In 2008, a pair of apprentice riders – Brandon Meier and Inez Karlsson – provided much of the story line in the Arlington Park jockey race with their battle for leading bug rider going down to the meet’s final days with Karlsson edging out Meier, who left for California a few days before the end of the local season.
Perhaps looking at the success shared by that tandem, apprentice jockey Michael Straight has decided to move his tack from Florida to Chicago for the upcoming season at the suburban Chicago oval that begins Friday, May 1.
The Straight brothers did not come from a racing family nor did they grow up around horses but became fans of the sport because of their proximity to Saratoga Race Course.
“My aunt has a little farm in Saratoga and we used to go up there and mess around, but nothing too serious,” said Michael Straight of his limited exposure to horses as a youth. “Growing up so close to Saratoga, my brother and I always wanted to become jockeys. We were always small and had the right size. It was a dream of ours.
“Matt went first. He was a year ahead of me,” Michael explained. “I was in school up in New York. I went to college at SUNY Plattsburgh and Hudson Valley Community College plus we wanted to separate ourselves a little bit.
“Chris’s school was crucial to getting Matt and I to where we are now and I think it’s going to be crucial to people who want to become jockey or become involved in the industry in some way who may not otherwise be able to get their foot in the door.”
Located at the Located at the Thoroughbred Training Center and the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., NARA is the first professional jockey school in the United States. It teaches students the fundamentals of professional race riding and horse care with courses in nutrition, fitness, finance, communication, rules of racing, and technology.
“The program is two years,” Staright said, “A year and a half at the actual school in Lexington, and a semester internship. We start on the ground first – grooming, hotwalking, (cleaning) stalls – all the barn work that needs to get done. Throughout the whole time at the school, we did all the stalls and barn work. It wasn’t just handed to us – we had to put some effort and we had to go classes about horse reproduction, the racing industry, nutrition, personal finance. The school covers a lot of ground and is very thorough.
“I don’t think I’d be here today if it wasn’t for the school. I have to thank Chris and all the staff up there, they do an excellent job.”
After finishing at NARA, Michael headed south to Gulfstream Park in Florida where he hooked up with trainer Wesley Ward.
“Wesley gave me a great opportunity to work for him,” he said. “He’s very good with 2-year-olds, especially early in the season, so I got to get on lots of ‘babies’ and teach them plus it also taught me. I got to breeze a lot of horses and got fit and ready to go.”
But when it was time to take his first mount, Michael decided to head to Central Florida’s Tampa Bay Downs.
“I got hooked up with (agent) Michelle (Barsotti) through E. T. Baird who rides a lot for Wesley down there,” he noted. “We were going to try to start at Gulfstream but we both figured it would be a little less competition at Tampa. It made sense.”
It didn’t take long for Mike to find the winner’s circle, scoring with his very first mount, Ready Ruler on March 6.
“I couldn’t believe I won my first race,” he said. “It still hasn’t really sunk in. I guess all the work paid off.”
Mike’s success at Tampa has paid off with 16 victories in about five weeks.
“Since that first race, I feel I’ve gotten better every day,” he added. “Every day I am out there, I get better and learn something new. The past couple of weeks, I’ve won three races on a card two different times and that opens people’s eyes especially when you are a seven-pound bug. Chris watches every one of my races and he’ll text me or call me to tell me what I’ve done well and what I can do better.”
“I’ve seen a lot of improvement in him since that first win,” said Chris McCarron of his recent graduate. “Even though he came to the school with no experience on a horse whatsoever, it was evident right away that he had what it would take to be a successful rider. He caught on to things very quickly, he had no fear and he showed the ability to understand and listen to instructions carefully.
“The most important philosophy I teach my riders is that all jockeys slow horses down just by virtue of being on their backs,” added McCarron, “but the best riders are those that lessen the hindrance we are on a horse’s back.”
Mike enjoys a friendly rivalry with his twin brother and they talk frequently.
“Since I started out winning some races, I’ve been giving it to my brother pretty good telling him he’d better keep winning,” Mike said with a chuckle. “I joked that I gave him a seven or eight month head start, so he better not let me catch him”
Mike’s travels have taken him to Chicago and he was out and about on the backstretch Friday morning making acquaintances before heading back to Tampa to ride through Tuesday.
“I wanted to get to a bigger racetrack to get a little more exposure and to put my riding up to the test with better riders, better horses,” Mike said of his reasons to come to Arlington for the summer.