Inside The North American Racing Academy: Only The Strong Will Survive - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Inside The North American Racing Academy: Only The Strong Will Survive

Courtney Comroe, 26, prepares to bring Polo out for a ride in the class’s first week

This week, the Paulick Report launches a new biweekly multimedia series following the students in the North American Racing Academy's Racehorse Riding Skills class. The class began in mid-January, and by its conclusion in May, students will have gone from learning to properly tack a horse to galloping a Thoroughbred in an open field. We will track their successes and setbacks to learn what goes into making a jockey or exercise rider.

It's mid-January in Central Kentucky, and ten students are gathering in a white barn at the top of the hill at the Thoroughbred Training Center. They've assembled for what ex-jockey and North American Racing Academy executive director Remi Bellocq refers to as their own version of The Hunger Games (and not as a joke about making weight). The group, which ranges in age from 18 to 31, will attempt to pack several years of riding lessons into a few months, pass an increasingly challenging set of fitness tests outside the barn, as well as balance work, life, and classes. Some want to be jockeys, some want to be exercise riders, and others want to train. Some of them can count the number of times they've ridden a horse on one hand, others are veterans at a different discipline, and at least one was galloping horses on the track before beginning school at the North American Racing Academy (NARA).

And as in The Hunger Games, only the strong will survive. Each of the students is brimming with enthusiasm now, but Bellocq guesses that by May, one or two will have dropped out.

“If you're not unreasonably uncoordinated or something, you can learn how to ride a racehorse,” he said. “Even people who have ridden horses all their lives think 'racehorse, Thoroughbred,' and they get all stressed out. It's really everything you've done before, but at a quicker pace.

“Ninety percent of this is between the ears.”

During the first week of class, those students' ears are pricked. Bellocq is all about fundamentals, so the class begins with a series of lessons in properly tacking a racehorse. Not all racing barns have the manpower to bring tacked horses out to exercise riders, especially the ones where the students will likely start their riding careers. There is a correct, uniform way to do everything, from sliding on fleece girth covers to tying a knot in the reins.

Some of the students are picking it up faster than others. Those who have been through the Racehorse Care class in the fall listen during a demonstration they've seen several times before and have their horse ready to go in a few minutes. A few of them have ridden hunter/jumpers or Western and move around the perimeter of the horse intuitively, checking saddle towels and adjusting cheekpieces, struggling only with the narrow stirrup leathers on the tiny exercise saddles.

Not everyone has that experience, however. Ray Holassie is engaged in a battle of wills with a bay gelding named Polo. Just about the time Holassie sorts out the cheekpieces from the headstall and presents Polo with the bit, the gelding sniffs and turns his head casually away, knocking Holassie's arm out of place and requiring him to start over.

Holassie, 18, has been dreaming about the start of this class for a long time. His father, also named Raynau Holassie, spent the better part of 24 years riding races before retiring to become a racing official at Tampa Bay Downs.  Holassie walked hots in the barns growing up and hopped on a few in the shedrow, but his first real experience on a horse was a bareback ride at home in Folsom, La., right before he moved north.

“It was my first time going fast,” he said. “They wanted to teach me to ride before I came here…that's how you find your balance. I didn't fall off, but I almost did once. They said I had good balance.

“I always wanted to do this, since I was younger. My dad was a jockey. He's excited. He wants me to be better than him.”

This is the day he will sit in a saddle for the first time ever, and his first ride as part of the class. Is he nervous?

“A little bit.”

Outfitted in a bright red safety vest and floppy cowboy boots, Holassie takes instructions with expressionless nods.

“His dad is a jockey!” farm manager Francois Parisel brags to Bellocq, certainly for Holassie's benefit, before legging him up. If it makes the kid either nervous or proud, he doesn't show it. In the two turns Holassie and his mount, Gus, take around the shedrow, they get constant instruction from Bellocq, who walks beside them, half-leading Gus, half-leaning over to reposition Holassie's reins. Most everyone's round is like this—a barrage of patient reminders to multi-task. Tying a knot, tightening the girth, steering; hands go here, legs and arms stretch at unfamiliar angles—it's a lot to take in for the first time. In the early stages, any way of curling palms and fingers around the thick reins feels a little unnatural.

