Erica Strunk is a young jockey currently riding at Penn National and I recently got her on the phone for this chat:
FOTH: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
ES: I was born in Brookville, PA.
FOTH: Did you grow up there too?
ES: For the majority of the time, but my family moved around a lot. I also lived in Missouri and Arizona.
FOTH: What sort of girl were you growing up?
ES: I loved to read and I loved the outdoors.
FOTH: Did you know at a young age you wanted to become a jockey or was that something that came later on?
ES: Well I didn't know I wanted to be a jockey necessarily, but I knew I loved horses and I did love to go really fast on horses. I actually was involved with show horses and saddlebreds, etc.
FOTH: What led to you getting involved with the show horses?
ES: Actually I had some friends when I was in high school that bred morgans and they had a therapeutic riding school and I was always trying to find some way to get involved with the horses cause my parents couldn't afford to have them and they offered me a job so I worked with them and I was able to buy my 1st horse and it just kinda snowballed from there. I got my apprenticeship to train and I have been involved with the horses for quite awhile now.
FOTH: What do you parents think about you being a jockey?
ES: They think it is exciting, but they worry about me. (laughs)
FOTH: Have they ever gone to Penn National to see you ride?
ES: Yes they have.
FOTH: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
ES: I have 2 brothers.
FOTH: What do they think of you being a jockey?
ES: Oh they like it a lot and think it is exciting too.
FOTH: What event or events actually led to you becoming a jockey?
ES: It is kinda strange as my husband always wanted to breed a racehorse so we bred a horse and raised him and I broke him and when it came time to send him to the races, I was really attached to him, so instead we had a friend that would enter him as the trainer and I started bringing him to the receiving barn and going work and go's. I got my gallop license so I could gallop him and then I started galloping for some other trainers and after the horse started racing I decided I really wanted to try racing myself. I was really getting caught up in the racetrack, I found it really interesting and exciting and as time went on I became more attracted to the idea of giving it a try. I then started exercising and galloping horses regularly and got my license to ride and it has only been about 2 or 2 1/2 years since I have been to the track.
FOTH: Did you have people teaching you and stuff or did you learn a lot of it on your own?
ES: I learned a lot of it on my own. I have had a lot of different people helping me and everybody is helpful is you ask questions, but sometimes it is difficult to know what questions to ask, so I have made a lot of mistakes, but I try to learn and listen. I found out I really wanted it bad, so, in a way I am kinda self taught and it is kinda of unusual. I didn't realize what a challenge it would be, but it has been fun.
FOTH: Tell me a bit about your 1st race. Was that at Penn National?
ES: Yes it was. I was a little nervous, but not terribly. Those things usually hit me afterwards. I was riding a horse called "Big Queen" and she is a real sweetheart and a really big horse, but really gentle, kind and classy. He was perfect in the gate and I just remember looking out the gate towards the track in front of me and it was just an "ah" that feeling of ah that hits you or at least it did me. The thing the shocked me the most in the race was the dirt. I could not believe how much dirt their was (laughs). I understand the babies that have not had a lot of dirt in their face the 1st time they run. It amazing to me how much dirt their is. That is what I remember about most about the race, all the dirt. I don't remember exactly where I finished in the race, but it was toward the back. (giggles)
FOTH: Tell me about your 1st win. Was that at Penn National?
ES: That was at Penn National and my 1st win was on a long shot and my instructions were to take her to the back and not let her run until the very end and I took her to the back and she was dragging me the whole way and then at the end she just came flying by everybody and I was just shocked because I had been riding for awhile at that point and you kinda start to feel that your never gonna win and so it was a really amazing feeling.
FOTH: Did the jockeys get you after the race and did you know it was coming?
ES: Oh I knew it was coming and I got it. (laughs) They got me good.
FOTH: How well do you get along with all the other jockeys up at Penn National?
ES: I think I get along pretty well with them and as far as us girls (her and Katie Lee) we get along great and there is a new girl, who is a 10 pound bug and she just won her 1st race last night and she is really nice too and I think we are gonna have a lot of fun and as girls we try and work together against the guys. We are out there competing against other, but we do try and help each out a lot. The guys in general are pretty decent to us in general.
