Penny Gardiner is a retired jockey who rode in the early 70’s and had 2 boys and they both became jockeys!!! After 21 years being retired she came back and rode again!!! Read this amazing story to say the least.
FOTH: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
PG: In the community of Westplains, in Northeastern Colorado on a cattle ranch. Sterling is the nearest town. I had 3 older brothers that I adored.
FOTH: What sort of girl were you growing up?
PG: That’s a tough one...I was probably annoying. My Mom and I were extremely close and I hated to be away from her. She also loved horses and riding. I went to a one room school with a total of 5 students until 7th grade when I went to a “big” school. (maybe 200 total, k-12!) I hated it. I was shy and did not fit in probably because all I thought about was horses. I became a good athlete, but that was so discouraged at that time. I was stubborn, rebellious and fiercely independent, which was also discouraged. At that time girls were allowed to be secretaries, teachers, homemakers. I ALWAYS said “I’m going to be a jockey”. It annoyed the hell out of them, which made my day. I remember being singled out in PE class as having unsightly muscles and basically why one must not exercise too much. So I got stronger. Through high school my shyness went away and I did everything I could think of to be a pain in their ass, without actually doing anything wrong. I have them to thank for so much!!!.... This rambled away from your question, Chris, but this part of my childhood really helped me deal with life and particularly being a jockey...I truly did not care what someone said to or about me. When I look back rejection then was the best thing. All the popular kids didn’t know how to deal with real life when they left home. Thank God for my parents and brothers who were always there for me.
FOTH: Did you have a love for horses when you were a young girl or were you more of a tomboy type of person?
PG: Yes. To both questions. I’ve loved horses since I can remember.
FOTH: What were your thoughts the 1st time you saw a horse and the 1st time you saw a live horse race?
I don’t remember the first time I saw a horse...Mom has pictures of me on horseback with her before I could even sit up. I was 2 or 3 when we went to Centennial Race Track in Denver to watch my brother, Jerry ride. It is still a vivid memory; he was on a black horse and wore hot pink silks. That’s all I had on the brain after that..
FOTH: Tell me what event or events led to you to the racetrack and what was your 1st job at a racetrack?
Jerry became a trainer in the 60s and I spent a summer at the track as a hot walker. I rode the stable pony Rocky and led a horse on either side. When I was about 14, I started galloping on weekends for trainers in the Sterling area, and by then Jerry had quit training, but had one or two horses that he had acquired and ran locally. I think he did it to teach me to ride.
FOTH: At that time, did you know you wanted to be a jockey? Did you have somebody teach you how to ride and stuff while you were first working there and did it feel natural getting up on a horse?
PG: Yes, pretty well explained already. Jerry was a tough teacher. If I was going to be a jockey, I was going to be good.
FOTH: So when you decided to become a jockey, how long did it take you to accomplish that goal?
l left for the track the night I graduated from high school. I am the ONLY one smiling in our class photo. I practically bolted for the door. I galloped horses at Centennial all summer then started riding at the various county fairs I think in Aug.
FOTH: Did you have people trying to talk you out of it and what did your parents think of you wanting to become a jockey?
PG: My parents probably didn’t really want me to be a jockey, but being the best people in the world, certainly didn’t discourage me. I know they worried about the inherent dangers of riding and also the life style of the track. The only ones that tried to discourage me were teachers.
FOTH: Tell me what you remember about your 1st race and where was it at?
My first race was 220 yards at a county fair in I think Yuma, CO. I don’t remember anything remarkable...I was prepared and not nervous. I remember a great feeling of “there I am, I did it. I’m a jockey”.
FOTH: Tell me about your 1st win and did the jockeys get you good after the race and did you know it was coming and what track was it at?
PG: I never got initiated. My first win I guess was just a personal accomplishment! I won 2 my first day, and was probably a little cheeky! Well after my 20 year break, PJ (Cooksey) came after me with a bucket of water, but through cat-like maneuvering, she only partially got me. I would like to add that Perry Ouzts and Steve Neff, two good friends, and PJ all were practically teary eyed when I won, they knew how much it meant to me and I was moved by their emotion.
FOTH: What was going through your head when you realized you won the race?
PG: I DID IT I DID IT
FOTH: You told me in your email to me you started riding in 1970, was that tough for you being a female and all and did you have trainers that would not ride you due to being a female?
PG: I think I was so blissfully oblivious, I really didn’t see the big deal, I mean I wasn’t the first girl to ride so I just didn’t see the uniqueness of it. that’s the way I treated it, which I think was in my favor, I just went out and worked hard everyday, got the mounts and that was it. I truly didn’t see the opposition if some trainer said he wouldn’t ride me because I was a girl, I just said OK and went to the next barn and I just kept checking with them. Amazing when you start winning most of them forgot the girl part! I remember one old guy razzing my agent about having the girl rider and my agent made him a bet that I would be riding his stable before the end of the meet. Which I thought was a dumb bet, but it turned out to be true. He finally put me on a horse, it won and he put me on a few more, pretty soon I had first call. He had a nice stable. Ironically he had one very cheap horse for a good friend of his and he really didn’t want me to ride it, but the owner wanted me.(different huh) Anyway the first time the poor horse actually made the lead in his life, turning for home, broke his shoulder. It was an ugly spill, John Lively was right behind me he and one other horse fell. Anyway the trainer felt so bad about getting me hurt on that horse. I think I felt sorrier for him...
