Teen-age jockey off to a fast start
Published: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 1:23 a.m.
HALLANDALE BEACH - Shannon Uske knew she wanted to race horses by age 4 - and maybe even before that.
Good thing she can ride. At only 16, the jockey doesn't have a driver's license.
''When I was a baby and started to crawl, I'd get on my German shepherd and ride around,'' she says. ''My mom would yell at me, 'Get off the dog!' And I'd go, 'He's my horsie!'''
No wonder Uske's career is off to a galloping start. The precocious high school junior won the first race she entered last week at Calder Race Course in Miami, and she'll try to make it 2-for-2 Thursday at Gulfstream Park.
Her mount will again be a 6-year-old mare named Lilah, who carried Uske to victory in a 5¶-furlong sprint last Thursday. Bettors made Lilah the favorite in that race, even with a rookie rider, but Uske (pronounced YOU-skee) was astounded to find herself in the winner's circle.
''I always dreamed about winning,'' she says. ''But I never thought I'd win the first time out.''
Many riders must wait until they're 18 or older for their first race, but Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens put Uske on a fast track. A native of Freehold, N.J., she landed a job last summer as an exercise rider at Belmont Park for Jerkens, then joined him in Florida for the winter season.
Because Uske doesn't have a driver's license, her mother or grandmother has been dropping her off at the track every morning by 6 to help around the stable. She quickly made an impression on Jerkens, who has a reputation for giving young jockeys a chance.
''She showed an interest in the work and taking care of the horses,'' he says. ''You like to help people who help you.''
Jerkens has given about 20 jockeys their first mount, and four - Uske included - won. Besides being a good judge of talent, Jerkens is progressive when it comes to female jockeys.
''Other trainers are reluctant to ride women, especially on the main circuit,'' says his wife, Elisabeth. ''They feel women are not as strong. But sometimes strength isn't the main thing.''
Tall for a jockey at 5-foot-7, Uske weighs just 100 pounds. Lilah weighs 12 times that.
Uske's hero, Julie Krone, showed that a woman can ride thoroughbreds to victory.
Still, Uske braced herself for early disappointment. Among the books on racing Jerkens gave her was one about Hall of Famer Eddie Arcaro, who went winless in his first year as a jockey.
Two weeks ago, Jerkens told Uske she was ready to make her debut. She says she battled butterflies on race day but felt calm once in the starting gate. Lilah broke well from the outside and settled into third place before making her move.
''We got to the quarter pole, and she just took off,'' Uske says. ''It was so much fun. I was like, 'Lilah, we won!'''
Fellow riders doused Uske with water outside the jockeys' room, a tradition for first-time winners. They might not treat her quite so kindly Thursday.
''They're going to be out to get her,'' Elisabeth Jerkens says. ''The first time, they probably didn't think she was too much of a threat.''
Uske knows she won't win every race. She just hopes to do well enough to keep getting rides.
''I want to be a jockey as long as I can,'' she says. ''The thrill of being on a horse going that fast - it's an amazing feeling.''
The lifestyle of a young jockey requires sacrifice.
Uske lives in a hotel near the track. She's an A student enrolled in cyber school who misses her classmates in Freehold. Her weight gives her an advantage over the other riders for now, but she must watch what she eats.
Still, Uske can't stop grinning. She has loved the sport ever since attending her first race at Monmouth Park 12 years ago. Now, atop a saddle, she figures she has the best seat in the house.
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