FOTH: What tracks have rode at so far?
ES: Just Penn National and Philadelphia Park.
FOTH: Do you notice any difference in the 2 tracks even though I am sure your riding horses that have shipped in from Penn National?
ES: It does seem to have a different atmosphere to it cause Penn National is more country and Philadelphia is a little bit city. I do notice the track surface is different. At Penn National the rail is really good and I can use to sneak it go past people. At Philadelphia, obviously that is not the case. (we both laugh) I do get a little concerned when I go to Phila and I really have to come up with a plan in my head and change my natural habits.
FOTH: How long would you like to ride for?
ES: As long I can and as long as I enjoy it, which hopefully will be a long time. (laughs)
FOTH: Do you have any special things you like to do when your away from the racetrack?
ES: I do like movies and I love to read and I have a 2 1/2 year old son, so he keeps me really busy.
FOTH: Take us through what you do in a typical day.
ES: I get up and try to be at the track by 6:00 am and I'll get on as many horses as I can before the track closes at 11: 00 am. I generally leave when the track closes. Lately I have been really busy getting 5 to 7 mounts at night, so that has been keeping me busy.
FOTH: Do you think another woman will ever win another Triple Crown Race?
ES: I don't see why not. I actually think woman are going to become prevalent in the sport. I think having the show background that I have, I see more woman riding horses than men. We tend to love horses more and I think as society in general becomes more open to women taking these types of jobs and becoming more involved professionally in these areas. I think that is really going to care over in racing. You will see more girls riding so I don't see why you would not see a female Triple Crown winner.
FOTH: Do you do anything special to stay in shape or you don't have problems with your weight?
ES: I do have to work on my weight a little as I tend to put on muscle mass really easily so I actually avoid much exercising besides riding. I try and gallop a lot of horses in the morning cause it keeps me fit and helps me burn calories, but other than that I do stretching and try and stay flexible, but I try and avoid putting on any muscle weight.
FOTH: How do you prepare for a race? Do you look over the racing form or do you pretty much listen to whatever the trainer is gonna tell ya?
ES: I will look over the racing form and some trainers are open to what you have to say and I think sometimes you can work together on a plan and that helps if you have done your homework. Sometimes if I am riding for a trainer I am not familiar with I will look over the form and maybe come up with an idea with what might be a good idea to ride the horse and then when I go out and depending on what the trainer says I always do and do what he wants me to do. I like to see what horses stop and which ones take the lead so that I cannot get caught behind horses that tend to stop. I like to be familiar with who is riding in the race, it helps if you know each jocks tendencies, like it they like to ride the rail or go wide, those types of things.
FOTH: What do you think the sport needs to do to make it more viable for people to come out and see it?
ES: Well I think there is a couple things. First of all at Penn National right now they are not allowing anybody under the age of 18 and that may work out for the handle as far as people betting, it cuts down on the future of racing because when they encourage families to come then you are going to have kids growing up without coming to the track until at least they are older and by cutting that out you are just gonna end up with that you know that dying off in the future generations. People also love stories. In the past I think part of the reasons why racing might have been have had some of its popular times was because of the stories they portrayed in the media on the radio and it got the people involved in the story of the horse and the story of the people and the story of people involved. Things like the movie Seabiscuit and the movie Ruffian is coming out soon, I think movies like that are going to help the industry some because that gets people emotionally involved in the sport.
FOTH: What goes through your mind when they are loading the horses in the gate. Do you pretty much try to stay calm and stick to your game plan?
ES: Yeah. I got my game plan in my mind and yeah just staying calm being ready for anything, but remaining calm. I love that. That is my favorite part of the race.
FOTH: If you could ride at one track for one day, minus the big 3 races, which track would it be?
ES: I have heard a lot about Saratoga, so I'd love to go and ride there.
FOTH: I am all out of questions, anything you want to say to wrap this up?
ES: Just thank you for the interview and I appreciate what your doing, that's nice.
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