Wednesday, February 11, 2009

‘Jockeys’ conveys drama of race riding


by Ed DeRosa

The tagline of Animal Planet’s new reality show based on the life of eight Southern California-based jockeys is sure to give most racing enthusiasts a cause for pause.

“Win or Die Trying,” is a gut check to an industry still reeling from the high-profile deaths of Barbaro, Eight Belles, George Washington (Ire), and others in recent years, but “Jockeys,” which premieres on Animal Planet on Friday at 9 p.m. EST, gives viewers an honest look at the excitement of Thoroughbred racing without relying on sensationalistic tactics.

The first program includes footage of two racetrack spills, though neither is catastrophic. The jockeys acknowledge throughout the program that spills and injuries are a part of the industry and their profession, and they are unapologetic about it. They also often wax poetic about horses, saying that they are born to run and love what they do when they are on the track.

The program begins by introducing viewers to veteran Aaron Gryder and relative newcomer Joe Talamo as they prepare to ride at Fairplex Park. The action in the second half of the show then shifts to the Oak Tree at Santa Anita Park meeting with Racing Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Southern California transplant Chantal Sutherland, and another veteran, Jon Court.

Sutherland moved to Southern California after riding in Ontario, Canada, to live with Smith, her boyfriend of about 18 months. “Jockeys” also will feature Corey Nakatani, Alex Solis, and Kayla Stra in future episodes.

Unlike other recent reality show hits such as “The Hills” and “The City” (both on MTV) that rely on contrived and seemingly manufactured storylines to develop the characters, “Jockeys” relies on legitimate situations that even the most skeptical industry veteran could expect to find inside the jockeys’ room or on the track.

Gryder speaks eloquently about how tough it is to make money as a jockey if you do not win. Talamo similarly speaks well about why he wants to ride at a young age. In a teaser for a future show at the end of the premiere episode, Stra says, “Winning a race is better than sex.”

“Jockeys” appears to be the rare hybrid show that could appeal to racing industry insiders as well as novice or non fans interested in the drama involved in a high-profile, big-money, and dangerous sport.

The only cringe-worthy moment for a fan of racing came when “Jockeys” replayed a stakes race at Fairplex. In order to highlight Gryder and Talamo, the producers dubbed over Trevor Denman’s call of the $125,000 Ralph M. Hinds Invitational Handicap. They called Tice the 4-to-1 favorite, but he was actually the 4.8-to-1 third choice.

Still, the excitement of the race was there, and Talamo won it just like how he said he would in his prerace comments.

On a Tuesday teleconference, participating jockeys said that they hope “Jockeys” helps racing become more mainstream. Based on the debut episode, “Jockeys” has a better chance of doing this than previous Hollywood saviors such as Seabiscuit and Dreamer.