For Fairmount Park Jockeys, the Stakes Are Higher Than Ever 

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James Bielby loves racetrack camaraderie: “It’s a bunch of sick sons of bitches.” - PHOTO BY ZIA NIZAMI
  • James Bielby loves racetrack camaraderie: “It’s a bunch of sick sons of bitches.”

James Bielby, 49, has been riding as a jockey for 32 years. The hardest part about staying in the game, he says, is "getting older and keeping your weight down the same you did when you were sixteen."

What's his secret? "Whatever you have to. A lot of exercise. Watching your weight. I don't eat breakfast. I don't eat lunch." As for dinner, Bielby says with a wink, "I eat it and throw it back up."

Bulimia used to be a big problem for jockeys, James says, but he believes it's less of a problem now.

"I'm fortunate I never had to, and never did," he says. "But I've known a lot of people who have done it."

In his early days as a rider, James says, he had a jockey friend who regularly purged. When the jockeys would hang out, the friend would scarf down grocery bags full of food. "He'd sit there and eat almost a whole bag of food and drink a whole liter of pop," James recalls. "And he'd get up after he was done and go to the bathroom and get rid of it, sit back down and start eating again."

James has lived a hard life, and his face is etched with the creases and grooves to prove it. But after nearly a lifetime of fighting to rasp his weight down to a tight 110 pounds, yet remaining strong enough to control 1,200-pound animals surging at 40 miles per hour, he has the sway-backed build of a college wrestler: V-shaped torso, thick upper arms and sinewy, wedge-shaped forearms.

James attributes his long career to his high metabolism, which has enabled him to avoid extreme diets or other techniques to keep his weight low, though he admits it's been a battle to get his weight where he wants it.

"I'm feeling better about myself because I got the weight back down, but it took me five years to do it," he says.

James is one of about two dozen jockeys who are riding at Fairmount Park this season. Some of the more established jockeys, such as Santiago, supplement their incomes by driving up to Chicago for Friday races at bigger tracks such as Hawthorne Race Course and Arlington International Racecourse.

A powerful camaraderie binds the jockeys together after months or even years of racing against each other. But those friendships never get in the way of the jockeys' intense desire — and economic need — to win every time they mount a horse for a race.

The stakes go even higher than money. Between 1940 and 2015, at least 154 jockeys died on U.S. race tracks, according to the Jockeys' Guild. In addition, 71 jockeys are being helped by the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund, a charity set up by the Guild. But the injured jockeys only receive about $1,000 a month from the fund.

One of the jockeys being helped by the fund is John Capizzi, 69. Capizzi had won more than 1,000 races in his 35-year career as a jockey. But in June 2014, Capizzi suffered a severe spinal injury when the horse he was exercising around the Fairmount track suddenly pulled up and fell.

Capizzi was taken to Anderson Hospital in Granite City, then moved by air ambulance to St. Louis University Hospital.

"The only time I get to ride in a helicopter and I don't remember it," Capizzi says.

Capizzi spent three months in rehab and today moves with the aid of a walker. Adjusting to his spinal injury has been hard, he says.

"You can't get away from the inside of your head," he says. "I wish the horse had killed me rather than go through this. All my liberties got taken away. I can't drive. Everything I do is a job. Taking a shower is a job. My bowels and bladder are so messed up, it's terrible."

"For the longest time they kept asking when I was going to get a real job," says Brooke Stillion of her parents. "They didn't like the danger aspect of it. - PHOTO BY ZIA NIZAMI
  • "For the longest time they kept asking when I was going to get a real job," says Brooke Stillion of her parents. "They didn't like the danger aspect of it.

In the morning at Fairmount Park, on the days between races, the track is nearly quiet. A stiff breeze rolls in waves through the infield grass. Off in the near distance you can hear the calls of songbirds, and then further away, the steady rumble of cars and semis on nearby Interstate 255.

Apprentice jockey Brooke Stillion is giving a workout to some of the thoroughbreds stabled next door to Fairmount's one-mile dirt track. She rides them hard, pushing them to gallop at a brisk clip in a practice known as "breezing," which boosts their fitness and tests their readiness for racing.

Of the jockeys who compete at Fairmount Park, Stillion stands out for a few reasons. For one thing, she's the only apprentice at Fairmount this season. Still in her second year as a jockey at age 29, she's gotten a late start in a game whose players usually are riding professionally by their late teens.

click to enlarge Brooke Stillion is a rarity: a female jockey. - PHOTO BY ZIA NIZAMI
  • Brooke Stillion is a rarity: a female jockey.

She's also a woman. Just ten percent of American jockeys are female. Stillion is the only woman riding at Fairmount this year.

"It is tough being a girl in the sense that not a whole lot of trainers give you a shot," says Stillion. "So you have to work extra hard to prove yourself." She adds, "For trainers who don't want to give me a shot, I always try to beat their horse in the race."

As a little girl growing up in California, Stillion loved horses — something unique in her family. Of her parents, she says, "I begged them to get me a horse. I carried little stuffed horse animals around. I don't know where that comes from."

Stillion got into jockeying in a roundabout way. She started out riding hunter-jumpers in California, but then became friends with a few of the jockeys who rode at a local racetrack. She wanted to learn how to make a horse gallop, but didn't like it and moved on.

In her twenties, she moved to Oklahoma, where she found herself working on a farm. Something clicked for her, and the idea of racing horses for a living started to make sense.

"And I fell in love with it," she says.

Her family didn't get it. "For the longest time they kept asking when I was going to get a real job," she says. "They didn't like the danger aspect of it. But it's really funny; now they're starting to really get into it."

These days, she thinks about the impact she can have on younger girls.

"I like to promote racing," she says. "Not many people know that females can do this. Because there aren't that many."

Stillion laments the fact that her season has been filled with near-misses. "I've had 'seconditis,'" she says. "I've run a bunch of seconds." Still, she says, "My horses keep running second, which is better than last."

In her first year, the other jockeys freely gave advice.

"This year they're not so nice," she says. "They'll help me if I have a question, but they're not as willing to lend out information, advice, you know."

A few weeks before, in a daytime race at Fairmount, James' horse cut in front of Stillion's as they were coming around the turn, causing Stillion to check her horse. Each jockey blamed the other for the mishap. Stillion filed a protest, and track officials ruled in her favor — mightily pissing off the older jockey.

Stillion says she's nearly forgotten the incident.

"That's old," she says. "I put it behind me and I'm just moving forward now."

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