NOTE: Omaha Beach was scratched from the Kentucky Derby on May 1 due to an entrapped epiglottis.
Taylor Cambra sits and looks you right in the eye. “I was a really bad kid in school from the first grade. I was naughty enough that my teachers had to call my parents often. They had to come up with a solution, so my father always took me to the track in the morning before school. It ended up going from a punishment to more of a privilege. I loved going to the track.”
As you sit and talk with Cambra, he isn’t embarrassed about being a naughty kid in school. He is upfront about it. This week, he is sitting in the catbird seat of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, exercising the favorite Omaha Beach every morning at Churchill Downs. In the horse racing world, this is like being in the eye of a hurricane. Yet it doesn’t phase him. This is a young man who has viewed the world while flying off the back of a bucking bronc. It taught him how to be strong and hold on. Even though he may have had issues at school, he is smart enough to surround himself with mentors. He has learned how to move swiftly when a door of opportunity opens for him.
Wearing a polished Junior Rodeo Buck Bronco belt buckle, he calmly sits down on a bale of hay and talks about his life. There is no nervous energy about him. His eyes do not dart back and forth, and one is immediately drawn into his calm demeanor. He didn’t want to sit and talk until he was satisfied that Omaha Beach’s needs were met. Once the horse started napping, he allowed himself some time to sit and visit.
“Track and horses has always been my life. My dad was an outrider. My first memory of a horse? Ever since I can remember, I was always with horses.” Probably his fondest memory is when he and his brother Timy used to ride California horse trainer (and mentor) Michael Larson’s horse “Spurs” bareback. “We had so much fun.”
He galloped horses for Larson. “He’s a guy who was really good friends with my dad when I was growing up. I’d help my dad early in the morning and get the ponies ready. Then I’d go galloping horses for Mike. We would also break a lot of colts. That’s where my foundation of horsemanship came from. My father and Mike Larson. They really shaped me as a man and as a horseman.” He also had a few horses teach him lessons. “There is a lot of humbling experiences working for Mike. I’d get a little too cocky and he would put me on one and I’d get bucked off. He always kept me humble.”
Cambra is also the kind of person who enjoys a challenge. He started riding bulls when he was 16. He discovered that he wasn’t fond of riding bulls and he wasn’t happy. He started riding broncs when he was 17. By the time he was 19, he had his PRCA card and a new life on the professional rodeo circuit.
Cambra allows himself a small smile as he draws you into the world of being a professional bronc rider. Rodeo people are “tough people.” He rode at least 400 head of twisting writhing bucking horses who were determined to toss him off their back. “I flew in the air a lot.” It seems that he really admired the broncs because of the way that he grins talking about them. “I’ve been on a lot of really nice horses.” It’s easy to see that he loved the wild and crazy broncs. “Scared? It’s natural to have a little bit of fear. Even the guys who have been doing it 20 years. If you ain’t got a little bit of fear, you don’t have a pulse.”
Cambra tried bronc riding because he had spent his entire life at the track. He graduated from high school and won a college scholarship. But the high-flying world of bronc riding beckoned him, and he wanted to venture into new waters. He tried it for about a year and a half. He looks at the ground and for just a few seconds is lost in his thoughts. “I was broke, broken, and a little discouraged.”
He came back to the track and started working for Northern California trainer Ari Herbertson. He started galloping and earned his assistant trainer license. In a life-changing trip, Herbertson sent Cambra to Santa Anita Park with a couple of horses. “Once I saw the place, I saw what horse racing was about. It was beautiful.” When Herbertson moved back to Golden Gate Fields, Cambra remained in Southern California. “I fell right into the hands of Richard Mandella. That’s how it all fell into one place. I have been with Richard almost a year.”
He started off right away as an exercise rider. Mandella speaks highly of his often-photographed exercise rider. Cambra has developed quite a fan club at the track and is frequently sought after by the media. Tall, quiet, and lanky, it’s not a hard reach to imagine that he could easily have a career as a male model.
Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella is relaxed and happy watching his young rider handle interview after interview. Mandella loves to tease him. “He is under the threat that he is two cheeseburgers away from a job. He’s a great kid. I got big plans for him. He is going to make a great horse trainer or whatever he ends up wanting to do. He is a pretty big boy for an exercise boy, but he is skin and bones. When that changes, he is going to have to train. I have a feeling that he is going to do very well. His bronc busting background is pretty impressive.” Mandella was fascinated when Cambra walked up to him and asked for a job. “I looked at him and thought: You know what? As big as you are, you must be pretty damn good.”
