. “It’s a whole different game. I got tired.”
His father Robbie is in his second year as a trainer after compiling 3,382 wins as a jockey. He rode for 22 years from 1981 through 2002, then hopped back in the saddle once in 2011.
Dylan’s older sisters, Jackie and Katie, also are in the business — Katie riding as a workout rider and planning on breaking in as a jockey sometime in the future, and the oldest of the trio, Jackie, is currently the third-leading rider at Suffolk Downs.
“She’s doing great,” Dylan said of Jackie. “She’s trying to give me pointers and everything. Hopefully, I get to meet up with her this winter at Aqueduct.”
It’s great for the kids, but it can be stressful for Robbie, knowing the dangers facing riders every time they hop into the saddle.
In 1988, his horse ran over fallen rider Mike Venezia, who was killed in the spill. Robbie took a few months off from racing, but eventually returned.
Now three of his six children, Dylan being the youngest, have followed him into racing.
“Every time I go by a church, I don’t know if I can say my prayers enough,” Robbie said. “Every church I go by, I think I should be going in there.
“This is a wonderful sport. It gets into your blood and it’s hooked into you, and it’s there forever. There’s a lot of ups and downs, a lot of emotions just boiling inside your body. But you can’t dwell on things. You just move forward and enjoy the beautiful day we have and have a safe trip.”
It’s an easy list to prioritize.
“He just said to be safe. That’s the best thing,” Dylan said. “And if you can, win. That’s the second thing.”
Dylan had safe trips both times out for trainer Wesley Ward, for whom he had been working some horses in the mornings at Saratoga.
Black Rhino broke well for him in the six-furlong fourth race, and he shared the lead around the turn with Rajiv Maragh, who was riding Itsnottheright for Repole Stables and Bruce Levine just inside Black Rhino.
“I looked back, I was like, ‘Where is everyone?’ I was kind of nervous,” Dylan said of being on the lead in his first race. “I don’t know. I tried bringing Maragh back on the rail, but he wasn’t budging too much.”
Once in the stretch, though, Itsnottheright had more kick than Black Rhino, and Dylan’s ride slowed a little to finish in fourth.
Dylan stepped off the scales in the winner’s circle to begin his walk back to the jockey’s room, and he was greeted immediately by an adoring public. From the stands and from people looking for a handshake along his walk, he was bombarded by well-wishers and met them all with a broad smile.
Minutes before the race, Robbie was pretty sure his son would take it all in stride, even if it was a little harder for dad to do so.
“It’s definitely more stressful for me, right now, it seems like,” he said. “I asked him how he slept last night, and he said, ‘Yeah, I slept good, dad. Why?’ I said, ‘OK.’ It’s not getting to him at all, so that’s a good sign.”
In the next race, 51⁄2 furlongs aboard Fierce, he was stalking the pace early, but lost ground in the turn and couldn’t get Fierce to fire.
Black Rhino went off at 5-2 odds, while Fierce was the favored choice at 8-5.
“That makes me even more nervous,” Dylan said. “Everyone expects a 10-pound bug to be really great, but all I can do is just try. That’s it. The odds are the odds, and the horses don’t know it too much. Only the people.”
It was an important learning experience for the young rider. Robbie said his son had gotten to the point where he wasn’t going to learn anything new in the morning workouts, so it was time to make the leap to become an apprentice.
“He said he was ready, and I guess he was,” Robbie said. “It’s a tough place to break in to the major leagues. It’s really hard. We kind of just want to look forward to next year, just nurse him along this year. He’s a long ways off from full-fledged racing.”
“The plan is to stay here till the meet closes,” Dylan said. “I’m going to tell Ward maybe I’ll do one or two a week. Not too many. Then it’ll start picking up. We might go to Suffolk before it closes in October, then I’m going to really get going this winter at Aqueduct. This is just the prep, kind of.”
Dylan had been scheduled to ride Sandyinthesun in a turf race for his father, but the race was taken off the turf and Robbie didn’t expect him to run well over the main track, so he scratched him to run him later in the meet.
Ward, though, made the gesture of letting Robbie give Dylan a leg-up into the saddle for his first career mount in the fourth race. As the horses began to exit the paddock for the post parade, Robbie walked behind Black Rhino and his son, worrying a bit and recounting the simple advice he gave Dylan.
“To be safe, you know? Try to just do the best he can,” Robbie said, his eyes still on the back of his son’s silver and black silks as they shifted a little uncomfortably in the saddle. “I don’t know if the saddle’s right, right now. I hope it is. Gotta drop them stirrups down a little bit.”
Moments later, eight horses broke from the gate and one more Davis broke into the business of riding.