It's been far from an unusual sight to see three jockeys from the same family competing against each other at Saratoga Race Course this past summer. Riding alongside, and occasionally beating, her brother Dylan Davis and brother-in-law Trevor McCarthy, Jacqueline Davis has been paving her own path as one of the leading female jockeys in the country. The 35-year-old, among the top riders at Penn National Race Course for years and currently sitting in fifth in the standings at Finger Lakes, notched a bucket list victory Aug. 13 when she guided the 3-year-old filly Vallelujah to the winner's circle at Saratoga.
Davis, the oldest daughter of Robbie Davis, a retired jockey who accumulated 3,382 wins in his storied career, spoke with BloodHorse about growing up in the Davis clan, the twists and turns on her journey toward becoming a jockey, and the challenges she faces being a woman in a sport dominated by males.
BloodHorse: What did it mean for you to get your first win at Saratoga Race Course last weekend and especially with a horse trained by your dad?
Jacqueline Davis: I have to say that was one of the highlights of my career. My dad is basically the reason I became a jockey. That's what I saw my whole life – him riding and loving it. The win also means a lot too, because from the moment my dad got this filly (Vallelujah) I've been helping out with her every way that I can. I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who's ever ridden her (in races). I got her gate card. I'm so beside myself – we're still going crazy at home celebrating her win. It's awesome.
BH: What was it like to grow up in a family so immersed in the racing business?
JD: To be honest when I was younger I didn't think much about it because that was all I knew. It really didn't hit me until I got older and decided that this was the avenue I wanted to go on – to be a jockey. Once I started race riding, I realized how difficult it was to be a rider and it put my dad's whole career and the way I saw him in a whole different light. I always had respect for him but to be a rider on the other side it's just like 'Wow for him to accomplish what he did and overcome so much is incredible.' I always say if I just get a little bit of his talent, I'd really be knocking them down.
BH: Can you tell me how you first got started riding? Did you always want to be a jockey growing up?
JD: Growing up, we always rode. I was that little girl with a pony in the backyard. When we were in Saratoga we had a farm, so we did a lot of backyard riding. Some people would board ponies and racehorses there so they'd let us ride them. And we took some lessons but it was tricky with the traveling involved in my dad's career – we'd spend the winters in Florida and the summers and fall in Long Island or Saratoga. It wasn't until I went to Chris McCarron's school (North American Racing Academy) that I really jumped into riding. I had the groundwork and basics but to jump into galloping was a whole ‘nother story. I was part of the very first class they ever had.
BH: Was it your idea to go to the National Racing Academy or your dad's?
JD: Mine. My dad was dead set against me being a jockey. When I brought him that idea, he said 'There's no way in hell my daughter is going to be a jockey.' I was 18 and in college at the time, going to Hudson Valley Community College trying for my Fine Arts degree. But it just wasn't for me. It wasn't keeping my attention and I wanted to do something different.
My dad just said, 'You're my little girl, the track isn't a place for you.' But I talked him into the Racing Academy because I could go to school and earn my degree at the same time. It was an Equine Science degree. My experience with the jockey school was great. We started out grooming and then they gave us controlled riding lessons. Into the second year they let us gallop at The Thoroughbred Center (in Lexington). It's funny because a lot of the trainers were trying to boycott us being on the track since we were newer riders but near the end of that six months, I had trainers yelling at me over the fence wanting me to breeze horses for them.
Chris (McCarron) was tough on us. If a horse wasn't up to par or the stall wasn't clean, he wouldn't let us ride. He really wanted us to learn from the ground up, which I think is great.
BH: What was your first job on the track?
JD: After I finished the racing academy, I got an internship with trainer Allen Jerkens. I ended up working for The Chief for a year and a half before I started riding races. I still remember that first day. The assistant put me on one of the toughest horses in the barn that only one other guy could ride to gallop. Of course, the horse ran off and I got fired on the first day. I walked back to the barn and was thinking 'Oh my god, how did I get fired on the first day?' I was ready to cry. The assistant just told me: 'Jackie wait 10 minutes – let him cool down and then go talk to him.' And then I walked into the office and said 'Chief I'm really sorry. I want to learn. Please give me another chance.' He just looked at me and said 'Well you can't gallop. I'll keep you but you're only going to ride three a day and you're going to work in the barn and I'm only going to give you $200 a week.' And I just said 'OK, I'll do that. I'll do better.'
The Chief was awesome to work for. Near the end of my time, I had gotten so much better – I was making a lot more money and galloping 10 horses a day and breezing for him. When it was time to go back to Florida from New York he told me to come with him because he needed me down there. My heart melted when he said that. But I said 'Boss, I really want to start my bug and I think Aqueduct is where I need to be.' And he just said 'OK.' I really miss him so much.
BH: When did you officially start riding races?