FOTH: Tell me a little bit about what Turf Paradise was like back in those days?
PG: Turf was a neat track, but very tough. There were 186 journeymen and I made the 19th bug boy there in the fall of 70. They ran 3 days a week. So you can imagine the competition for mounts. I remember there were 2or 3 riders there that had won the Derby. But at least you could learn a lot. Phoenix was a sort of get away for a lot of Hollywood celebrities. And though at the time I didn’t think much, it was neat to meet some of the famous like Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr. etc. I loved the climate, the town and of course you like a place where you do well. I feel like I really came into my own there. I was the leading apprentice (1st girl to win a title) and was I think in the top 5 overall. I would like to see it again, but everyone tells me to just remember it the way it WAS!!!
FOTH: Now you rode out at Turf Paradise back in the early 70's. Was it tough for you being a female jockey back then and did Turf Paradise have big crowds come to races back then?
PG: On the plus side being a female rider then got more attention, for example when I won 2 in one day, it was news; if the leading rider (a male) won 2 it was expected. Being watched all the time will make you try harder and do better. That’s one thing that seems odd looking at pictures from then and now. The stands were packed back then.. I guess there wasn’t as much racing and less competition for entertainment dollars.
FOTH: Any funny jockeys stories you would care to share?
PG: I can’t think of anything that would be particularly funny to anyone else. Sometimes I’ll tell something and at the end think well, that wasn’t that funny...In fact I had this conversation recently with John Lively (a rider I had always looked up to, what a class act) Anyway he said one of the reasons he quit riding was he would think of some incident and start to say “remember when...” and realize there wasn’t anyone still riding from then.
FOTH: What led to you retiring in 1973?
PG: I had gotten married and was pregnant with Mark. Weight problem.
FOTH: What injuries, if any did you have in your riding career?
PG: I had a Quarter Horse fall and had some minor internal injuries and probably a mild concussion in 69. Then the spill I told you about earlier in 71: Concussion, 5 ribs and collarbone. That one hurt. Worst injury, for those who talk about how dangerous racing is: I was riding a horse by myself in an indoor arena, at a canter, he fell and walked all over my head getting up. Nearly killed me. My Dad remarked that it’s a good thing I always land on my head or I could be seriously injured. Worse yet Mark was watching, probably scarred the poor child forever..har har. Funny all those incidents happened on Aug. 29. It’s a good thing I don’t believe in superstition.
FOTH: You also told me you got married at one point and raised 2 boys, who also became jockeys. I think that is amazing and how did that come about and are they still riding today and proud of them were you?
And I was so hoping they would be rocket scientists!! I am very proud of both of them. I guess it partly came about because at that time my ex and I were training horses, Mark and Casey worked in the stables and they both loved the horses and the track. Mark is an exercise rider now on the Saratoga Gulfstream circuit, and Casey is still riding in Ohio and KY. (Casey was the exercise rider for Blame before last year’s Breeders Cup).
FOTH: Were you 100% behind them when they deiced they wanted to ride? What are their names and are they still riding today? Do you get nervous at all when they are riding?
PG: I was 100% behind them because I know what it’s like. Names are Mark and Casey Chavez. I only got concerned when something happened, like seeing a horse they were on break down or a bad situation coming up.
FOTH: 21 years later you came back to ride. What year was this and what track did you make your comeback and how hard was it for you the 2nd time around? How long did you ride for the 2nd time around and what led to you putting up your riding boots a 2nd time?
PG: 1994 at Turfway PK. I had gotten divorced and just wanted to ride a bit more just to say I did it, and to show my EX that I could (he HATED me being a jockey) My brother had died and I just wanted to live and have control of my life again. Life is short. I had a great job as an exercise rider so I just rode for a couple of friends and get this: my EX. I won on my 3rd mount for my good friend Joanie Cook. It was great. I rode a little the rest of that summer. I don’t remember exactly how many I won maybe 12 or 15, but working at Churchill and riding mostly at River Downs wasn’t easy. I did get to ride a few at CD, ran 2nd on my only mount at Keeneland. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I would have liked to have ridden more at Churchill, but I didn’t feel that at 45 I’d be breaking in there. It’s a tough riding colony. I mean between me and Pat Day who’s going to get the best mount? I didn’t want to ride leftovers and I didn’t want to ride at smaller tracks. I proved what I wanted to and wanted to make sure I made a living. My ex was sure that I couldn’t make it and would come crawling back and that god damn sure wasn’t going to happen. So failure was never an option with me ever; actually. I didn’t really formally quit, in fact I might ride against Casey someday, just so I could say I rode with both my kids.
