By Rebecca Hutchins
We moved to Lexington, Kentucky 16 years ago. I had retired from racing in 1992 following a severe neck injury. Actually, my second one, I had broken my neck previously, a few years earlier, in an accident while exercising a horse one morning. Luckily, I was still able to walk. After my daughter was born, I returned to the saddle as an exercise rider for a very good trainer at Keeneland racetrack.
Out of the blue, I got a phone call from Felicia Leclerc. She told me that Masisi had died of a heart attack. I couldn't believe it! Morena got on the phone and confirmed that it was true. We decided that he had eaten too many red beans and rice. The sad thing was, he had left behind their young children. At the time I was not able to travel to the service, because of my obligation at work. He was a great friend.
I remembered the last time I had seen him was when I made a brief trip to Santo Domingo, to see the new racetrack. We met at the stable gate and reminisced about the good old days. If I get the chance to return, I would like to visit his burial place and make sure that he has a proper head stone.
So many faces I will never forget. Maybe I won't be able to remember all their names. People to thank, for all their help. People to apologize to, if I may have offended them. Those who translated for me, when I didn't understand. To the riders, who accepted me. To Frank Paonessa, en paz descanse. Thank you all, I had the time of my life!
Over the past several years I have worked as manager of various Thoroughbred Breeding Farms, here in Kentucky. Also preparing young horses for the Keeneland sales. I have worked with many Spanish speaking people. I understand now! I speak fluent Spanish.
My present employer is a Veterinarian from Venezuela, Dr. Oscar Benavides, who owns Montesacro Farm. One of our major clients is from Mexico. We have many mares, foals, yearlings and horses of racing age for him. I enjoy working with all of them. Of course, my favorite is Bambera, the famous Triple Crown winning mare from Venezuela. Her first foal is a yearling colt, she is due to foal again in march. There are no more bright lights, nor applauding from the grandstand for us, but Bambi and I are happy on the farm.
When Hispanic people come to apply for a job on the farm, they say "Wow! You speak a lot of Spanish, where are you from?" I tell them proudly, "I am from the Dominican Republic!"
Chapter two, in case we missed it…
We met in a taxi cab, he was in the back seat. My friend introduced me to his brother, Papo, who was conveniently willing to marry me. After all there were horses to ride and races to win. On the way to the courthouse, I gazed out the window along the (Malecon) seashore, wearing a white dress borrowed from the house maid, thinking that this wasn't really what I had in mind for my wedding day. Raised by my conservative mother and having been warned by my father about those island boys... My doubts went right out the window, besides he was handsome in his borrowed blazer. Quickly I was accepted as a regular rider at the racetrack.
My first win, on a horse named Boots Mission, was joyous chaos, sheer elation! Trained by Ramon Alcantara, owned by Nelson Martinez, they were a great team and we won several races together, including a terrific horse named Nelson. Once I rode him in a torrential rainstorm, he was 30 to 1 odds, I couldn't see through my goggles when we left the gate. We found our way around the track and won going away! We both ate alot of mud that day.
I was becoming a sort of an over night celebrity, and was introduced to my body guard! Masisi was big, tall and very dark. We became fast friends, he always teased me because the track announcer had a hard time pronouncing my name. It sounded like he was sneezing, saying Hut...chi... My other helper, that carried my equipment bag, was a skinny deaf, mute boy who was the younger brother of trainer Macho Solano. His whole family was involved in racing. We won several races together, I cherish most the photos where his mother is in the win pictures with us. One of the fastest horses I rode for him was Cinco Octavos, owned by Luis Cubillette. Another faithful member of our team was a tall, calm and cool guy named Ambioris. He took care of saddling horses for me and making sure all my equipment was safe. He is in almost all of my win pictures.
Times were good and we were on a roll!
Thank you Jorge for this chance to share my journey with you.
Thrills, spills and romance-a-la American girl jockey
Chapters 12 to 15
Luckily, I was given the chance to ride some very nice horses at Hipodromo Perla Antillana, before the track was closed and turned into a shopping mall.(?) Jamie Cruz let me ride his horse, Alekos, who won easily for Establo San Carlos.
Impala was also a very nice filly that I got to ride near the end of my time in Santo Domingo. She was picked as one of the favorites.
The horse to beat was a filly ridden by top rider, Carlos Grullon. He was in front of me coming out of the turn for home, but left a space on the rail. I tried to convince my filly to get up in there to pass him on the inside. We played cat and mouse all the way down the lane.
