Victory starts on the backside

Exercise rider Jen Patterson works out Orb for trainer Shug McGaughey. Getty Images

"When Allah created the horse, he said to the magnificent creature: 'I have made thee as no other. All the treasures of the earth lie between thy eyes. Thy shalt carry my friends upon thy back. Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me. And thou shalt fly without wings, and conquer without sword …'" -- Bedouin legend

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Every morning this Kentucky Derby week, as owners and jockeys fly into town and trainers oversee final preparations for the chance of a lifetime, unheralded men and women quietly swing astride the runners they have guided to the first Saturday in May.

Their names are not known to the public. Still, these exercise riders clock more time in the saddle aboard the nation's top 3-year-olds than any of their jockeys will ever spend. They are relied upon by owners to prepare and safeguard contenders during training routines, trusted by horsemen to carry out each conditioning plan to the letter and depended upon by race riders to log the hundreds of hours it takes to ready a young thoroughbred for the greatest two minutes in sports.

In all but the most unusual cases, the link between Derby contenders and their exercise riders forms months before these horses are even remotely considered for the race. Even a year ago, starters like Florida Derby winner Orb and Wood Memorial runner-up Normandy Invasion were just unknown youngsters whose Derby chances could have been derailed by one misstep. One trouble-marred gallop. One ill-timed breeze. It took hours of day-to-day education, hard work and physical risk to bring each horse along to the challenge that now lies ahead -- but when the limelight shines upon front-and-center figures of the game, it is easy to forget that exercise riders play a vital role.

As is the case with grooms and hot walkers, these individuals are not listed on the official race chart, or in the program, or in most of the media coverage leading up to or following the big event. There will be no trophy or postrace TV interview on a national network for the one whose horse wins the Derby. Ask how they feel as they gallop their charges beneath the Twin Spires, however, and every one of them will tell you -- in the days leading up to the big event, there's nowhere else they'd rather be.

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"It's just a surreal feeling. The track is so wide and open -- you have all that space, and you see all those people looking at you. As exciting as it is, it's nerve-wracking, too … I've never felt like this before." -- Jen Patterson, exercise rider for Orb

Standing in the stable area next to Barn 43 at Churchill Downs on the morning of April 28, 32-year-old Jen Patterson shared what it's like to guide top Derby contender Orb through his paces. The responsibility resting on her shoulders is mixed with the thrill of how far they've come, she said, and the potential of what could be.

It's what we do and it's what we're comfortable doing, when you ride horses like this for these kinds of races, there is pressure on us, too.

-- Jen Patterson, Orb's exercise rider

"Obviously you want everything to go as well as it can go, and if something goes wrong, you kind of take it and put it on yourself," Patterson said. "So even though we do this every day, it's what we do and it's what we're comfortable doing, when you ride horses like this for these kinds of races, there is pressure on us, too."

Orb stood quietly nearby for a routine cold-hosing -- water run over his slender legs to help optimize athletic performance. In an earlier gallop under Patterson, he crossed the finish line and let out a playful buck, the rambunctious strides of a good-feeling runner. The rider said these are the signs that thrill her: the rhythmic breath of a galloping runner, the responsive flick of a colt's expressive ears and the brilliance she feels beneath her when he bows his neck into the bridle and strides effortlessly over the racetrack that will be his path to history.

"He's getting into it now," she said. "He didn't mind anything and he galloped around there really relaxed. I watch the way he's carrying his head, the way his ears are … I know him so well now, the way his body language is just when he's galloping. He speaks a lot, just the way he carries himself."

Although Patterson has ridden top-class horses before (she's the regular rider for multiple grade 1-winning turf star Point of Entry), Orb is her first Derby contender. She started working for trainer Shug McGaughey seven years ago, but grew up around the business and worked for steeplechase trainer Ricky Hendriks from the time she was 17 until she was 24. Her first flat racing job was with Eoin Harty; when he took his string to California, she picked up the New York-based McGaughey job.

A Delaware native who graduated Gettysburg College with a business management degree, Patterson said life with thoroughbreds was supposed to be a yearlong diversion at best, to "just get away from stuff." Now she's a key part of McGaughey's operation. This is her life.

"It's kind of like home now, to me. It just fits," she said. "With Orb, we never expected this at all. To watch this horse grow into what he's grown into is really special for everybody. He's really completely brought us here, and it's been fun. He keeps getting better, and everything's just kind of developed into where we are now."

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"Not only are they riding, but they're getting into their horses' heads and forging a partnership … They all just look like people so happily connected with their horses, almost like they don't care what the rest of the world is doing, because they're just so proud to be on their animals." -- Barbara Livingston, equine photographer

One row down and across the way from Orb's cold-water treatment, 24-year-old Jake Nelson smiled in the shadow of Todd Pletcher's shedrow as he recounted the story of first getting aboard Palace Malice. The son of Curlin ran second in the Blue Grass Stakes last time out and breezed a bullet in company with Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze on April 27.

"The first day in Saratoga we had all the babies there. All of them are pretty easy, but I got on him and he took a good hold of me around that racetrack," said Nelson, speaking of the horse's pull on the bridle as he galloped. "I told the assistant, 'I like this horse,' and ever since then, there's never been a different [exercise] rider on him. Breezing him, you could just tell there's something about him."

A Californian whose father used to be an assistant to trainer Jeff Bonde, Nelson started riding four years ago with aspirations of becoming a jockey. When he grew too big, he chose to stay around the horses.