Once boots are back on the ground, the consensus from the students' faces is somewhere between, 'I just rode a racehorse!' and 'I must be out of my mind.' It's hard to imagine that this will become second nature to them.

But it will, says Bellocq.

Courtney Comroe, 26, gets a leg up
Courtney Comroe, 26, gets a leg up

Bellocq, Parisel, and Hall of Fame retired jockey Chris McCarron do a bit of handicapping when the semester begins. They can't help it. Each class brings its shining stars and longshots, and it's fun to guess who will end up where, but there are usually a couple of surprises. Kids lose their nerve or find a fighting spirit no one knew they had.

If there's an early candidate for success in week one, it's David Mussad. The 24-year-old flew in from California on his first morning of class with his suitcases, his schedule, and instructions to find Bellocq's office. In a few hours' time, he had an apartment, a car, and a few interviews for part-time jobs. He spent a year saving up to come here, and he's not going to let logistics set him back. After two days in the class, Mussad appears fully relaxed on the back of Joe, a gentle giant of a 3-year-old in training who is lending a hoof to the school in exchange for conditioning. Mussad's spine and shoulders are loose, bouncing with the horse's steps, while his hands are steady, his lower leg still.

“I'm feeling comfortable,” he said. “Every day I wake up super early, just excited to be here. It's awesome.”

Mussad is already doing extra drills to strengthen his legs and back, rising and sitting out of the tack at a walk. He asks when he can come in for extra ride time, extra gym time. What exercises will help him be stronger for the next ride? Always seeming to ask, 'What's next?'

“I want to be a professional jockey. That's my main goal,” David said. “I want to race in Dubai, race internationally, go back and race at Del Mar.”

The moment when jockeys mount up in the paddock before a race always seems like one fluid, easy motion. They're on the ground, and then they're in the saddle, walking away. A couple of the students are finding this more challenging in real life than it seems on television.

Melissa Myszka, 21, towers over her classmates by a solid five or six inches. She's not in the program to become a jockey; rather, she'd like to be a trainer and thinks she should know how to gallop a horse before she gives instructions in her own shedrow. Although she grew up riding green-broke ponies in her native Wisconsin, getting a leg up onto a Thoroughbred is another matter.

Myszka stands alongside Montana, the school's rotund pony, waiting nervously for a boost from Holassie. Even with someone lifting her left knee, Myszka has to manage a hop high enough to take her several feet in the air, and then has to lift a long leg over Montana's back without kicking him, all before landing in the tack (gently, if possible) while the horse walks. She's been practicing in the Equicizer room  but hasn't quite figured it out yet.

“You're standing still, but you literally have to jump from a standstill onto a moving animal's back,” she said. “Because I'm so tall, it should be easy, but it's not.”

Size could prove an issue for another student—Natasha Armstrong, 19, is a short, slight girl with her hair cropped to fit under a jockey's helmet. She spent a few months galloping horses at Suffolk Downs but ultimately chose to learn the trade in a school setting. Armstrong jokes that one of her instructors, retired jockey Kristina McManigell, is already jealous of her weight.

“It's a lot of working out,” Armstrong said. “It's a lot of muscle for a smaller person [to put on]. It's just tougher to hold a horse back. It's actually harder [to be smaller]. You have to be able to physically control a horse and your own body.”

NARA executive director Remi Bellocq instructs Erin Steinbeck, 20
NARA executive director Remi Bellocq instructs Erin Steinbeck, 20

This could be a problem, because in addition to the assessments the students must pass under saddle, Bellocq has given them an increasingly difficult series of physical fitness tests they must pass to stay in the class. The first one consists of an eight-minute mile run for boys (10 minutes for the girls), 40 sit-ups in two minutes (30 for girls), 30 push-ups in two minutes (25 for girls), and two minute-long intervals of jump rope. From here, the runs get 30 seconds faster and the other exercises double in intensity every few weeks.

Bellocq has already been out running with a couple of students, offering tips on how to condition themselves out of the tack. In the end though, he says it's not his job to make them pass the tests—it's up to them.

Let the Games begin.

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