For Fairmount Park Jockeys, the Stakes Are Higher Than Ever 

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Brooke Stillion has noticed her fellow jockeys grow cold as she gains experience: "This year, they’re not so nice." - PHOTO BY ZIA NIZAMI
  • Brooke Stillion has noticed her fellow jockeys grow cold as she gains experience: "This year, they’re not so nice."

Many people naively assume that jockeys are little more than passengers on the horses they ride. But such a notion is as misguided as believing that playing in the NFL is nothing more than a game of backyard catch. Jockeys use every trick and nugget of experience they can to win a race.

In the July 11 race, James won, and Stillion finished third. But after Stillion filed a protest, arguing that James' horse had cut in too close to hers, James was knocked to third. Stillion was moved up to second.

"I knew he was going to do it," she says, "so I was ready in that spot. He kept trying to come over, trying to come over, and I was already in the turn, and coming out of this turn he dove over and I had to check my horse. Just diving over on top of me. I could've clipped heels."

For his part, James accused Stillion of making a rookie mistake.

"My horse come down on top of her a little bit. So I was pushed down on her. She filed against me on her own stupidity," he says. "It was inexperience on her part. If it was me, I would've got out of there. I have a motto, 'When in doubt, get the fuck out.'"

When the ruling against him was finalized, James angrily headed for the clubhouse and started undressing out of his racing silks.

"I'm taking off," he said. "I ain't riding no more. I can do whatever the hell I want to do. She made a mental mistake when she should've got out of the spot where she didn't belong anyway. They punished me for the mistake."

It's two weeks later, a Saturday night card at Fairmount, and both jockeys are set to ride against each other in a mile race.

Stillion rides a horse called Taking Cheap Shots, while James is assigned to Nextalast.

Taking Cheap Shots is the class of the field. The horse sprints to an early lead by the turn, fades for a moment coming into the homestretch, but then, under Stillion's stick, seemingly finds a hidden gear and accelerates toward the finish — a four-hooved arrow slicing through the cool July night.

Nextalast, the horse James is riding, finishes a close second.

As the winning rider, Stillion is handed a trophy, then poses for photos in the winner's circle with the race sponsors. She's beat her case of seconditis — tonight, she'll pick up at least $500 for the jockey's share of the first-prize purse.

Smiling and breathing hard, Stillion signs autographs for a small group of fans, including two girls under the age of ten. Stillion hands one of the girls her race goggles.

But the glow of victory only lasts so long. Stillion's last race of the night is on a horse named Simply Mauvelous. The horse stumbles coming out of the gate and never recovers. It finishes dead last in a nine-horse field.

"It's kind of deflating," she admits.

Mike James’ tattoo was inspired by the movie Dreamer, in which he was an extra. - PHOTO BY ZIA NIZAMI
  • Mike James’ tattoo was inspired by the movie Dreamer, in which he was an extra.

As for James, he rides in four races, and later pronounces himself pleased with his performance — four second-place finishes. "It didn't go too bad," he says.

James has big decisions to make, one of these days.

At 56, he is weary, and he doesn't bounce back as well as he used to. He is all too aware of the dangers in staying on the track.

"I don't want to make the mistake of keep riding and to have something serious happen," he explains at one point. "It can happen tomorrow. I really want to get out on a winning note, and I'd like to get out on a healthy note.

But tonight, he's laconic. Bone-tired yet proud, he is not in the mood to probe his future.

As for retirement, he isn't ready to commit, one way or another. He says, "I'm still thinking about it."

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