He kept leaving me a space to go for, and I was too stubborn to go around. He beat me, I just plain got out ridden by a good rider. He laughed at me because he knew my filly, had ridden her before, and knew that she wouldn't go through a hole on the rail.
The agony of defeat
My luck was running out. One morning I was galloping a lovely black colt in the middle of the racetrack. Suddenly, I heard someone shout, “Look out!" I turned my head to see over my shoulder. There was a big bay horse breezing, full speed, with a very young boy riding him. He couldn't control the horse around the turn. I remember the horse had a set of green blinkers on his head and he was blowing the turn.
The next thing I knew, I was on the ground again. The horse hit me in the back with his head and ran into my horse's hind quarters with his chest, shot my horse out from under me like a cannon. I ended up with severe whip lash, and the poor horse I had been on, pulled some muscles and was ruined.
I felt terrible for the trainer, I don't know if that horse ever got to race. Unfortunately, the 13 or 14 year old boy on the other horse simply wasn't strong enough to keep him on the rail. I should have been paying more attention to what was going on around me.
Although, my relationship with Papo was more like a brother and sister, rather than actual man and wife, I was shocked to find out that he really had six children, not just one that I knew of. A fellow American man that I met at the racetrack told me the truth. I was taken out into the country to the house where they lived, to see the children and meet his wife.
I felt deceived. Mostly I felt sorry for his actual wife, who was caring for their youngest daughter who was very ill. The whole thing had been orchestrated from the beginning. The grand plan to fool the dumb American girl!
Eventually, we were divorced. The truth is, I don't regret any of it. I would do it all again if given the chance. Really, Papo treated me well, he was a nice guy and he protected me in a dangerous country. These days when I travel, waiting to board a plane, I hear announcements saying" Do not take a bag on board that doesn't belong to you!" I honestly don't know what else may have been in those big suitcases that I carried back then. I guess we'll never know.
Back in the good ol’ US of A
When I left Santo Domingo, I felt very fortunate that I could come and go as I pleased. I really loved the country and the Dominican people. I thought, if I ever have children, I would bring them there. Hopefully, they would love visiting there as much as I did, and also learn to appreciate more our own country, U.S.A.
My children are grown now, my son is 22 years old, studying Mining Engineering at the University of Kentucky. My daughter is 16 years old, a junior in high school. She went on a wonderful trip to Europe last summer, playing clarinet with the Kentucky Ambassadors of Music. They visited seven countries, playing concerts during the tour.
The next trip she wants to go on is to the Dominican Republic! Both my kids have shown an interest in going. However, I am afraid to go now with them, after hearing the sad news that it is no longer safe.
I will go alone one day, so many people that I would love to see again, and some that are no longer with us.
Smuggling and riding: All in a U.S. jockey day's work
Chapters 10 and 11
When ever I made a trip home, I was asked to take a very large suitcase filled with riding equipment from the warehouse. The instructions were to go through a specific line at the airport security, and I wouldn't have any trouble. Once I took around 30 pairs of jockey boots. When I was asked: What are you doing with all those boots? I gave a silly response, "Well, I'm a jockey and I need lots of boots!"
To say that I was naive was putting it mildly.
Soon I realized that several riders wanted to go to the United States to ride races in the Boston area. Carlos Grullon, one of the best Dominican riders, Dario Cespedes and among others, Michellena Ignacio.
She was originally from Curacao and spoke several languages, including English. We became good friends. I admired her style, she had very good balance on a horse.
Even Papo, my husband, got a chance to go to the U.S. to work for his brother. Unfortunately, he would have to leave his 10 year old son, from a previous relationship, behind.
Whenever I returned to Perla Antillana, I always went to Macho Solano’s barn first. He was always happy to see me, usually had a horse for me to ride. He had me get on a good looking black horse, named El Ministro, to exercise one morning.
The horse was very sour, had no interest in training and literally felt like everything but his mane and tail hurt. I told Macho, "He went terrible!" He said he knew the horse wasn't right, but he couldn't figure out what was wrong with him. We went over the horse and found a few issues with him, but the main problem was that his back was very sore.
By this time in my career, I had worked for many different trainers in the U.S. and was developing my own training skills. Macho and I had a great rapport, we decided to work on the horse together. We used poultice on his legs, liniment on his back, gave the horse some time off to freshen him up. Then when we took him back to the racetrack, I just jogged him the wrong way of track, staying up out of the saddle to give his back some relief.
