2017-09-04 11:14:03
Postcard From Saratoga: Jockey Robbie Davis Now Welcomes Offspring Into the Saddle

11:14, September 04 303 0

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Robbie Davis raised his six children in the thoroughbred racing business. In fact, he did it right here, in the sport’s beating heart. He was a jockey, one of New York’s best for more than two decades.

In the summers here, Davis took his children to work every day. They trailed their father as he made his way from the racetrack to the jockeys’ room between races at the annual Saratoga meeting, which ends Monday. At night, Davis and his wife, Marguerite, sat at the center of a big table with their brood for dinner downtown at the Parting Glass or for jockey karaoke at Gaffney’s.

The children grew from toddlers to teenagers and three of them became jockeys, too. Now, it is Davis weaving through the racetrack crowd, a smile the size of a saddle on his face, to throw an arm around his son Dylan after a winning ride, or lifting his daughters Jackie and Katie for hugs when they come from their Mid-Atlantic home tracks to ride on the one they grew up on. Katie Davis rode her first mount at Saratoga a couple of weeks ago, finishing sixth out of eight on Uncle Youdge.

“I’m the leading jockey sire in New York — I got a good mare — and I stayed with her,” Davis, 56, said of his marriage of more than 30 years to Marguerite.

Davis confesses the racetrack was good to him. He won 3,382 races, with more than $115 million in purse earnings. It allowed him to retire healthy in his 40s and buy a 70-acre farm near here. It allowed him to be a part of his children’s lives, to be at their games and performances.

But he never wanted any of them to follow in his footsteps. Davis saw colleges and professional careers: anything but the track. He was not ready when Jackie told him that she wanted to forgo her sophomore year at college for a shot at being a jockey. In fact, he said, he was devastated.

“She was 4-foot-nothing and weighed 95 pounds,” he said. “I told her she had tiny hands, wasn’t strong enough — I threw the kitchen sink at her. I was a total wreck.”

In the decade since, Jackie Davis has ridden more than 530 winners, worth more than $11.4 million in earnings, and is climbing the ranks on the Delaware-Pennsylvania circuit. So when Dylan and then Katie decided to follow their big sister to the racetrack, their father was an accomplice rather than an antagonist.

“We owe Jackie; she wore Dad down,” Dylan, 23, said. “Once he saw how much she loved it, and how hard she worked at it, he was all in. I don’t think he ever misses one of our races. When we are away from here, he’s got the TVs on, the computers going. We usually talk every day about what went well, and what we need to work on.”

While Katie Davis, 25, is establishing herself on the Maryland circuit, Dylan has won more than 350 races and is climbing the standing in New York, considered one of the most competitive jockey colonies in the nation. He cracked the Top 10 in victories at the Aqueduct and Belmont meetings, and is tied for 11th here as of Monday morning.

“They each work very hard and they are improving,” Davis said. “You can gallop horses in the mornings until the cows come home, but there is nothing like racing them in the afternoon. We burn up the phone lines, and I tell them what I know, but that’s no substitute for learning and experiencing it themselves.”

Dylan and his sisters have returned the favor by persuading Davis to return to the racetrack, this time as a trainer. It is mostly a family affair: He owns a handful of horses, some of them with his oldest son, Robbie Jr. Marguerite Davis runs the barn. Edmund, another son, helps when he can. He is the assistant trainer to Jimmy Jerkens, whose barn is much larger and stocked with stakes horses. Robbie Jr. and Edmund might have given Davis a full house of riders if they had not grown too large.

What is Robbie Davis’s favorite moment in racing? Is it upsetting the great Skip Away in the Jockey Club Gold Cup aboard Wagon Limit in 1998? Winning the Gotham aboard Gone West in 1987?

No, it was a nothing race six years ago at Aqueduct at Christmas time. Davis lifted Jackie onto the saddle of a horse named Sandyinthesun that he bought for $700. His daughter won, for his first victory as a trainer.

“That was more exciting than any winner I’ve ever had,” he said, “because I did it with Jackie.”

Davis knows better than most the danger that goes along with piloting a 1,200-pound thoroughbred at high speeds on a crowded racetrack.

Remarkably, he never broke a bone while riding, but he was involved in an accident that made him reconsider whether he wanted to ride again. During a 1988 race, Davis’s good friend and fellow jockey, Mike Venezia, fell from a horse and rolled directly in front of the one that he was riding.

Davis had no time to react. His horse stepped on Venezia, killing him instantly. Davis packed up his wife and children and headed west to his native Idaho to grieve. It took him nearly six months to return to the racetrack and, when he did, he chose to do so in California. He did not return to New York to ride until 1992.

“He tells me to be sure to roll up real small like a ball and stay there when I fall,” said Dylan Davis. “But mostly he says that he knows we are doing something that we love and to focus on the positives.”

Robbie Davis reminds himself of that as well. Jackie has been home to visit. Katie rode her first race at her hometown track in August, and Dylan he sees most days. His son gave him another moment for family lore. He gave him a grandson, Michael Dylan, on Aug. 12, and then five hours later rode a horse named Oskar Blues to a 33-1 victory.

Dylan teased his father about the prospect for a third generation of jocks. Michael Dylan’s mother, Sara Rowland, is an assistant to trainer Danny Gargan.

“It’s in his pedigree — both sides — he’s not going to get away from it,” Dylan said.

Robbie knew he was right.