Breeders' Cup Presents Connections: 'Good Cowboys' Let Actions Speak Louder Than Words - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘Good Cowboys’ Let Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Outrider Mike Chambless takes a moment with “Otis” on his last day at Gulfstream Park

Real cowboys don't walk around calling themselves cowboys. You'll know you've met one when you come across an individual with an intuitive understanding of horses, who probably doesn't say very much, and who has earned the respect of everyone around them.

By all accounts, outrider Mike Chambless is as good a cowboy as they come. The 66-year-old earned the respect of every trainer, exercise rider, and pony person at Gulfstream Park during his tenure at the South Florida racetrack.

“I'm not that good at standing there talking to people, dealing with different mentalities and personalities,” Chambless said. “The horses are what I thrive on, and I'm only as good as the horse I'm sitting on.”

The Saturday of the Florida Derby, on April 3, was Chambless' last day at Gulfstream, and photographer Gwen Davis captured a powerful image of him during that afternoon's races that made the rounds on social media the next day. 

It shows Chambless leaning against his horse, head bowed, drawing strength from a moment of solitude before climbing back into the saddle to finish out the day's card. 

The moment was an emotional one, Chambless admitted. He had been experiencing severe back pain that afternoon (outriding isn't for the faint of heart), and it was also the last time he'd have a chance to ride the horse, Otis.

Chambless is stepping down from his post at Gulfstream to head home to the West Coast in order to help take care of his family. He'd sold his two outriding horses to a local hunter/jumper trainer in Florida, taking advantage of the opportunity to find them a great home after they'd worked hard for him for several years.

“The chance came up to sell them both at the same time, and it was to a gal I'd known since high school,” Chambless explained. “It was about time for a break.”

Otis made about $60,000 as a racehorse, and first came to Chambless about three years ago. The big gelding is kind and effective as an outriding horse, Chambless said, but just didn't have the early speed of his other horse, a little gray named Zeck. 

Zeck was also the more difficult of the pair.

A sunrise over Gulfstream Park, as seen from the back of Zeck

“The owner that had him, that guy warned me, 'He'll bite your head off,'” Chambless remembered. “Well, I've been bit and I've been kicked, that's no problem. I ended up giving $500 for him. I didn't ride him for 30 days because I wanted him to change mentally. The first time I got on him he bucked the entire length of the racetrack. But that's okay.

“I started riding him to give him the confidence he needed in the mornings, hazing horses that were pulling up from their gallops, off the right, off the left. Letting him run up to the horse, and before he even gets to his head I've got him caught; it's all about the timing.

“Now when I'd go to get on him at 5:15 in the morning, he is like riding a freaking rabbit. He will hear a cricket fart in China, I kid you not. So I might not like him very much for 23 hours and 55 minutes of the day, but during that time when I really need him? That's when he shined.”

Chambless' patience stems from a childhood watching every move of his father, a Quarter Horse trainer. By the the time he was six, his dad would put him atop the pony every morning, hand him a racehorse on each side, and have Chambless leading them around at the walk to cool them out after training. 

“When we were done, he'd pull the stock saddle off the pony, put a flat saddle on, and he never saw me again til feed time,” said Chambless. “My friends and I would ride all around the hills of Ruidoso. If I fell off, that pony would go right back to his stall at the barn, so I would just head back there, climb up on the fence, get back on and head out again.”

Watching his father interact with both his horses and other horsemen had a profound influence on Chambless throughout his life with horses.

“I was fortunate that growing up I was surrounded by good people that my dad had earned their respect, who could help open some doors for me,” he said. “My dad, he ran with good hands and good cowboys. All that adds up to me being fortunate to have had some decent and good horses that I enjoyed being on, and always treating people with some respect.”

In typical cowboy fashion, that respect seems to always go both ways.

“There wasn't anyone here that did not have great respect for him,” said Gulfstream-based trainer Lillian Klesaris.

While both his mind and his body are ready for a sabbatical from the racetrack, Chambless definitely hasn't seen the last of early-morning sunrises over a dirt oval. He may not be sure exactly where he'll end up next, but this cowboy won't stay away for long.

“A good catch horse can come from anywhere, but it's hard to find good outriders,” said Chambless. “I've been fortunate to ride with some good hands. If you can get a couple of good outriders together, then you can get the confidence of the trainers on your side. I think that's the biggest thing.”

Outrider Mike Chambless and “Otis” make a difficult left-handed catch on the Gulfstream Park turf course


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