"I love riding and I love my job," said the rider, who has worked for Pletcher for the past 2 1/2 years. "Todd's a good boss and it's an amazing feeling. I remember in California, we were watching the 2010 Kentucky Derby and I always wanted to ride [Louisiana Derby winner] Mission Impazible. When I came here, they put me on him one day and I got along with him. That was my first big horse I got to ride. It's an awesome feeling to be around these horses every day."

For Nelson, the glory he finds will be in these last few days spent doing what only exercise riders can do. Roses await just one of the 20, but in prelude moments with the contender he's brought to this point, the world is theirs for the taking.

Photographer Barbara Livingston caught images of Nelson and Palace Malice months before the bay colt indicated Kentucky Derby promise to anyone but his rider.

"He kept telling me, 'This is going to be a good one, Barb, this is going to be a good one,' and I kept smiling and thinking 'Yeah, there are 30,000 good ones born each year,'" Livingston recalled. "The fact that he's hoped to get to Churchill Downs this whole time, and then to be galloping beneath the Twin Spires on 'the Curlin colt,' is incredible to me. It's a dream come true."

Livingston is particularly well-loved on the backside of tracks across the nation not only because she preserves visual reminders of great horses, but because her photos of exercise riders, hot walkers and grooms offer validation and recognition of their worth, preserving their place in history. She has photographed both Patterson and Nelson, and also Javier Herrera, the rider of Normandy Invasion. Livingston has witnessed the bond each rider shares with their Derby contenders, and has captured that connection on numerous occasions. "When they ride through the pre-dawn darkness in the early morning hours," she said, "they look like an extension of the animal, perfectly in tune with the athletes they are helping prepare."

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"The rider is between you and that horse every day you're training it, so you'd better have people who can work with you and execute what you really want to see out there on the track. They're really assisting you in training, because they're actually engaging the horse for you. The last lifeline, the last connection between bridle, horse and human, is the rider." -- Chad Brown, trainer of Normandy Invasion

Javier Herrera, 27, has been at Churchill Downs with Derby contender Normandy Invasion even longer than the colt's own trainer, Chad Brown. This is not an unusual occurrence; big-time horsemen with thriving strings often send ahead what Europeans call a "traveling lad," a rider who also knows how to care for their runners, when shipping for big stakes races. With roughly 100 horses in training, Brown will afford himself the necessary luxury of spending several weeks before the Derby to be here with his top contender. But prior to his arrival, it was Herrera's job to get the horse settled in. As the exercise rider put it, "he tells me what to do, and I do it."

For Brown, Herrera has gotten on top contenders such as champion turf female Zagora, multiple grade 1-winner Awesome Feather and now Normandy Invasion, the long-striding late closer who is the trainer's first Derby starter. Because Brown teaches his exercise riders how to breeze his horses as well instead of relying upon jockeys to complete these prerace moves, Herrera was also in the saddle for Normandy Invasion's final prerace work on April 26 (Patterson, too, was the rider for Orb's final tune-up).

"He gets along very well with the horse," Brown said of Herrera. "We try to match up the horses with the right rider. Thankfully I have enough riders and enough horses in training right now where there's plenty to go around with each horse to end up with the rider that fits them best."

Herrera shares a similar heritage and background with George Alvarez, 37, who gallops for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Both are natives of Mexico who began riding in their own country, then came to the U.S. Herrera started out as a groom but quickly moved up to riding when his friends realized he had experience from home; he said one of the biggest challenges early on was learning to gallop in a saddle, since he had ridden Quarter Horses bareback in Mexico. Alvarez rode races in Tijuana before he grew beyond the size of a jockey -- and chose exercising runners as a way to remain in the game.

Alvarez has galloped for some of the sport's top trainers on both coasts for the past 20 years, including Mike Mitchell, the late Bobby Frankel and his current boss of six years, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert.

"I've been to Hong Kong, Dubai and right here in the U.S., almost every single state," Alvarez said. "I love it."

Late April last year this rider could be seen traversing the Churchill Downs oval aboard the speedy Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister, who ran second in the Kentucky Derby after setting a sizzling pace. He went on to do the same in the Preakness, and in the process secured a special place in Alvarez's heart.

"I don't know if he was the best, but he's one of my favorites, because he always put 110 percent into his races," the rider said. "He always did his job and tried so hard."

Alvarez has been known to settle nervous or excited horses, a skill that comes in handy when dealing with high-strung thoroughbreds in the high-stress environment that is Churchill Downs on Derby week. This year his favorite 3-year-old contender is not a colt, but the lightly-raced Kentucky Oaks runner Midnight Lucky, an impressive eight-length winner of the Sunland Oaks straight off her debut maiden win.

"I can see something in her that's different from the other horses," the rider remarked. "She's got such a long stride. She can be a little bit difficult, though. We call her 'The freak.' If it's not her way, there's no way. If you fight her a little bit, you're in trouble. It's better to let her do her thing, let her think she's taking care of business, like she's the boss.

"She's like a woman," he said.

Alvarez and the rest of the riders agree that public awareness of the job they do -- or even knowledge of who they are -- is limited.

"Some people don't realize how much responsibility we've got on those horses," he said. "Sometimes, we don't [get] the credit we deserve."

However, he was quick to add, the horses bring more happiness, more fulfillment, than recognition ever could -- "You take care of the horses, and they'll take care of you."

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer who covers horse racing for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. Follow her on Twitter @bh_cnovak and read more of her work at www.bloodhorse.com.