'All you gotta do is try'

18-year-old Diné learns the ropes, makes progress as a professional jockey

By Diane J. Schmidt
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, Nov. 28, 2011

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Special to the Times - Diane J. Schmidt

Jarell James, 18, who has ridden for two years as a professional jockey, is shown in October at the Albuquerque Downs at the state fairgrounds.

At an age when most teens are scrounging for any job at all, former Kirtland Central High student Jarell James, 18, is already two years into a professional career as a jockey.

We met up one evening at a diner in Albuquerque. James drove up in his truck after a long day working the horses at the fairgrounds.

With the season now over here, he will travel south.

"It's just meant to be," he explained. "It's getting better each place I go. From here I'm going to El Paso, Texas, December through April."

He was sorry to see the season here end and is ready to get back to work.

"The season started going really good for me and my barn, my trainer James (J.J.) Gonzales III," James said. "I had 28 seconds in Albuquerque."

James, who is Ashiihi (Salt Clan), born for Kiyaa'aanii (Towering House Clan), thanks his dad for teaching him everything about horses and life.

"Watching him train horses, my dad showed me everything I needed to know," James said. "I basically learned to ride in my own backyard. We have a starting gate."

James' father, Christopher, trained horses and sometimes entered them in bush-track races in Arizona, Colorado or Utah, and rodeos on the rez.

"I was riding on the rez when I was 12, 14," Jarell James said. "I had my first race in Norwood, Colo. The day before the race, me and my dad were up that night talking. I was just nervous. He told me a few things to remember - 'do your best, that's all you can do' - so I didn't let it get to me.

"We ran second and after that we got better," he said. "I just rode for the fun of it."

Then, in 2009, a Globe, Ariz., couple noticed his ability and helped him make the step from amateur racing into a career. They approached him one day that summer asked if he would be willing to take a shot at getting a professional jockey's license.

"I said I would think about it," James recalled. "They got everything ready for me and Sept. 9, 2009, was the day I officially became a jockey, at 16.

"Two weeks later I won my first race," he said.

James said his parents were OK with him leaving school to pursue racing full time and while he doesn't think it's for everyone, it was the right decision for him at that point.

James was an all-around athlete, playing varsity football despite his 5-foot, 2-inch frame. He even rode bulls for a while, he said.

"I like wrestling, football, but horses just got the best of me," James said. "I just gave that all up for horses. Being around horses, it gives you a good feeling and getting them to run."

Unusually self-possessed

We looked over some photos taken of him racing at Albuquerque Downs in October.

He was thoughtful for a moment and then said, looking at a shot of himself tearing down the track, "A few years ago I never dreamed I'd be here. It took me three years just to be riding like I am now.

He has a favorite mount, called Zeba, and he said she's getting faster all the time.

"First ran a 3, 5, 6th. Then next she ran second and last time another second. I'm looking for her to win," James said.

"I ride both quarter horses and thoroughbreds," he said. "The thoroughbreds, there's a lot more to it to get a thoroughbred to win, there's some tricks."

Among the things he's picked up along the way: "Know how fast you're going, each time you hit a pole it's five seconds for each pole. Know when to pick up the pace, where to come off the pace, how to go into a turn, knowing how to switch their gait."

He also learned how to translate wishing into doing.

"My dad would tell me, 'You can be anything you want to be, all you got to do is try' and 'It's not where you're from it's where you're going,'" he said.

It's a message he hopes his young siblings, Shaquanna, 16, and CJay, 9, have absorbed as well, he said.

Trying means discipline, and James thanks his roommate in Albuquerque for helping him get up early.

"Every morning I'm up at 5:30," James said. "In the summer I start working the horses at 6. Now the sun comes out a little later, it's still dark then, I start at 7."

According to Wayne Conwell, racing director at Albuquerque Downs, jockeys earn a steady income from working the horses. They are paid for each race they run in, $50 per race at this track. If they win or place - come in second - they get a small percentage of the purse as well.

For someone James' age, he is unusually self-possessed, and most of the people around the track are shocked to find out how young he really is.

"I am one of the youngest jockeys," James said, "and there aren't too many Navajo jockeys. There was a Navajo jockey, Eddie Raymond from Kirtland, in the 1980s."

Thanking the horse

James has built a respectable record in his short career, winning 19 races in 458 starts, and placing second in 37, third in 38, and fourth in 58 of them, according to the racing Web site Betfair.com.

He never fails to thank the horse for doing its part.

"Every time I get on the horse I take my pollen bag and when I get off the horse and my feet touch the ground I say 'Thank you for a safe trip.' I keep close to tradition," he said.

"Before I get to the gate I say to the horse, 'Take care of me, I'll take care of you.'"

James acknowledges, but only briefly, the dangers in his chosen field. Conwell said the racetrack's insurance covers jockeys for major accidents, but they have to carry their own health insurance for other coverage.

"Things can happen in a fraction of a second," James said. "I don't ever think about it. I take any race, I ride to win."

He tells himself the things his dad told him and is modest about where he finds himself today.

"Win or lose, every day I say it's still one of the best days of your life because you woke up and because you're doing something you love," he said, and he is grateful for the help he got along the way.

"So many people that got me to where I am," James said.

One whose help he turned down was an agent who wanted to take him to California, home of some of the highest-stakes racing in the world.

"I told him I'd think about it," James said, but decided he just wasn't ready yet.

"My dad tells me, just be patient, it'll come to you," he said.

In an e-mail, he described the first stakes race he won, when he was offered a mount last year at Yavapai Downs, one of Arizona's three thoroughbred racetracks until it closed this summer.

"This race here was pretty emotional & to me it meant more than just winning, because this race was a thoroughbred stakes race, Budweiser handicap mile 1/16," James wrote. "I knew going into the race my horse had the heart to win & I had desire to show trainers, family friends, & everyone 'You can be anything you wanna be in life, all you gotta do is try.'

"Warming up for the race I didn't let my feelings, thoughts get to me that would make me not ride my race or be overly cautious about making a mistake," he continued.

"I rode the race how I had always did ... running down home stretch the feeling of excitement grew, the adrenaline rush took over & the rest was the beginning of 'Some things are just meant to be.'"

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