Last year, Cambra came to Churchill Downs for the first time with trainer Ari Herbertson. “It’s enormous. It’s beautiful. It’s everything I thought it would be. It’s surreal to see the twin spires after seeing them on TV growing up and to be here with all the people you look up to. You have to maintain yourself no matter how excited you are.”
As he rides Omaha Beach to the track in the morning, he has his game face on. Sitting calmly on the back of the big 3-year-old Derby favorite, he doesn’t portray any nervousness or expend any extra energy. He first saw Omaha Beach when he started working for Mandella. “He was already in the first stall. He stands out. He is such a good-looking colt. I finally got the opportunity to ride him about four months ago. We got along. I love the horse.”
It certainly shows when they are together. “He responds to your hands. He is so nice. He just does everything so effortlessly. He just floats over the ground.” Incredulously, he adds, “He’s not even hitting the ground!” Cambra allows himself some pride about his buddy. “He is the people’s horse. That’s something that horse racing always needs. He’s the horse for people that aren’t into horse racing. They need to have a horse that they want to come to the track and see. Hopefully that ends up with him winning the Derby. He’s a people’s horse like Zenyatta, American Pharoah and California Chrome.”
Vicky Baze is a longtime friend of Diana and Billy Cambra (Taylor’s mom and dad) and has watched Cambra grow up. She says he is like a little nephew to her. She has “known Taylor to be one of the kindest, hardest working and talented riders that I have ever met. He’d get on ten head of horses at Pleasanton before heading to school. His quiet nature and gentle disposition cause the horses to trust and relax for him. Even at a young age, horses have trusted him.” Cambra wrote a school report about Baze when he was in fourth grade because he wanted to grow up and become a jockey like her. “She was one of the jockeys that I really looked up to.” He had to adjust his dreams when he reached 6 feet 2 inches. He flashes a mirthful grin. “It all comes together though,” and it’s obvious that he is happy with his current journey in life.
Mandella was someone that that Cambra looked up to as a horseman and a horse trainer when he was growing up. He is learning a lot and is focusing on Omaha Beach as best that he can. He looks over at Mandella. “The boss keeps me in line. My future goals? I guess you have to have a plan, but life always throws curve balls at you. I definitely have a long-term goal of training horses. Probably the next step will to be an assistant trainer and then try to move out on my own.”
Last year, he snuck into the walkover for the Derby. “The intensity and the crowd. The horses. All the hard work that goes into it. It’s special to everybody. I got goosebumps.” This year he is dressing up in his suit jacket (rain or not!) and red tie. All his dreams in life has led him to this moment. He will be leading the Kentucky Derby favorite from the backside to the paddock and will watch the Derby with pride.
What would he tell a naughty kid in school right now? “If you get a chance to go to the racetrack, do it! If I could go back to my younger days, I would pay a little more attention in school. School is important. I did get a college scholarship to go to Colorado State, but I didn’t take it because I thought I was going to be a bronc rider. But everything falls into place. It happens for a reason. You got to keep walking by faith. It’s gotten me this far.”
Maybe this is a key to Cambra’s success in riding Thoroughbreds. He is tuned to the nuances of a horse’s mind and their trigger-happy reactions to the sensations around them. He has flown through the air and has learned how to hang on. He has learned to live with the zigging and zagging of life. He learned how to dust himself off and get back up. He found mentors to teach him and he remains humble. In fact, one of his mentors Mike Larson, and Cambra’s brother Timy, are coming to the Derby.
This quiet young man has captured lightning in a bottle, and it doesn’t seem to faze him. His childhood teachers and his parents did him a tremendous favor when he started going to the track every morning. As he walks around the barn wearing his “Ride with Faith” baseball hat, he is confident and composed. Every pony, every Thoroughbred and every bucking bronco has brought him to the greatest two minutes in sports. Hundreds of thousands of dreams and thousands of early mornings spent on the journey of a lifetime. When Omaha Beach rests his head on Cambra’s shoulder and closes his eyes, it’s a peaceful moment between a horse and rider who understand and trust each other. That naughty little kid has grown up into one hell of a great man. He’s in good hands and the future looks bright!