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When the thoroughbred racing season began last April most observers felt that the jockey standings’ race would be another photo finish between Rico Walcott and Enrique Gonzalez. Just like it was a year ago when Walcott edged Gonzalez by a single winner.
But somebody obviously forgot to tell Dane Nelson. With about a third of the season already in the books, Nelson is tied for the lead with Gonzalez - each with 21 wins - with Walcott, after four wins last Saturday, just one behind.
“It’s like a movie,” said Nelson, 37, a jockey originally from Jamaica. “The first part of the movie was great. Very exciting. The second part is going to be better and I can hardly wait for the finish. When the final episode comes I’ll let you know how it all came together.”
A four-time Jamaica champion, Nelson would like nothing better than to add a fifth title to his name. “It’s going to be a battle. If Rico or Enrique win two races I have to win three. And if they win three races I have to win four,” said Nelson, who did just that a couple of weeks ago when his quartet of winners didn’t include a single favourite.
“I know it’s going to be close. But I would love that,” said Nelson, ebullient as always. “Every jockey wants to be the leading rider. It would be a big bonus. A fifth championship wold be very big. It would be like a dream. Just like winning the Kentucky Derby would be a dream.
“It would mean that I could go anywhere internationally to ride,” said Nelson, who fully believes in his abilities. “I’ve got talent,” he says without sounding boastful. Last weekend Nelson won four races to put him in a tie at the top. He won with favourite Stevie Wonder Girl and $49.90 long shot Vivien’s Charm on Friday; on Saturday he won wire to wire with Eyespymylittleeye and then out-duelled his competition to win by three-quarters of a length with Chaska.
Vivien’s Charm was a big overlay dropping from allowance company - albeit after showing little in her previous start when she finished eighth by 19 lengths. “I didn’t know what to expect but Dane was confident,” said Vivien’s Charm trainer Craig Smith. “He told me in the paddock that he was going to win. But that’s Dane. He’s always thinks he can win a race.”
That’s very true. “I believe in myself,” said Nelson,” who has won 1,217 races in Jamaica and another 292 races in Canada after leaving Jamaica in 2015. “I’ve got no fear. I’m full of confidence. If I’m on a horse that Bob Fowlis put me on I always think I can win,” he said of his agent, who also handles the book for Walcott.
“Bob is the man. It doesn’t matter if I’m on a favourite or a 25-1 long shot. I just look at the overnight sheet to see who I’m riding and then I ride. I’m here to ride. I’m here to ride winners.
“It’s very tough to handle two top jocks. But Bob does it. Like last Saturday. Rico won four races; I won two. So together we won six races. You can’t complain about that. “Each of us both get our share of good horses. Neither of us can cry.
“With Bob Fowlis you can expect anything. He’s always looking for the best horses for his riders. He knows the horses that best suit his riders. “He’s like a dad to me. “I give myself some credit but Bob gives me the ‘equipment’ to work with. It takes a good agent to make a good rider.”
Nelson said Smith didn’t give him any instructions with Vivien’s Charm. “Craig just said ‘Ride her.’ And bam. Magic.” Nelson came from far back to win with Vivien’s Charm.
“That’s the way I like to win races. From behind,” he said. “I like to stalk the pace. I like to watch the top three or four horses in a race and then nail them all at the wire. That’s fun. That’s what I did with (Vivien’s Charm). I took back because there was a lot of speed in the race. I only rode her the last part of the race. The most important part. She won like she was 1-9. Won going away.”
Fowlis believes Nelson is best coming from off the pace too. “He’s very strong,” said the longtime agent. “He’s a very strong finisher. He rides aggressively.” Nelson said position is the most important thing in winning races.
“You have to be comfortably placed. Sometimes you have to take back. Other times you have to go to the top. I have to use my judgement. In either case you have to save some gas for the stretch and that takes skill.”
Positioning varies from race to race. As well as in a single race. “It can change very quickly. Sometimes the race is over before you know it,” said Nelson, who has three daughters - the oldest 17 years-old - from a previous marriage in Jamaica. “I’m the breadwinner in the family. I have to win races to support my kids.”
Nelson said he also has to win races for the people who bet on him. “They are depending on me too. So are the grooms. So are the owners. So are the trainers.”
Nelson rode in Winnipeg in 2015 when he left his home country. But when he came to Edmonton’s Northlands Park that summer to ride Witt Six in the Canadian Derby he knew Alberta was where he wanted to hang his shingle.
Witt Six was no match for Academic in the Derby but he still finished second in what would be the fastest Derby in 14 years. And Nelson didn’t go away empty. He won two other stakes that day. He won the Sonoma with Hero’s Amor and the Sun Sprint with Clear the Runway. Both horses were from the barn of Tim Rycroft, who was also the trainer of Academic.
After that 2015 meet ended in Winnipeg he came to Edmonton in the fall. And when Edmonton ended he made a visit to Woodbine where he only rode in two races. Nelson would like to try Woodbine again. Or the United States.
“Of course,” said Nelson. “It would be another step up the ladder. I’d also like to ride in the Kentucky Derby. A guy can always dream. Nothing is impossible.”
The best horse Nelson rides in Alberta is Dance Shoes, owned by Mohamad K. Khan and trained by Jim Brown. On June 17 he rode Dance Shoes to a five-and-a-half length victory in the RedTail Landing when she settled just off the pace before coming up the rail to win going away. “She’s sweet,” said Nelson. “Like a jar of candy. Very talented. And she’s very versatile. She can go to the top or she can come from behind.”
In 2015 Nelson won 48 races. In 2016 he won 59 races. The following year he won 54 times. But in 2018 Nelson only managed to win 26 times. “That was a bad year. I was going through my divorce and I was between agents,” explained Nelson, who got it together again in 2019 when he won 69 times and was runner-up in the jockey standings to Walcott.
Not coincidently, 2019 was the year Fowlis took his book when Rico was sidelined the entire year successfully battling a tumour in his brain. “I didn’t ride in Canada in 2020 because of Covid and then last year - again because of Covid - I was only able to get into Canada in September.”
But he made good use of his time here winning 15 times from just 97 mounts. “I’m here to win races. I give 150 per cent every time. I love what I do. I have fun with my life and now it’s my turn to laugh. I’ve been in Alberta for so long it feels like home to me now. I know everybody and everybody knows me. They are all like family. I want to win more races and when my career ends I want to be able to go back to Jamaica in one piece. Not in pieces.”
Nelson said he doesn’t have a particular riding style. “I’ve got five different styles. I have skills and I can do different things.” As an example he said there are horses that he can whip on both sides while holding the whip in one hand. “Left side. Right side. Without changing hands. Some people asked if it was a camera trick.”
While Nelson is a veteran he said he is still learning. “The more I ride the better I get. There was little doubt about what Nelson was going to do with his life. “My father trained race horses. He won six races in one day back home. I also have seven uncles who are jockeys. And my grandfather was a jockey too. It’s a family tradition. I was the perfect size to be a jockey,” said the 5-foot, four-inch jockey who comfortably weighs 115 pounds. “There was no way I was going to be a football player.
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