Chel-c Bailey is a winner on the mat, the octagon, and now the track after the apprentice jockey recorded her first career victory aboard Burtnjoe in Friday’s first race at Oaklawn.
Burtnjoe was the 24th career mount for Bailey, a self-described “20-something” who launched her riding career last fall at Canterbury Park in suburban Minneapolis after working as an exercise rider for trainer Jinks Fires of Hot Springs, Ark., at the 2019 Oaklawn meeting. Bailey grew up around horses in the Pacific Northwest and began working for Fires in the fall of 2017.
Bailey said her goal entering the meet was to ride at least one winner and rebrand herself (exercise rider to jockey) by being visible in the morning.
“I always aim high,” the chiseled 5-foot, 108-pound Bailey said during training hours Saturday morning. “But at the same time, kind of more of my goal was to have a super busy morning of breezing as many horses as possible to be seen by trainers to get more experience for me and work on everything in the morning that I’m going to be using in the afternoon.”
Raised near Seattle, Bailey made her early mark in athletics as a wrestler and was a high school state champion in Washington state (she was the only girl on the team) before continuing her career at Yakima Valley (Wash.) Community College and Oklahoma City University. Bailey eventually transitioned to mixed martial arts (MMA) and is 3-0-0 as a professional. In 2016, Chel-c “Battle Born” Bailey appeared on The Ultimate Fighter 23, the Ultimate Fighting Championship-produced reality television series. Her last MMA fight was in early 2018.
“In the octagon, there are only two people, so it’s like there’s only one winner, one loser,” Bailey said. “Out there, it’s like a full-fledged competition and me, other than yesterday, I hadn’t ridden many single-digit odds horses.”
Bailey nearly rode her first winner Feb. 20 when Babadoook finished second, beaten a neck, in an Arkansas-bred maiden-claiming sprint for trainer Chelsey Coady, the wife of Oaklawn track photographer Kurtis Coady. Bailey had her picture taken for the first time after guiding Burtnjoe ($14.20) to a front-running nose victory over Suspect a Storm for trainer James Victor Hale.
“Usually, I’m riding all the longshots,” Bailey said. “Usually, I always see the horses ahead of me, so I’m like battling to just try and get anywhere between third to sixth and not get last place. This time it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m on the lead. I’m actually battling this out.’ ”
Bailey, who receives a 10-pound weight allowance, became the second female and second apprentice to ride a winner since Oaklawn’s meeting began Jan. 24. Kelsi Harr, a 7-pound apprentice, has four victories and 18 overall. Harr rode her first winner – also her first mount – in 2018 at Canterbury.
“When I went into the room yesterday, Kelsi was like: ‘You won at Oaklawn. You didn’t win at Canterbury, you didn’t win at Turfway – you won at Oaklawn,’ ” Bailey said. “Her saying that to me kind of made me realize, ‘Wow!’ This is a huge accomplishment.”
Bailey said she bought a “giant bottle” of champagne at the beginning of the meet to celebrate a potential landmark victory, a la a post-NASCAR event, and was also doused with water and baby powder as part of the traditional hazing following a jockey’s first career winner.
Bailey is unsure where she’ll ride after the Oaklawn meeting ends May 2. The jockey said she’s been contacted by a Louisiana-based trainer to ride at Evangeline Downs and an agent is pushing Indiana Grand. Bailey said her initial thought was to test the Mid-Atlantic region, specifically Laurel and Delaware Park, noting her “clock” won’t start until she wins her fifth race and becomes a 7-pound apprentice rider, or “bug.”
“I need to go to a place where they like bugs and they like women,” Bailey said. “And whenever my time, my bug does start, my goal is I want to go towards an Eclipse Award. Aim high.”
Regarding her MMA career, Bailey said she occasionally drives 50 miles to Little Rock, Ark., to train – mostly on dark days – but added the demands are too high to make a full-time commitment because riding is now her priority.
“Horses are my favorite animals,” Bailey said. “There’s like never a dull moment. There’s always somebody to talk to. Within these fences, it’s like a really good community.”
Bailey’s agent at Oaklawn is retired jockey Don Pettinger, who won 3,388 races in his career.