I was balancing my weight on my toes, my torso pitched forward at an unnatural angle. I'd barely settled into a crouch but my legs were already screaming and my lower back was furious, forcing me to grab it like a ThermaCare cover model. Despite my jockey-like crouch, I was not clinging tightly to the reins of a half-ton horse. I was just trying to hover over an unwashed porcelain oval in a back-of-the-parking lot Exxon bathroom.and I still couldn't hold the pose.
"How can jockeys do this for several minutes at a time?" I asked myself, picking up the hubcap that served as a keychain. Because I could barely hang on long enough to, um, recycle the Venti Latte I'd had with breakfast.
Heading into Saturday's Belmont Stakes, every eye, camera and binocular lens will be focused on the muscled hindquarters of I'll Have Another, the chestnut colt who is just - JUST! - 12 furlongs from the elusive Triple Crown. The rookie jockey who sits - well, balances - four left-hand turns away from history is 25-year-old Mario Gutierrez, a Mexican-born Canadian immigrant who is 4 for 4 on I'll Have Another, winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby before collecting his blankets of roses and black-eyed Susans.
In the past 34 years, 11 horses have started that race with Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins tucked under their saddles, and those 11 horses finished somewhere other than first place. Forget those traditional prerace bugle blasts; the official sound of the Belmont Stakes should be a sad trombone.
Still, on a Saturday when the sports calendar is overstuffed with everything from Euro 2012 soccer to French Open tennis to potential NBA and Stanley Cup finals (assuming the New Jersey Devils can put something other than a binary number on the scoreboard), I'd argue that Gutierrez and the other 11 goggled and booted riders are the most impressive athletes we'll see all day.
Pound-for-pound, jockeys are the strongest, quickest, most agile and most hardcore of the bunch. And also the most underappreciated.
Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand (and don't even pretend that you didn't spend the summer of 2002 with a creased paperback copy on your nightstand) described jockeying as "[riding] a half-ton catapult," while noting that the jockey doesn't just park himself on the horse's back. He's actively to control both himself and the horse while they rocket around the track at speeds approaching 40 mph. "He crouches over [the saddle]," she writes. "Leaning all of his weight on his toes, which rest on the thin metal bases of the stirrups [.] Everything else is balanced in midair."
But their athleticism is constantly overlooked, possibly because our perception of What A Jockey Does is shaped by our own experiences with horses. And, for a lot of us, that's limited to hanging onto the hard plastic mane of a carousel pony or being led around a dusty enclosure on the back of a threadbare animal named Sassafras.
Anything you did at a state fair or in the center of a mall food court doesn't count. Neither does the horse that you rode around a resort property in Sedona or the one you fed while you visited your most rural relatives. That doesn't help you appreciate jockeys any more than calmly extracting Cavity Sam's wrenched ankle makes you an orthopedic surgeon.
Speaking of orthopedists, jockeys seem to spend as much time in their offices as they do in race track paddocks. The Jockeys' Guild collects paperwork on over 2,500 injuries per year (on 2,700 licensed jockeys), noting that "the average jockey is sidelined by injury two or three times a year". According to a report compiled by the Journal of the American Medical Association, nearly 1 in 5 injuries reported are to jockey's head or neck, mainly from being thrown from their horse or being struck by the horse's head.
Worst of all, there's no union or players' association for these guys, so if you're one of the 50 to 60 jockeys who have been permanently disabled, you're literally at the mercy of charity. The 501 (c)(3) Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF) was founded in 2006 and has already spent over $3 million caring for their own.
So yeah, they skip shoulder pads and shin guards and instead go to work wearing something called "silks." That soft fabric covers a bulletproof vest, a Kevlar hug that protects each rider's ribcage from being crushed if they fall from the horse. Yes, they're small, but that pocket-sized stature is a race requirement.
At Belmont, the jockey and his equipment can't weigh more than 126 pounds. The average jockey diets, deprives and often dehydrates himself to stay close to 118 pounds, and I'd guess at least 75 of those are concentrated in the cojones region.
Despite being the current King of Cojones, Gutierrez only makes passing references to his own abilities. He does refer to I'll Have Another as a fellow athlete, though, which is where I draw the line.
Thoroughbred race horses are incredible animals, marvels of biomechanics that can look borderline magical and deserve every commemorative plate they've ever appeared on. The horses that will be led onto the track Saturday are jaw-droppingly athletic, yes.
Athletic, but not athletes.
Time magazine and Sports Illustrated see it differently, both listing Secretariat as one of last century's most impressive athletes. ESPN considered Secretariat to be the 35th-best athlete of the 20th century, which put him ahead of Oscar Robertson, Walter Payton and Mickey Mantle (as well as jockeys Willie Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro). Man O'War and Citation also made the cut.
"[Secretariat] carried a lot more than jockey Ron Turcotte," they wrote, in a profile that reads like a reverent oil painting. Statements like that ignore Turcotte's own capabilities and contributions, making it sound like he was strapped to the horse's back in a Baby Bjorn. The French-Canadian rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown after he'd won the Preakness on Tom Rolfe (ProTip: Don't give your horse a human name) and the Kentucky Derby and Belmont with Riva Ridge.
But Secretariat was - is - the one who was celebrated. The horse got a stamp, a statue, an appropriately saccharine Disney biopic. Turcotte got five more years of racing before he was thrown from a horse at Belmont Park, an accident that left him a paraplegic. He has yet to be mentioned with or without Secretariat on one of those ESPN lists; the only acronym he's associated with is the PDJF.
In my head, considering the horse to be The Athletic One, diminishes the roles of the already-overlooked men who run them like hell for two minutes and change. The jockeys deserve more credit than they get. They've earned it, one oval track at a time.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a hubcap-shaped keychain to return.
Jelisa Castrodale has learned a lot about life by making a mess of her own. Read more at jelisacastrodale.com, follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/gordonshumway, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org