Photograph by Tod Marks
Each morning, Elizabeth Scully rises early and springs into the saddle. In the afternoon, she studies history at Loyola University in Baltimore. At 20, Scully is an apprentice jockey, maintaining balance on her mounts and in her life. “I have the best of both worlds,” she says.
The Owings Mills, Md., resident was smitten with horses as a young girl—and it didn’t take long for her to catch the racing bug. “I had a pony that was too fast for the show ring,” she recalls.
In 2019, she rode three horses at the Willowdale Steeplechase in tough conditions. “It was pouring the whole day,” she recalls.
She finished first in a flat race for young riders and third in another. She didn’t fare as well in her first sanctioned race over hurdles. “I finished it,” says Scully.
At 5-foot-3 and 125 pounds, Scully keeps fit by exercising horses for trainers year-round, hitting the gym to build strength. Her favorite mount is her own horse, a 7-year-old bay gelding named Disobedience, who she’s ridden only in flat races so far. “He’s finished third and fourth in some competitive fields, which is very encouraging,” she says. “This year, if everything goes to plan, he’ll go over timbers.”
During Scully’s first timber race after coming up from the junior ranks, she took jumps in a ladies’ competition in the Old Dominion Hounds Point-to-Point in Virginia. “I stayed way too far back, but I wound up finishing second,” she says. “It really was a tremendous learning experience.”
This past July, Scully was one of four amateur jockeys to head to Ireland as part of the Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation’s international trip for developing riders. Apprentice jockeys can compete in any event, but they get a weight allowance—10 pounds off. “It’s a big advantage,” Scully says.
Sean McDermott was only 13 years old when his dad died of the degenerative illness Motor Neurone Disease. “Dad had show jumping ponies and horses, so from when I was a child, that was what I did,” he recalls.
Young Sean felt lost, so he asked a trainer in his native County Kerry, Ireland, for a job as a stable lad. “That’s where I really got the bug for racing,” he recalls. “I then got accepted to the Racing Academy and Centre of Education in County Kildare.”
From there, McDermott became an apprentice race jockey. He rode Flamenco Fury, his first winner, to victory in 2000. Seventeen years later, he topped the National Steeplechase Association list of riders by money won. He had 14 wins, 22 second-place finishes and 14 third-place results for a total of $719,550.
Over the past two decades, McDermott has taken more than 100 mounts to the winner’s circle in Ireland, while enjoying considerable success racing part of the year on America’s shorter, firmer courses. “The tailgating all around the course in America brings a party atmosphere and huge crowds, which is a great way to get the fans in with so little permanent buildings having to be built,” he says. “This is something Irish racecourses could definitely learn from.”
McDermott has spent the winter recovering from a fracture to a vertebra in his back sustained on Jan. 1. A week before, he’d just been cleared to ride after a previous collapsed lung and broken ribs. Injuries aside, he can’t wait to get back in the saddle. “It’s a great feeling—an adrenaline rush,” says McDermott. “You get that buzz passing the line in front when your tactics have all gone as planned, especially if you were the difference in that horse winning or losing.”
In the face of a severe injury, Jack Doyle managed to maintain his winning tradition and was crowned joint champion jockey of 2019 by the National Steeplechase Association. “It’s the highlight of my career, along with the Grade 1 races I’ve won,” he says.
Doyle shares the honor with Michael Mitchell, who stood down from competing after Doyle broke his jaw in a fall from his horse. In 2018, Doyle led the standings for much of the year, finishing second in the rankings with 16 wins. Fellow Irishman Darren Nagle edged him out that year with 17 wins.
The 30-year-old hails from a racing family. He can’t recall life without horses. “My dad trains racehorses, so I’ve always been involved and never knew any different,” he says.
Doyle had won more than 200 races in England and Ireland before coming to America in 2014, making a home in Monkton, Md. Known for his light hands and precise balance, Doyle turned heads immediately, riding Makari to victory in the A.P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase Grade 1 in Saratoga, N.Y. Last year, he amassed an impressive record, winning one out of every five times he climbed in the saddle. That translates to $592,300 in 2019 earnings and over $3.2 million overall.
