From Europe to Emerald, young jockey rides to spot among track's elite
Eliska Kubinova was begging for a chance to ride horses last year, but this season she's the fourth-ranked jockey at Emerald Downs.
Seattle Times staff
AUBURN — Eliska Kubinova has a hard time believing it when she looks at what has happened in about a year's time.
The Czech jockey marvels at how she went from begging trainers, mostly unsuccessfully, to let her gallop and exercise horses at Emerald Downs to being near the top of this year's jockey standings. She is fourth with 45 wins, 13 behind leader Juan Gutierrez.
But Kubinova doesn't spend much time looking back. She's too worried about looking better on her rides, improving every day and every race. Kubinova, 23, wants to compete against some of the best jockeys of the world at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif.
"I watch the films and I don't like how I look," she said. "I am really critical of myself. I don't want to go to Santa Anita like this. I want to be different, and I want to be better."
Kubinova, who has gained acclaim for riding longshots to victory, bucked long odds to get to this spot.
At about 16, after going to jockey school in Prague, she rode in a few races in the Czech Republic. She didn't like it, and she quit riding. She had grown up riding show horses, and the transition to Thoroughbreds was not smooth.
"I actually don't think I was ready for it," she said. "I just needed time galloping and working out horses to get more confidence."
Kubinova went from riding horses to watching kids. She came to New York and then to Bellevue in school exchange programs, while also working as a nanny.
But baby-sitting wasn't for Kubinova, and she got the itch to ride again. Last spring at Emerald Downs, she offered her services to many trainers.
"No one would put me on a horse," she said.
But then she met Doris Harwood, one of the top trainers at Emerald Downs, who was once a jockey. Meeting Harwood was the break Kubinova needed.
"Nobody told me what I needed to do to start," Kubinova said. "I didn't know I needed a license to work in the mornings. Doris took me to the racing office and got me a license. She put me on a couple of nice horses (to exercise), which was nice because I hadn't sat on a horse for three years."
Harwood said she is always looking to help young riders.
"We need young jockeys and we need young exercise riders, and I like to be able to help them out, whether they're men or women. The first time she got on a horse here, I knew she could ride. That was obvious.
"I kind of laugh about it, but when I first met her, she told me, 'I don't want to be a jockey.' I said, 'That's OK, we need good exercise riders too.' "
By the end of last year's meet, Kubinova had changed her mind. She rode in a few races in the final weeks of the season, then was the second-leading rider at Portland Meadows last winter. She is still an apprentice, and the horses she rides get a weight break, but she doesn't ride like a rookie.
Helping Kubinova out is her boyfriend, Jorge Rosales, a veteran jockey. There is a makeshift horse in the jockey's lounge at Emerald — kind of like a rocking horse that doesn't rock. Kubinova will get on it while Rosales gives her tips. The two also watch film of her races together.
"He always gives me a hard time," she said. "He's been around it for a long time, and he can see it from a different view than I see it."
While Kubinova's top goals are to polish her style and learn something new every day, she admits she has a more concrete goal: winning the Emerald jockey title.
"That would be really nice," she said. "I'd really like to do it."