They are horse racing’s hottest new couple. Erin Riefenberg, a Midwest transplant from the glittery world of show horses, and Zellda, diminutive daughter of the splendid Zenyatta and super stud Medaglia d’Oro, have excited the fans’ interest as they perform their daily romp around Santa Anita Park’s historic oval. Erin, who has been Zellda’s steady partner since the filly arrived from Mayberry Farm in Ocala, Fla., in late September, is a 27-year-old native Chicagoan, who was bitten by the horse bug early and began riding at age 4. A slender 5 feet 8 inches tall, with an engaging personality and cover girl looks, Erin appears more a candidate for a modeling career than a participant in one of the most dangerous and demanding occupations on the racetrack. Growing up, her initial exposure to racing came through her uncle, who managed some horses at Arlington Park. Erin was immersed in showing her own horses, school, and eventually a full-time job, but she began coming to the track on weekends whenever her schedule would allow, and would ride “a little bit.”
Despite the fact that she had enjoyed considerable success in her part of the country, Erin wanted to see what she might be able to achieve in Southern California. So, four years ago she packed her tack, tucked hope into her pocket, and headed west, intending to pursue her show ring ambitions. But kismet intervened. A mutual friend introduced her to several key people at the racetrack, who helped to propel her into the position she is in today. Erin’s world currently revolves around horse racing, and she is now the assistant trainer and exercise rider for trainer Paul Aguirre, as well as exercise rider for trainers Tom Bell and John Shirreffs.
This interview took place over the course of several days. The backside is a hotbed of compelling stories, and Erin’s is no exception. One of the great joys in racing is following young horses and their human counterparts as they test themselves against the sport’s standard of greatness. Who knows? Perhaps one or both of these "works in progress" will become masterpieces.
Why did you decide to make the move to Southern California?
I was really into show horses. That’s why people think it’s funny that I switched over. I was so accomplished in the show horse world. I had major championship titles. I had really nice horses. Trust me, every day, there are people who still want to hire me back for the show horses, but I’m like, “No, I am doing this now.” I gave up a lot to start from the bottom again out here, because I had it all going for me. But, sometimes, there are things that you have to do in life, and it is better to do them when you’re young and in your 20s. It’s worked out so far.
Are you still involved with show horses in any way?
Not really, but sometimes, I wish I could. Part of this job is so demanding that I feel that I ride enough in the morning, so by afternoon I don’t know if I want to ride any more. But sometimes I go, like (when) I was just back in Kentucky visiting friends. I’ll go out and ride just for fun, when I have some time off, but not too much anymore.
Riding a racehorse must be a whole different deal compared to your show horses.
Oh, so different! I’m very unique, I’d have to say, not even joking, in the whole country. I grew up riding Saddlebreds. They are completely different than jumpers. They’re the high-stepper horses that rack and gait, and I don’t know anyone in the industry that came from this background, which is really cool, actually. I’ve never met anyone else. You meet lots of hunter/jumper girls who know each other that came into racing. But it’s been hard. John (Shirreffs), even when he first started helping me, he knows we’re taught on show horses, to hold our hands up. Here, I’ve had to learn to drop them. John’s a really great guy. He likes to try to teach you and help you. He’s just a really good, all-around horseman. Nowadays, a lot of horsemanship is lost. But there are still a few like him that keep horsemanship alive. It’s been a complete difference, a whole 360 in a short amount of time. It’s still hard to get rid of old habits, but I have a good foundation to help me with this. I think these horses are just so much stronger. You know, they’re fed so much more than a show horse. I admit, it was very difficult at first. They say, as a rider coming into this world (racing), you’re either going to get over the hump and get better, or you’re just not going to go anywhere. I was eventually able to get over that hump and get better.
So you’re like a work in progress?
Yes. Even though I have been riding for so long, it’s still very difficult. There’s still a whole lot of difference between this and Cisco (Cisco Alvarado, assistant and veteran exercise rider for John Shirreffs). For example, he never grew up doing show horses, he only did racehorses, that’s all he knows, so he knows way more than I do, riding for 25, 30 years, you know what I mean? So that’s why I always listen to whatever trainers tell me. I take away as much as I can, because I know I have to learn something new every day. There is always something to learn.
It must be remarkable to come to a barn, and then find yourself riding a filly whom the fans have anticipated for so long. Has anyone else ridden her?
No, no one else has ridden her. It was actually kind of funny, because I was sort of like amazed. I had thought that maybe it would be Cisco, because he rides a lot of really, really nice horses, and he’s John’s main rider, someone he goes to just because he’s very experienced. I was surprised, yeah, when the day came, and my name was on the board to ride her.
Did he specifically want a female rider for Zellda?
I’m thinking maybe. I mean, obviously, if I wasn’t here, I don’t think he’d have an option, he’d have to choose someone else. And the thing is, also, that Cisco can only take so many horses. As it is, there is really no other option, too (laughing).
It must have been a very pleasant surprise!
