It’s one of the most unique sounds in the world and one that reverberates throughout the horse racing industry: the early morning thunder of horses working out at the track. Long before most people roll over and hit the snooze button, the track is a beehive of activity. There are horses to be checked, stalls to be cleaned, workout routines, baths, and breakfast. The routines seem the same yet they can vary depending on whether it’s a work day, a rest day, or race day. Part of the early morning team and the backbone of the barn is the exercise riders. They swing up lightly in the saddle in the morning whether it’s raining, snowing, or crystal clear. Often during the morning ride, the sunrise greets them with a brilliant display. Meanwhile underneath the sherbet skies, there is the steady tattoo beat of horses working out.
Maurice Sanchez is an exercise rider in Tom Amoss’s barn. He has been exercising Lone Sailor, who is a contender in the 2018 Kentucky Derby. Sanchez grew up in an equestrian family. His father rode in the Olympics and Sanchez thinks it was the 1960 Games in Rome. They came to the United States from Columbia when Maurice was 3 years old. He and his two brothers grew up assisting their father.
“He was good. He taught us how to ride. We bought horses at the racetrack inexpensive and sold them. He mainly did hunter jumpers. I thought everybody had a horse. When I went to school, I had to work before the bus and we had to work after the bus. The kids at school didn’t have to do that and I thought how come me? But it worked out ok. He would let me have a horse until he sold it and then he would give me another one. I learned how to ride on the jumping horses. Wake up early and feed them. Water and clean the stalls. Get on the bus and go to school.”
Sanchez loved all of the horses. He thought they were cool. “I would come to the track with my dad and look at the horses that he wanted to buy. We were just jumping from track to track buying horses cheap and reselling them like a used car.”
“When we were old enough to leave the house without Dad making us stay, we went to the race track.” He went to St. Louis and was working with his younger brother at Fairmount Park. Their older brother Herson was working as a jockey. Sanchez remembers that his little brother spoke for him. He simply said “I’ll think he’ll do,” and so the boss gave him a chance. Sanchez started riding at the track 30 years ago and has been working for trainer Tom Amoss for the past 20 years.
He has worked with some amazing horses throughout the years including this year’s Derby contender Lone Sailor, 2016 Derby contender Mo Tom; Mylute who ran in the 2013 Kentucky Derby, and Delaunay who won the Churchill Downs Stakes. One horse that he mentions with pride is Indian Chant who holds the track record for six furlongs on dirt at Churchill Downs, set in 2007. “I slowed him down. They pay me to go slow. I don’t go fast. The guys in the afternoon go fast. I am thinking about what I am supposed to do and I then do what he tells me. Every horse is different. Keep them relaxed and go how far they are supposed to go.”
Sanchez loves riding at Churchill Downs. “Every day is beautiful. You drive in at 4 in the morning and it’s quiet. You look at the racetrack and think this is what we work for. My first time at Churchill was about 10 years ago and I was a little nervous with butterflies. I am still a little nervous but in a good way. It’s kind of like a big ball game. It’s like getting ready for the game.”
When Sanchez approaches a horse, you have to look fast. He mounts lightly and is immediately in tune with the horse. His gloved hands make sure that the reins are just right. His stirrups are long and his legs are relaxed. He is quiet and watches the horse’s demeanor as they slowly go through the gap towards the gap. Bobby the Brain responds to him with perked ears and a pleasant attitude. As for this year’s Kentucky Derby contender Lone Sailor, Sanchez says that riding Lone Sailor “is like driving my boss’s car. All you go to do is sit and drive. You don’t have to adjust anything. Just navigate!”
Trainer Tom Amoss smiles when he talks about Sanchez’s journey in life. He seems to have known the Sanchez brothers for a long time. “Maurice’s father was a strict disciplinarian when it came to his boys riding. None of them went on to practice their riding in the dressage circles. But they have the gift. Maurice gets along with any horse in the barn. He is never a rider that uses force on a horses back. He is always a kind hand; and by hand, I mean rider. The only reason I say that is he has the most gentle hands on a horse that you can have. He’s my number one gallop boy. He gets on all the tough ones which as he is getting older, he may not like as much. It’s just really magic to watch him work with a horse.”
There are many hands, hearts, and souls that touch a horse throughout its life. The lucky few earn a moment in horse racing history when they appear on the first Saturday in May and run for the roses. For everyone who gallops at tracks in the morning, the Kentucky Derby can represent the pinnacle of a career or the achievement of a dream. It’s an honor to be associated with a Derby horse. Sanchez is rock-steady as he helps prepare horses for the Amoss barn. He’s a little rough around the edges with people but he is a maestro in calming down an excited horse and moving them into the rhythm of the track. With this foundation, the horse can relax, find its strength, and learn to give its best.