JD: I ended up not riding until summer 2008 and I actually rode my first race at Saratoga. It was very interesting because I was a 10-pound bug in my first race and they let me ride on the turf. Most tracks won't let you do that. So my first race I rode was 5 1/2 furlongs on the inner turf at Saratoga. I didn't finish anywhere, but it was a great experience.
BH: What are some of the best lessons you've learned about the game from your father?
JD: There are so many things, but one thing is 'What's the worst they can tell you? No. If they say no that's OK, just keep asking because someone is going to say yes one day.' Don't get hung up on the negativity and just keep moving forward. And to always improve yourself, don't worry about what the guy's doing next to you. Worry about what you're doing for yourself.
BH: You've been a jockey now for 14 years, what's some advice you would give to up-and-coming female riders?
JD: A lot of the young girls that want to ride ask me for advice. There was a girl ponying me the other day and she asked me 'What's some good advice you can give me?' She was literally ready to hand me off at the gate. And I told her a version of what my dad told me. I said, 'Listen if you worry about the doors that are shut in your face, you're not going to see the open doors waiting for you.' There are a lot of people that are going to knock you, and if you worry about the negativity, you're not going to get any further. Especially being a woman, they're hard on you.
BH: You're having a terrific year riding so far, what are some goals you have for the rest of the season? Or even future riding goals down the road?
JD: We all have our really big goals like everyone wants me to be in the (Kentucky) Derby and the Breeders' Cup and God willing I would love to be in that position, but I also like to set achievable goals for the moment that I try to squash every year. Last year was my first year riding at Finger Lakes and I had a great year. I ended up in the top 10. And then I went to Aqueduct for the winter. My agent was in Puerto Rico for the winter, so I just did a lot of the groundwork myself. I ended up being the 10th leading rider last winter for the meet. That was major for me. This year I set a goal to finish top five in the standings at Finger Lakes as well as win 100 races because I haven't won 100 races in a single year yet.
I'm also coming up on 800 career wins and I'm hoping to break 1,000 in the next year or two and then start working on 1,500 and just keep going from there.
BH: Do you have any comment on the challenge it has been being a woman rider in a predominantly male sport?
JD: Women have come a long way in this sport, but there's still a stigma that a lot of people hang onto, unfortunately, about women. Women aren't as strong as a man. I still have trainers tell me all the time, 'I don't ride girls.' And I just laugh. I had one trainer say that to me last year and now this year he rides me a lot. I'm not going to push it – if you ride me, you ride me; if not, that's OK.
As a woman, at every racetrack I go to I have to re-prove myself as a rider – to prove that I'm strong and good enough to compete. It's not a problem but once I see the guys start race riding me and targeting me at a new track that's when I feel happy because I know I have their respect. There's a lot of girl riders that will say, 'Oh, they like to go after me a lot in the races.' But I love that because then it makes me feel like the guys see me as their equal. I don't want them to take it easy on me. And this year, everything has been going and flowing for me and I'm just riding the wave trying to keep learning and progressing as a rider to see how far I can go.
Everything that I'm working hard for and the boundaries I'm trying to break down is only going to help the generations of female riders coming after me.
BH: Since your brother Dylan (Davis) is also a jockey on the NYRA circuit, what's it like competing against him?
JD: Oh, it's so much fun. Dylan and my brother-in-law Trevor (McCarthy), and my sister Katie (McCarthy) when she was riding. We've all ridden together a lot actually. It doesn't matter if we're fighting for third, fourth we just want to beat each other. It's like bragging rights in the house. It's great, I love it. And Dylan I'm so proud of him and how he's riding and moving on up in the industry.
BH: What is your opinion on some of the new HISA rules for jockeys regarding the crop regulations and strike rule? Have you had any issues?
JD: I was riding at Penn National when they had the 6-strike rule so I'm used to it. If everyone is doing the same thing, I don't see a problem with it. I know they want it for the safety of the horses. I usually count out loud to make sure I'm not going over. I understand that the public has a misconception of our industry. It's sad to me because I'll cry when horses break down with me in a race. I do everything in my power to keep myself and the horses I ride safe. I have a reputation with where I'm at where I ride through the wire because I understand the difference between a third and fourth and how much of a difference that check is to people if that means feeding the horses in your barn for the next month. But I'm also the kind of rider where if the horse doesn't want to do it and can't physically do it, I'm not going to force them to do it. I respect the animal. You have to have respect for them and they will respect you. I feel terrible that the betting public doesn't understand that many of us love the animal.
I do a lot of work in re-homing horses after their careers are done. My boyfriend trained for a little bit at Penn National. The first three horses we got I re-homed right away when they retired. I would tell him if I'm not comfortable breezing them, I don't want another rider on them, and now all three of them are retired and living their best lives.