Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jockeys hope series boosts racing's exposure

Photo: Aaron Gryder is one of several Southern California-based jockeys appearing in a new reality cable television series on Animal Planet.
NTRA photo

by Laura Pepper

On an October day at Santa Anita Park—knowing camera crews were lurking nearby— jockey Aaron Gryder played a practical joke on rival Joe Talamo.

Gryder put a boot on Talamo’s car and placed a ticket on the vehicle that said ‘subject to arrest.’ When Talamo rushed to his car, he made a huge scene and was very upset.

A phone call to the stewards soon followed, and Talamo told on himself for parking tickets that the stewards knew nothing about.

Over the course of six weeks, this scenario and many others documenting the lives of seven jockeys on and off the track will be broadcast to the world in 30-minute episodes scheduled to run back to back each week.

The documentary series “Jockeys” makes its television premiere on Friday at 9 p.m. EST on Animal Planet. The 12-episode series was filmed during the recent 30-day Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting that culminated with the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

“This will be the first great exposure we’ve had in racing in many years,” Gryder said during a national teleconference on Tuesday.

Each one of the seven jockeys was given a two- or three-word description to summarize his or her persona in the documentary.

Mike Smith “The Icon” and Chantal Sutherland “The Breakout Female Star” compete on the track daily while working to maintain a romantic relationship off of it.

Gryder “The Working Man” and Talamo “The Hotshot” are riders separated by 19 years but only two lockers in the Santa Anita jocks’ room.

“When I first started riding, the jockeys room seemed like a much older room,” Gryder said. “It’s a very young room now.”

Veteran Jon Court “The Elder Statesman,” Alex Solis “The Comeback Kid,” and Kayla Stra “The New Girl” also are featured.

Although the daily drama of top-level Thoroughbred racing and the competitiveness between the athletes is at the core of the program, personal vignettes filmed before and after the races are meant to show the softer, human side of the jockeys, who take their lives into their hands each time they take a mount.

Five years ago, co-producers Liz Bronstein and Tina Gazzerro were unsuccessful in selling their jockey documentary idea—until Animal Planet expressed interest.

“We charged in and said, ‘We’re the ones’,” Bronstein said.

Featured jockeys were selected based upon personal interviews conducted in the jocks’ room.

“We looked for people who are passionate and would allow us to come into their lives,” Bronstein said.

Animal Planet and the crews were given unprecedented access to the track and the jockeys. Despite the obvious intrusion, Gryder said the camera crews were respectful to the riders as they tried to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

“It’s different when the cameras are not following you because it means you haven’t done enough to warrant it,” said Gryder, who appeared in an episode of the HBO hit television series “The Sopranos.”

For some of the jockeys, however, it took time to adjust to crews following them around at all times, especially in their homes.

“At first, it was kind of awkward having so many cameras in your house,” Sutherland said. “After a while, you get used to the cameras and the guys working with us and everything just got easy for us. It kind of worked out and flowed on its own.”

For more information on the show and to see a short preview, click here.