FOTH: I also know you now gallop horse at Churchill Downs. What is it like galloping horses there? Do you think you will be involved in horse racing one way or another till you die?
PG: I love Churchill. I’ll never forget the first time I came out under the twin spires. So much history and so far from the Yuma County Fair. As far as what it’s like to gallop here, I just appreciate the place. Better horses and riders. I absolutely can’t picture myself not riding. I am so lucky to get up everyday and go ride; I never take it for granted. On those days that maybe I don’t really feel like it, once I get on a horse it all goes away. I have no idea what I will do when I can’t gallop anymore because quite frankly I’ve had enough of the barn end of it. I don’t want to be an assistant trainer again, something will work out, it always has. I do some art work and it would be fun if when I can’t ride, I could do that. My goal is to go sit on my butt on an island somewhere till I get sick of it, then I’ll see.
FOTH: If some young girl came up to you and said she wanted to become a jockey, what advice would you give to her?
PG: Run. No I would say if she really is determined, to just make sure she learns her craft, you’ve got to work hard, and be prepared to ride any kind of horse. And the other thing I could stress is to manage your life well. I really hate to see the lifestyle some people have. And I’m glad I came along when I did because I don’t like the way racing and society in general seems to be heading. Or maybe I’m getting old.
FOTH: What is a typical day like for you now?
PG: I get to the barn at 5 or 5:30 am and just get my tack set for my horses that day, I work for John Ward who is a very good horseman and I really enjoy riding for him. I usually gallop from 4-6 horses a day. I`ve always enjoyed the psychology of horses and that is very important to him as well, some people are only looking at a horses physical condition. When I finish around 10 am I clean my tack and go home. I am sort of Johns assistant when needed, so on race days I run bandages and sometimes saddle. Pretty seldom, as he has a small stable. I mostly just go home and enjoy life.
FOTH: Being an ex-jockey, can you tell when a rider gives a horse a bad ride?
PG: YES and it aggravates the hell out of me, if it’s something that should not have happened.
FOTH: What is the craziest thing you saw during your years as a jockey?
PG: Gees Chris I hate this question. (sorry-chris) I can’t think of anything and I feel boring. One thing that was funny was the starter stand broke off and fell over; fortunately the starter didn’t push the button when he landed because all of us were so intent on watching him, I doubt anybody would have stayed on. Mark and I both ran over the same goose that wandered out to the track during a race. See that’s not that funny. Once in a while things pop in to my head but there again probably not funny to anyone else. sorry.
FOTH: Pimlicio, for the past 2 years as done a retired female rider’s race. If asked, would you consider doing something like that?
PG: I think they asked me last year. I doubt it, I don’t see those races as very competitive and I don’t like all the attention as an exhibit or something... And since I seldom get a day off, that’s not how I want to spend it. I think it’s a cool idea though. I just kind of think if I ride again I would just want it to be a regular race.
FOTH: If you could change 3 things about the sport, what would they be and why?
PG: I would increase security. I hate cheaters. Medication: needs to be common sense involved. Right now they worry about someone giving a little too much bute or banamine, when they need to worry about the designer drugs they don’t know of or test for. Lastly if elected Queen, I would absolutely ban 2 yr old training sales or at least ban breezing them so fast. Everyone wants a 3 yr old that can run a mile and a quarter so why do they need to go 1/8 in 10 seconds? It just tears up young horses and makes them speed crazy. I think the sport needs to concentrate more on the older horses and make it more lucrative to have a 7 yr old stakes horses instead of a 2 yr old. It makes me sick to see so many young horses just ground up. And more owner trainer responsibility for horses after they can’t race anymore.
FOTH: What tracks did you ride at during your career and what was your favorite and least favorite and is there a track that you would like to one day at least go and see in person?
PG: Aside from the fairs, Centennial, Turf Paradise, Ak Sar Ben, Finger Lakes, Beulah. Thistledown, River Downs, Turfway, Keeneland, Churchill. Favorite would be Turf Paradise or Centennial. Least favorite would be the one I forgot to mention Atokad in So. Sioux City NE auuuuugh. It’s awful, worse than the fairs even. Oh and the town sticks. Literally. I want to go to Del Mar. It was my brother’s favorite place on earth. I wish I could scatter his ashes there.
FOTH: What was the best and worst thing about being a jockey?
PG: The best was winning, I`ll never get that out of my system. I guess the worst is the uncertainties and always depending on what someone thinks of you as to whether they`ll ride you or not. I didn’t like having to be nice to someone I had no respect for.
FOTH: Looking back is there a couple things that still stick out in your mind that you remember in your days of being a jockey?
PG: Just that feeling of winning!
FOTH: Penny, I am out of questions and any last words and thumbs up for the interview and allowing me to take you down memory lane.
PG: Thanx for the trip!
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