Whitney Valls is a young rider that is currently (2012) riding down at Tampa Bay Downs and I sent her some questions to answer and here is her story:
FOTH: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
WV: Mobile, Alabama.
FOTH: What sort of girl were you growing up?
WV: Bit of a tomboy I guess. Never very girly girl... always loved being outside.
FOTH: Did you have a love for horses at a young age or did that come later on?
WV: That came later on. I didn't grow up in a horse family at all, my dad was the only one who had ever done anything with horses and that was when he was younger. I didn't get my first horse till I was 12.
FOTH: What did you think of a live horse race the first time you saw one?
WV: Oh I loved it. The first track and race I ever went to was some middle of the week, nothing special, race day at Churchill after I asked my grandmother (who lives in Nashville) to take me and my cousin there one summer while I was visiting.
FOTH: What event or events actually led to you becoming a jockey?
WV: Moving out of Mobile as soon as I graduated high school and then jumping from Kentucky, to Florida, back to Kentucky, then to Maryland where I stayed for almost 2 years. I didn't know a soul the first time I moved to Ocala, and had never even been to Maryland when I decided to move there. Working hard, needless to say, and learning from the right people.
FOTH: Looking back was becoming a jockey easier or harder than you thought it was going to be and why?
WV: Well I knew it was going to be tough... The actual process of being licensed really wasn't that hard to be honest. I had everything ready to go in Maryland, and it didn't take them long to OK me there because I had been there so long and riding in the morning the whole time so they knew me. I got started in Cleveland, OH, riding first call for an outfit, so it wasn't too tough then. But I knew once I broke out of that barn and tried to hustle other ones is when it was gonna be the real test. It's always hard being the new bug that no one knows and trying to break in.
FOTH: Did someone teach you how to ride or did you learn a lot on your own?
WV: I had a few people teach me the basics, my foundation, if you will. When I was in Ocala I worked for an outfit that had a lot of steeplechase horses and riders. So those riders taught me how to take a long, relaxed hold on a horse in order to keep them relaxed. In Maryland, I was schooled a lot on proper position and how to lay real low and flat down on a horse. Also tricks on switching sticks and such.
FOTH: Did it feel natural getting up on a horse?
WV: Oh yeah. Sometimes I'll be lame walking down the barn, get legged up and go gallop or breeze one and never feel better. Then I get back off and suddenly I'm lame again haha.
FOTH: Tell me about your 1st race. Where was it at and where did you finish?
WV: My first race was technically an amateur race at Colonial Downs on June 25th, 2011. I ended up 4th beat about 2 lengths.
FOTH: Tell me about your 1st win. What track was that at and did you win by a lot? Did the jockeys get you good after the race and did you know that was coming?
WV: My first win was at Thistledown in Cleveland, OH. It was only my 10th start, the filly won by about 9, and paid like $25 I think. I remember standing in the paddock with the trainer and he had just rolled up the program and said how this would probably just be a "learning experience" because the filly didn't look good on paper at all. So when she pulled away and I couldn't hear any other horses, I was pleasantly surprised lol. The other jocks got me real good... I knew it was coming but it had slipped my mind at first. When I was galloping out, the outriders and ponies were yelling 'oh you're gonna get it now!' I was so happy with the win, I forgot about the "initiation" and all I could think was "omg what did I do wrong?" Then one said something about the jocks room and I remembered... Four or five got me with buckets of soapy water from up on the wall by the grandstands. Then the boys came out of the room with shaving cream and baby powder. I was a mess!
FOTH: I know you are riding at Tampa Bay Downs right now. Is that the only track that you have ridden at so far?
WV: No, I rode at Thistledown, Presque Isle, Mountaineer, and Colonial Downs.
FOTH: Is there any track you saw on TV that you would love to ride at one day?
WV: Saratoga, for sure. Santa Anita...and I hope Hialeah gets Thoroughbreds back because I would just love to ride there too.
FOTH: How long would you like to ride for or are you taking things nice and slow now?
WV: I'd like to ride as long as I can. If 30 years from now I'm still going strong and doing great, then I don't see why I'd be hanging up the tack. I'm in a way taking things slow now, because I'm two wins away from officially starting my bug year so I want to get as much experience riding as many horses as possible before that happens.
FOTH: For those who have never been to Tampa Bay Downs, tell them what it is like there?
WV: As a rider, it's tough. Whether you're an exercise rider or jockey...the first year here you're gonna work your butt off for little payback. But it's all about how badly you want it. The more you work at it and the harder you work at it, the bigger the payoff will be in the long run. People will start to recognize you and remember you from the last meet or whenever, and you'll suddenly be "in" and doing alright. As a fan, it's a beautiful track and they cater to the fans very well I think. It's a track that even by the 5th race on a Thursday, there's still a good crowd out on the apron watching the races.
FOTH: What are some non racing related things you like to do? Have you ever been recognized outside the track yet?
WV: I do like to draw and paint when I have the time. And when I have the opportunity, I love just going out on a nice easy trail ride or something. It's a nice change of pace to just take some ponies and not just make a left lol.
FOTH: What is the feeling like coming down the stretch knowing you have a ton of horse and that you’re going to win the race?
WV: You'll never feel more confident. Especially if you haven't won one in a while, all you're thinking is "yes, finally!" It's what we work our butts off for everyday.
FOTH: Do you have an agent and explain to those that don't know what a jockey agent does for you?
WV: I do have an agent... Basically an agent keeps his or her jockeys' business in order. They keep a schedule for you so you know what barn to be in at what time to work or gallop one. They go to trainers and "hustle our book" which means try and get us mounts from different outfits and trainers. It's also their job to be at the draw to check us on to whatever horse or horses we're being named on for the upcoming race day, or to try and pick up mounts that don't have a rider or mounts another jockey may have a double call on.
FOTH: About how many horse are you getting up on in a typical day in the morning and is it hard for you getting up in the morning?
WV: I've gotten on anywhere for zero horses in the morning, to eight. It just depends who is needing help or wanting to work one or who's walking or running some. It's really not that hard for me to get up in the morning. Not saying I don't hit the snooze half a dozen times, but if I hated getting up in the morning, I might have found a different job by now haha.
FOTH: If a young girl came up to you and said she wanted to become a jockey what advice would you give her?
WV: Don't let negative people get in your head. There is always gonna be someone who will tell you how you'll never make it or how you should just give it up now and no waste your time. You have to be stubborn, if this is your dream then push for it. And confident…even a bit cocky doesn't hurt because even if you get turned down a hundred times, if you walk in and out of the barns like you are the best rider out there, smile on your face, people will notice that and remember it and will eventually give you a shot.
FOTH: What did you parents say when you told them you wanted to be a jockey?
WV: Well neither really knew anything about the business at all. But both were very supportive every step of the way, and still are.
FOTH: Do you feel you are improving as a rider every day?
WV: I do. The more I ride, the stronger I get, the more I improve on my style and the more I learn.
FOTH: Do you see yourself being involved in horse racing in some form or another for a long time to come?
WV: Oh for sure. I honestly couldn't think of another thing I'd want to do.
FOTH: Whitney I am out of questions. Thumbs up for the interview and any last words the floor is yours?
WV: Thank you for the chance to answer some questions! And always keep your chin up... Just when it seems like it's at its worst, that's when it's about to turn back around and you'll catch your break.