MMA Fighter Bailey Has Race-Riding Career in Mind

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Chel-c Bailey is an aspiring jockey and an MMA fighter.
Chel-c Bailey is an aspiring jockey and an MMA fighter. (Photo courtesy Robert Yates/BloodHorse)

One requirement in her morning job is to not fight the horse. At night, well, it's closer to no holds barred.

That's the career tug of war, rare in this case, Chel-c Bailey faces most days. As an exercise rider and aspiring jockey, Bailey relies on finesse to keep a 1,100-pound Thoroughbred race-ready. Flip the emotion switch and she becomes Chel-c "Battle Born" Bailey, unbeaten MMA fighter. 

A former high school and collegiate wrestler, Bailey is 3-0-0 in her MMA career. Her budding equine resume is highlighted by regularly galloping future multiple stakes winner Gray Attempt for trainer Jinks Fires, who has employed Bailey since the fall of 2017.

"You'll always lose and they're always going to win, so you have to find that happy medium," the chiseled 5-foot, 115-pound Bailey said of exercising horses. "You've got to find the right part because each horse, they're individually different. Other than the fighting aspect, I'm not really an aggressive person. I'm pretty mellow. But if I get in a cage, or if I step on the mat, I can go zero to a hundred real quick."

Bailey was raised near Seattle and she began cleaning stalls and grooming for an acquaintance in her early teens and learned to ride horses by "jumping on bareback" at a local Indian reservation. She was also a standout wrestler, winning a Washington high school state championship in the 119-pound weight class in 2010 before wrestling at Yakima Valley (Wash.) Community College and Oklahoma City University. Bailey began transitioning into MMA about six years ago.

Gray Attempt and Jon Court
Gray Attempt and Jon Court (Coady Photography)

"I was actually a really good wrestler," Bailey said. "That's what landed me scholarships. Wrestling is one of the main bases for fighting. It's the best base you can have. Quite a few guys from my high school wrestling team were dragging me in and telling me, 'You've got to fight. You've got to get into this.' They dragged me into my first couple of amateur bouts. Just kind of signed up and did it. I won my first two fights, just like that, just from my wrestling. I got discovered pretty early."

In 2016, Bailey appeared on The Ultimate Fighter 23, the Ultimate Fighting Championship-produced reality television series. Bailey honed her skills during the Oaklawn Park meet that ended May 4 by training with male wrestlers at nearby Hot Springs (Ark.) Lakeside High School—taking on 130- and 140-pounders—and driving 50 miles to Little Rock for sessions in kickboxing, judo, and ju-jitsu.

Her last fight was in early 2018.

"It's a supplemental way of income," Bailey said. "If you would count betting on horses as a possible way to make a little bit of income, I would say it's the same with fighting."

Bailey's eventual hook to Thoroughbred racing was through her husband of three years, David Kembrey, an exercise rider for 2015 Oaklawn training champion Chris Hartman who had also gotten on a few horses in the morning for Fires.

"It was just kind of like a perfect opportunity," Bailey said. "I really wanted to learn a lot. I know Jinks is the guy. If you're going to learn something, you're going to learn it from him."

An Arkansas native who annually winters at Oaklawn, Fires, 78, said he had no idea Bailey was also an MMA fighter.

Bailey said she began getting on Gray Attempt when he was a baby and watched the speedy 3-year-old son of Graydar develop into one of Oaklawn's top 3-year-olds this year with victories in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 25 and the $125,000 Gazebo Stakes March 23. 

"She's done a good job for me," Fires said.

Bailey has never ridden a race, but she's breezed Gray Attempt and other horses to help work on "my clock" and "changing my stick."

Bailey said she's leaned on jockeys for advice, particularly 2000 Oaklawn riding champion Jon Court, in hopes of becoming a jockey in the next three years.

"I haven't been riding that long, a couple of years now, so it's all a steppingstone learning process," Bailey said. "That's an ultimate goal. I can make the weight. I made the weight in high school when I wrestled. I can make the weight for fights. I can make the weight to be a jockey."

Kembrey said he's been impressed with his wife's progress as an exercise rider, noting her calmness in the saddle and strength for her size. That, Kembrey said, could eventually lead to a collision, or marriage, of careers. 

"She really wants to race ride and she wants to fight, too," Kembrey said. "Her weight class is 115. Most fighters cut down. If she wants to ride and take the bug, she's going to have cut down to 105. Then, you've got to be in the right state to do both. I think she wants to be a jockey. She's good at them both."

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