Yeah, I know, it was! Knowing John now for a long time, he's started to trust me more. When I first came, I needed to learn a lot, but I think that he has seen that I have learned a lot now, after three years of riding. And I think he trusts me, too, because I think he likes girls … because we are a little bit better for the fillies’ development. Like nice hands, you know. We take our time. I think girls have more patience for a horse that needs it, compared to some guys. They don’t always have the best patience in the world (laughter). I try to take my time when new fillies arrive at the barn, because they’re all not that easy, especially her (Zellda), too. I’m trying to take my time, because I feel that some people rush 2-year-olds, and they just get so frazzled, which is too much on them. So, I try to take my time and teach her things.
Is she a quick learner?
Oh yeah, she’s a super quick learner. The first day she was here, she was already down on the track. Whatever you pretty much tell her to do, she’ll do. She’s sassy, but she’ll do what you tell her to do. I think she’s ready to breeze. She tried to throw me off today. She’s so on the bridle, and needs no urging. She pulls down the stretch. She seems to know what to do. She puts her head in a good spot. That’s another thing about racehorses. Some of them are too high-headed. She puts her head down when she’s relaxed, she puts it in a really good spot. You don’t even need to (ask) her to do it. She does it naturally.
If you could think of one word that would describe her, what would it be?
Probably “sassy.” But, I like that, and a lot of trainers would agree and a lot of people would say that you want that in a racehorse. You don’t want them to go out there like a puppy dog –as a baby, especially. That means there’s not a lot going on there, so they’re not very motivated. So, it’s good she’s being a little bit more sassy, a little more jumpy.
A lot has been made of her size. That sassiness should help her?
Oh, yeah. I don’t know why, it’s funny, people say so much about a horse’s size. I don’t think it really matters. I’ve had some big horses who are so good-looking, who can’t run. And there’s little ones who can run so great. You wouldn’t ever think that they could run that well, you know. I think people always value things to size. Like your athletes, they want to see them muscled-up and big. They’re like, “These guys are good!” But she IS good, like when you actually look at her, she’s got good muscle to her. She’s built very well. And she’ll only fill out more, because she’s only 2 and she’s a May foal, so she’s really going to fill out, because horses don’t stop growing until 5 or 6.
Do you have any special dreams for Zellda?
Just keeping her healthy, and getting her to the races. It is so hard just getting them to the races.There are so many that don’t make it or run like one time. I feel that this is the most important part of anything; that she first stays healthy getting there. People don’t realize that, they just assume, “Oh yeah, she’ll get there one day.” I just hope, you know. We always hope. We’ll just take our time with her.
Who are the other horses that you ride on a regular basis?
In the Shirreffs’ barn, I ride Rampion, Ever So Special, Hollywood Girl, and England’s Rose. And I love them. All of those fillies are going to be really nice horses. We have high hopes for them. They’re all different, but I love them all, and they are all special in their own ways. It’s so funny, when you get on them every day, you know all their tendencies and what they do, even if you have so many. I get on—I don’t even know how many—every day. Obviously, I can’t ride 20 a day, but I have probably 25 horses that I switch around on all the time. I know exactly every single little thing that they do.
Would you ever want to be a trainer?
Oh, yeah! I have my assistant trainer’s license because of that fact. Around the track you’ll see people who just want to ride, that’s all they want to do, but I used to assistant train and I used to train some of my own show horses, it’s kind of in my blood. I would like to be able to do that on my own, and have my own barn. I would love to have that one day. My main boss that I ride for, Paul Aguirre, says that he likes me so much he’d never want to lose me, but even he encourages me to sooner or later get my own horses. He thinks I’m that good, to have come so far in so short an amount of time.
Are there any female trainers you particularly admire?
I really respect Carla Gaines. She has done very well here, and I really respect her for what she has done, too. And then I also got a chance to meet Ingrid Mason at Arlington. I think she used to be a jockey out here, she told me. She does pretty good on the Chicago circuit. She is a pretty well-established trainer out there. I respect her, too, because she was a jockey at first, and most of them don’t make a good transition to being a trainer. She has a pretty big barn and she wins a lot.
Last question. Did you ever see Zenyatta run?
No, I never saw her run, because growing up, I was just more interested in the show horse world. That was not my thing. I heard her name, and I heard of her, but I never got to see her run, which was a shame. When was her last year, 2009? (2010.) I was just graduating high school, and you know, I’m all the way in Chicago. Arlington Park is big, but horse racing is not huge in Illinois. It’s just so funny, that you grow up, and you don’t really know them, and now you’re riding their babies. And I never would have thought in my entire life, that I would be riding Zenyatta's baby.
UPDATE: John Shirreffs’ stable has relocated to Del Mar for the Bing Crosby Meet (Nov. 8—Dec. 1). Erin has opted to remain at Santa Anita during the interim, to assist the Paul Aguirre and Tom Bell barns. She hopes to reunite with Zellda when she returns.