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First at-bat in the Majors. First shift in the NHL. First ride as a professional jockey. Nerves jangle. Heart rates soar.
Matthew Dennis and Rachel Slevinsky both made their first starts as jockeys this past Saturday at Century Mile: Dennis on Tough Loving in the third race and Slevinsky on Cuvee Tee in the sixth.
“It was a thrill,” said Dennis, who finished fifth in his debut. “A feeling I’ve never had before. It was so nice. And so sweet. I enjoyed it a lot.”
Slevinsky was thrilled too. “I was very excited. I was chomping at the bit for a whole week since I first learned that I was going to ride last Saturday.”
She wasn’t, however, happy with the start when her mount Cuvee Tee hopped out of the starting gate and also ended up fifth.
Dennis and Slevinsky are both graduates of the Olds College Professional Racetrack Exercise Rider Program that has produced many jockeys that have competed in Alberta and Ontario.
“The Olds College was amazing to be honest. It was fun to be there and it taught me a lot of stuff I didn’t know,” said Dennis, 22, who is originally from Jamaica.
“I learned all the basic stuff: how to wrap a horse’s legs, how to clean out stalls, massaging horses, bathing horses, walking horses, how to pick a horse’s feet, how to check their tendons and then how to gallop. I would definitely recommend that people join if they want to get into this industry.”
Slevinsky agreed. “They throw a lot of information at you. The Program really gets you ready,” said Slevinsky, 23, who graduated from Olds College in 2019 but had to wait until this past weekend to get her first opportunity in a real race.
“I learned from a former jockey, Nancy Jumpsen,” Slevinsky said of the former Sovereign Award winning apprentice rider. “She still keeps tabs on me. It’s a close community and Nancy took me under her wing.”
While still very young, both Dennis and Slevinsky have been around horse racing for many years. Slevinsky has been at the track since she was 16 - starting out as a groom for trainer Jerri Robertson and galloping horses in the mornings for the last three years.
As a result she said her debut “wasn’t that big of a jump for me. “I usually gallop for Anderson Ward so it was nice to get a ride for him,” Slevinsky said of the trainer, who sent out Cuvee Tee.
“But I’ll gallop for anyone who needs help,” she said of also freelancing for Alberta trainers like Dale Greenwood and Jim Brown.
Dennis said he has been around thoroughbreds forever. “I was only four-years-old. I came to the track when I was nine. Since then I’ve been riding, riding, riding. My mom’s side of the family are all into horse racing. Either as grooms, trainers, owners or jockeys; I have a couple of cousins who were jockeys. And I had a brother-in-law Andre Martin who was a jockey,” he said of the latter, who rode in Alberta as recently as last year.
“I also had two sisters who looked like they were going to be jockeys but they got married and had kids instead,” said Dennis, who came to Canada with his family when he was 13.
“Being a jockey is definitely my goal. Honestly, I want to be like John Velazquez and Irad Ortiz Jr.,” he said of two of the globe’s top jockeys. It will take a lot of hard work to get to their level but that’s what I dream about.”
Being a top jockey is certainly Slevinsky’s dream too. “My goal is to get a lot better and go somewhere even bigger,” she said. “I’m aiming to be one of the best female jocks of my time. I’m recognized for my hard work. This was just the first step.”
Dennis is going to get another chance as early as Friday when he rides first-time starter Valentino Rossa for one of the circuit’s top trainers, veteran Rick Hedge.
“I’ve worked with Valentino Rosso for a long time,” said Dennis. “I love that horse. She’s smart and she can run. I can’t wait until Friday.”
Hedge doesn’t know what to expect. “She’s been a handful. She’s been a lot of trouble,” said Hedge, a top jockey himself before he retired and turned to training. “She’s bucked Matthew off at least three times in the mornings. But he’s a trier. He kept getting back on. He’s galloped her for the last couple of months. He came to me looking to get on horses. He’s schooled her at the starting gate so I gave him a shot.”
“I’m excited again,” said Dennis. “I can’t wait to see how far I can get in this industry. So far it’s been a dream come true. I just want to say thank you to all of the people who have helped me out with their support.”
Dennis said he was nervous about his first start last Saturday. “Yes I was. Especially walking towards the paddock. But by the time I jumped on Tough Loving the nerves all went away and I did what I was supposed to do. Tough Loving broke good but he didn’t really like all the mud being splashed on him. And the one-mile race was probably a little too far. If we had a fast track and a shorter distance I think he would have been in the picture.”
Theresa Sealy, who has been with the 15-week Olds College Program since it started in 2005 has produced many good jockeys beginning with Omar Moreno, who was Canada’s leading apprentice in both his first two years of riding. Moreno, who is still riding in Ontario, has won 534 races for purse earnings of $20-million.
“We’ve had several others too,” said Sealy, an instructor at Olds College, of Scott Williams and Sheena Ryan, who have also won Sovereign Awards as Canada’s champion apprentice jockeys, Kayla Richardson, who was runner-up in Sovereign Award balloting, and Corrine Andros, who is riding here now.
“There is no training like this anywhere else in Canada. “You learn about horse racing from the ground up. How to look after the horse. The physiology of the horse, how to leg up, how to handle and manage a horse, how to make a cross… Everything about race riding,” said Sealy, who is also the manager of backstretch programs for Horse Racing Alberta.
“It’s a tough course. It’s not easy. You start with five weeks at our indoor arena and then you go to the track at Century Mile. If they can’t handle this then they can’t handle their job. When we started out it was a struggle to get trainers to employ our students. But within a year or too they were asking ‘When are the students coming out?’ We have them prepared to work in their barns and be a contributing member of the team. It’s very valuable.”
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