In a sport where a rider falls an average of once every 10 jumps, injury is an ever- present threat, with pain that radiates beyond physical discomfort. “When you’re injured, it’s frustrating to be missing out on rides you could be on,” says Doyle. “It also has a financial impact, as you’re not getting paid while you’re off.”
After he mends, Doyle will stick with the strategy that’s made him an international champion. “The conditions the races are run in are different and the type of horse is different, but to ride in a race is the same,” he says. “It’s just trying to maximize the ability of the horse you’re riding.”
Michael Mitchell was in the home stretch in November, tied with rival Jack Doyle for the honor of the 2019 National Steeplechase Association jockey championship. The two riders had battled all year, and it was Mitchell’s big chance to best Doyle, who’d led the standings for much of the season.
Then, with two meetings to go, Doyle took a tumble when his horse balked at a hurdle, kicking the jockey on his way down. With the injured Doyle out of the running, Mitchell became the odds-on favorite.
That wasn’t the way Mitchell wanted to win. He passed on riding the final events, leaving the two in a tie. “We’re friends, and there’s quite a bit of mutual respect,” Mitchell says. “It was unfortunate that Jack fell before the last meeting, because it was quite a thriller leading up to it.”
Mitchell grew up in Warwickshire, the county in England’s West Midlands where Shakespeare was born. As a lad, he rode ponies, discovering horse racing at 17. Now 29, he’s a seasoned and celebrated pro, competing on both sides of the Atlantic and adjusting quickly to the differences in America. “Races are quicker and the ground is a lot harder, so the racing in America is harder and more tactical—with smaller, tighter tracks,” he says. “In England and Ireland, it’s more of a staying test.”
Staying power is essential for any successful jockey. In 2017, Mitchell shattered his jaw and broke a cheekbone and eye socket when his horse’s hoof landed on his face after a tumble in the Queen’s Cup. “It’s part and parcel of a career,” he says, describing the feeling as “Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier hitting you with their best shot all at one time.” “You just carry on.”
Tom Garner figures that he absorbed racing by osmosis, growing up in England near Cheltenham Racecourse in Gloucestershire, known as the Home of Jump Racing. “I’ve always wanted to be a jockey. I enjoyed going fast,” he says.
Garner has been hunting and show jumping since he was 10. In his teens, he headed to Lambourn, a major training center in Britain. He earned his license at 16 and was offered a job at 17. It’s been quite a ride since then. He competed in the U.K., Italy, France, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia before heading to the United States to ride for Ricky Hendricks, Jonathan Sheppard, Richard Valentine and Leslie Young. “I am very competitive,” he says. “I can’t sit still. I like winning.”
Here in the U.S., Garner has been in the winner’s circle 11 times in 78 starts. He’s also been in the emergency room a lot, on both sides of the pond. Garner ticks off his injuries: “Left collarbone 12 times, right collarbone once, sternum once, left leg—tibia and ankle in same injury—plus various back fractures.”
As a well-traveled rider, he sees a world of difference between meetings in the U.K. and the U.S. “In England and Ireland, people have grown up with races,” he says. “There are races every day and perhaps five on the weekends.”
Over here, Garner has fun meeting fans at tailgates. “It’s a special event—something most people do only a few times a year at most,” he says.
Jockeys shy away from naming a favorite mount, for fear of offending an owner or trainer. But Garner acknowledges a sweet spot for Rayvin Black, the speedy ebony gelding who made his career in Britain and is now retired. But Rayvin Black’s ties to Garner remain. Artist Rupert Till, the jockey’s sponsor and uncle, created a sculpture of the horse. And Garner’s 14-year-old cousin, India Till, shows the horse.
At 29, Garner isn’t planning to retire anytime soon. But he’s preparing for his second act, exploring a pizza business and working as an insurance agent. He also has his sights set on bloodstock, evaluating the prospective winners of tomorrow. “For now, I want to ride as long as I can, until my body has enough,” he says.