Jody Petty is an unlikely sports hero—and he would be the most reluctant to acknowledge he is a hero to anyone. He has a grin a mile wide, the most affable disposition, a very quick wit and a self-effacing sense of humor. But that’s not why he is a legend in this region’s steeplechase world.
This past spring Petty, age 45, retired from the life as a jump jockey after 25 years and 991 starts in the saddle, virtually unscathed even after innumerable broken bones. He has been leading jockey twice and rode McDynamo to two of his three Eclipse Awards. He is brilliant in the tack, going at speed over daunting timber fences.
One of 10 children of a single mother, Petty grew up riding ponies in Elkton, Md. He doesn’t remember the ponies ever donning a saddle, which is perhaps why his riding seat is so exemplary. Two of his sisters were flat jockeys, but he never set out to be a jockey. Everything in his life happened by chance. He didn’t ride in a saddle until he was 15 years old and was hired by Taylor Jackson to gallop racehorses at Fair Hill in the early mornings before school. He was given a horse off the track named Holy Matrimony. Some of his friends were eventers, so he began to compete, without so much as a jumping lesson. Ever. Without thinking anything of it, Petty rode Holy Matrimony up through the levels. With two dressage lessons under its belt, the pair went up through Intermediate—an amazing feat for a rider without a clue.
After graduating, Petty’s friend and fellow rider Lilith Boucher suggested he work for trainer Bruce Miller in Unionville. It was a job doing everything from barn work to foxhunting, not a career step. “One day, Bruce had me school a horse called Darby Sky over hurdles,” recalls Petty. “We went over the three hurdles and it actually went pretty good. Afterwards Bruce looked at me and asked, ‘Where’d you learn to school over hurdles?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Well, just now with you.’”
He worked with Miller for eight years, galloped for Boucher in the afternoons and evented on the side. “Everybody kept saying to me, ‘Why
aren’t you riding races?’ Jay Meister kept after me until I rode a flat race for Lilith,” Petty says. “Then I was hooked.”
Petty rode only a few races those first couple of years until he went to work for Ricky Hendriks, who really taught him how to ride a race. Petty and Arch Kingsley shared the rides. “Ricky gave me my first winner, my first bunch of winners in ’96,” says Petty.
His first win was the Atlanta Steeplechase on Nap, owned by William Lickle. Soon after, he got the ride on Where’s Pepo and big wins followed. The Jonathan Sheppard-bred horse, also owned by Lickle, won Timber Horse of the Year that year. Wow.
Although it was never his intention, Petty was beginning to make a name for himself. “I learned so much without even realizing it. I learned how to gallop at Taylor Jackson’s; I learned how to school and foxhunt at Bruce Miller’s; I learned how to ride a race at Ricky Hendriks’,” Petty says. “When I went to ride for Rusty Carrier, he helped my riding even more because he loved the show jumping and I rode some nice horses. And then I went to Sanna (Hendriks). She had nice horses and could really ride a race herself. Eddie Graham was a major, important player in my racing, too. He kicked me in the butt when I needed it. Somehow, I did all that in a nice order.”
It was a memorable day in April 1998 when Carrier put Petty aboard Greg and Caroline Bentley’s Clearance Code for his first Grade I stakes win in the first-ever Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings Hurdle at Keeneland. Princess Anne presented the trophy, asked Petty about his choice to wear spurs, slapped him on the shoulder and said, “The spurs worked!”
Indeed. Just weeks later, he won a big race at Radnor Hunt and a raffle for a VW Beetle all in the same day.
But then his luck took a holiday in 2000. Just when things were looking too good to be true, Petty hit a dry spell. He was freelancing and keeping busy, but he had about 95 starts without a win. Lots of close seconds, but no trips to the winner’s circle. A horse named Tropical Sun broke the curse at the Atlanta Steeplechase Races in spring 2001. Petty was back on track. The next spring, he earned a real confidence booster with his win for trainer Bruce Miller on Najjm in the $30,000 Beaulieu of America Novice Hurdle Stakes.
Eventually, Petty wanted a more permanent position and found that with trainer Sanna Hendrix. Petty began to school Michael and Anne Moran’s McDynamo, but was yet to be pegged his race rider. The horse was a phenom already at that point—winning the Eclipse Champion Steeplechase Horse Award in 2003—but he had so much more to do by the time Petty got the nod for the ride. For five straight years—’03, ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’07—McDynamo owned the race meeting at Far Hills, winning the Breeders’ Cup. Petty had the ride for the last three of those wins, as well as huge wins at the Colonial Cup, the Meadowlands and Keeneland. McDynamo broke the record for earnings, topping $1.3 million and won the Eclipse Award again in 2005 and 2006. In 2013, the grand horse was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. “I always sat on the right horse,” Petty says.
In that era, Petty also rode other big winners including Augustin Stables’ Imagina, Irish Prince and Move West, just to name a few. Eddie Graham gave Petty the ride on winners Nat Grew, Rainbows for Luck and Dr. Skip. He continued to ride horses for Arch Kingsley, Todd Wyatt, Sanna (Hendriks) Neilson, Chris Lyons and the late Paul Roland. The list goes on and on.
Sadly, Petty’s mother died in 2009, but not before she knew of his greatest successes. She was there for his two leading rider awards and the Eclipse awards.
In the last few years Petty changed his racing status back to amateur in order to ride again for Sanna Neilson. She wanted her brother’s Guts for Garters to make a try at the Maryland Hunt Cup with Petty at the wheel. “Blackie,” as he is affectionately known, placed third in 2013, won the big race in 2014 and placed second in ’15 and ’16.
Petty had planned to retire from steeplechase racing after he and Blackie made one more try for a repeat win at the Maryland Hunt Cup this year. But those plans were foiled when they both fell at an early spring race. Neither Blackie nor Petty have anything left to prove. Their names are already in the books as winners of the biggest race in their sport.
Riding will continue to be Petty’s job. For the last four winters, he lived in New Orleans, competing in flat races at Fair Grounds Race Course. He will try year-round residency down south. His mother would be delighted. After a horrible fall in Middleburg one year, she rushed to his side, saying, “Why can’t you just ride in little circles like your sisters?” That’s what retirement means for Petty.