Diary of a Kentucky Derby Jockey
How champion Ramon Dominguez trains and lives before The Run for the Roses.
There is the kind of athlete the public 'gets' — the Jeters, Bradys and Bryants — whose strength and talent are respected without question. And then there are jockeys. Not showered in praise, but tremendous competitors nonetheless: Their biceps reign in 1,000 lb. thoroughbreds, their quads crouch unflinchingly above a saddle, and they have the discipline to harness all that power in a 112 lb. frame. They're strong and tough and they deserve a lot more recognition than they get. Which is why we asked Ramon Dominguez, the Venezuelan-born jockey recently named Outstanding Jockey at the Eclipse Awards, to give us insight into his world.
Dominguez lives with his wife and sons on Long Island, NY, all but a stone's throw from Belmont Park, where he eats, sleeps and breathes the track. He races tirelessly throughout the year, but admits there's something special about saddling up at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. "Every rider who has had the opportunity to ride in the Kentucky Derby will agree that nothing prepares you for the excitement that grows as you approach the end of the tunnel," Dominguez says, "You hear “My Old Kentucky Home” and you can’t help but get a knot in your throat and be inspired at the same time. It doesn't matter if it's your 100th Derby, it’s the same awesome feeling every single time." Before mounting his horse Hansen in an attempt to take home a first-ever Derby win, Dominguez took the time to document two days in his life.
"Before rolling out of bed I call Dunkin' Donuts to place my order for nine dozen donuts. The track is practically in my backyard and Dunkin' Donuts is across the street from the track so the commute is great. After delivering three dozen to each of the barns I had won races for over the past few days, it’s time to meet up with my agent, Steve. He tells me we have one horse first after the break (the break is the time every morning when no horses are allowed on the track while it's being harrowed: trainers typically like to work their horses over fresh track).
"My instructions from the trainer are an easy half a mile and then a leg up. The horse does just that and is ready for his first start. Back at the barn, I untack the horse in his stall and give some feedback to the trainer."
"Steve drops me off at my car and I head home to have a little breakfast (a cup of jasmine green tea and dry granola cereal to munch on). After a quick change of clothes I am off to the jocks' room."
"I check the scratches for the day and mark them in my program. Then I check my weight, hoping I’m not too heavy, and sure enough I have to lose two lbs (not too bad). It’s a nice day so I put on my plastic suit and head to the turf course for a two mile run instead of hitting the box (sauna). (The weight that a horse carries is determined prior to each race. If the jockey is too light they add extra weight to the saddle; if the jockey is too heavy, it's reported to the public so they can calculate the weight into their betting strategy). During my 20 minute run I relax listening to a little Dave Matthews and some Venezuelan folk music. On the way back, I stop by the jocks' room kitchen to get my usual ½ cup decaf coffee with cream and sugar. I peel out of my plastic suit, which sweat is literally running out of, and check my weight again — nice, two lbs. lighter. Shower and get dressed to ride."
"I have seven races to ride today. Saddle, girth, and saddle pad in hand — fully dressed to ride — I hop on the scale. In between races I eat some fruit and drink lots of sparkling water. Usually, I add a packet or two of Emergen-C."
"After the races it’s time for dinner: fish, sauteed spinach and fresh tomatoes with avocados, plus some macadamia nuts and sparkling water. Then I play Legos with my kids before everyone heads to bed around 8:30pm."
"Every rider who has had the opportunity to ride in the Kentucky Derby will agree that nothing prepares you for the excitement that grows as you approach the end of the tunnel." –
Dark (non-race) Day
"After making my Dunkin' Donuts run I meet up with a trainer to work out my first horse. The groom leads me to the track and off we go. Back at the barn, the trainer seems pleased. Then I head home for breakfast with the family and to see the kids off to school. Two scrambled eggs with a slice of wheat toast, a cup of green jasmine tea and a daily multivitamin."
"With both boys (ages 5 and 7), my wife and the dog, we put the boys on the bus and take a little morning walk."
"One more horse to work and I’m home again by 9:30am. The remainder of the morning I run errands and help organize the kids' toys. Most of the time our living room can be considered a hazard zone."
"The dog and I head to the bus stop to get our kindergartener."
"Lunch is a whole wheat sandwich with avocado, tomato, cilantro and a little mayo. Mid-afternoon I have a couple of slices of pineapple."
"Again, the dog and I head to the bus stop to get our first grader."
"It’s time for a two-mile run. Even though the weather is nice, I put on my plastic sweat suit, a heavy winter jacket and beanie cap. Running is how many jockeys stay fit and maintain an ideal weight (112 to 115 lbs.) because lifting weights and other forms of exercise can add unnecessary weight. My wife, the kids and the dog all come with me to the track. While I run they all play on the infield of the training track."
"Dinner is grilled chicken, guacamole, couscous and vegetables. After dinner it’s Lego time!"