Felicia Leclerc got mad at me for going the wrong way on the track, she told me I was going to get in trouble. We kept our training routine the same and the horse really started to enjoy it. El Ministro won his next race by the length of the stretch! Macho and I were so happy, we made a great team.
Chapter 8 and 9
Masisi and his wife lived across the way in a humble home made of wood poles and a tin roof. She was a great cook and was always willing to prepare my favorite foods. I remember that Morena had a make shift wall next to the stove made of an old cardboard box that read, "Tomatoes."
The next little room was where their two children slept. A boy and a girl who were just babies back then. At the front door I was surprised to see an old ski pole leaning up against the wall.
Having been raised in the state of Vermont, and had spent most of my childhood ski racing down the mountains, kicking a soccer ball or riding horses over jumps, the ski pole looked out of place.
Masisi explained that he used it at night to kill creepy crawly things that came in the house under the door. He demonstrated with the pointed end of the pole, then set it back in it's place next to his machete. Of course I was horrified and thought, Wow, this really country living!
I would love to see their grown children now, son and daughter of Claudia Gonzalez and Francisco Antonio German.
On pay day Masisi would escort me downtown to cash my pay check. We would meet up with a guy on the street to exchange the money, at a better rate than Casa de Cambio. I trusted him.
Anyway, one afternoon he told me that a trainer wanted me to come and school a horse in the starting gate. I was surprised because we always did all of the training in the morning. There was no racing that day and trainers had permission to practice at the gate.
The trainer was an older man who had brought this big, beautiful black horse over from Puerto Rico. The horse behaved very well, we stood him in the gate and galloped out a few times. I really liked the horse and ended up exercising him in the mornings as well.
The trainer told me to keep my mouth shut and we would win a race with this horse. I believed him. Although, I did not realize that the horse was not allowed to run in Puerto Rico because he had a bad habit of turning left leaving the starting gate.
So I was named on the horse in a six furlong race, I had a good feeling that the horse would run well. The gate opened and I found my self sitting in the dirt watching the other horses gallop away. My horse turned left so fast when the doors opened, he just disappeared out from under me. The doctor told me I had bruised my tail bone and that I needed to take some time off. I decided to go home for the holidays
Horse racing side by side with the rat race
Santo Domingo, D.R. became my second home. The Dominican people were so warm and generous to me. I was really fortunate to be there, but I didn't understand why so many people wanted to leave.
Reality hit me when I became aware of the poverty and lack of the simple pleasures of home.
Quickly I learned that one’s priorities were different there. Clean clothes for the next day, change to pay for a ride to work and a cup of coffee in the morning, were most important. So I got used to showering out of a bucket, washing my clothes by hand, and being up on time to catch a ride in the back of a pickup truck to get to the track in the morning.
I lived in a variety of places while I was there, renting an apartment or a room from some wonderful people who were willing to have me. For a time I lived out in the country with an older couple who were so gracious, and spoiled me rotten.
One morning I woke up to brush my teeth, I screamed so loud, when I found a tarantula sitting on the sink next to my bottle of scope!
The older gentleman jumped up and came running in to see what was wrong. He laughed and said “That’s just a baby! You forgot to close your window last night."
That afternoon after catching my usual motorcycle ride back to the house, he took me down to the garden to show me what a mother cacata (tarantula) looked like. She was the size of a soccer ball! I ran back to the house, and he and his wife both had a good laugh.
American female jockey: More fun here than in the U.S.
My favorite horse to ride was named El Hechazo. He was not very big, but he was very light on his feet.
One day we got shuffled back leaving the starting gate. Going down the backside I made a slight chirping noise with my lips, just to see how he would respond.
Wow! He practically jumped out of his skin, he had so much acceleration, I couldn't believe it. Whoa, I said quietly with my hands on the reins, let's save that.
Even though we were nearly in last place, at that moment I knew we would win the race. He was patient with me, as we gradually started picking up horses.
Weaving in and around traffic in the turn. At the head of the lane we got in the clear, I said "Now boy!" He took off like a bullet! Nobody was going to catch him that day.
We won two races together for Establo Yessica. Luckily my mother was able to come down to Santo Domingo to visit and join us in the win picture.
I rode races in the United States professionally for ten years, but I never enjoyed as much as I did in the Dominican Republic.
U.S. jockey lent a woman’s touch to a macho game
There 4 and 5
There was a very big horse named, ‘Cuando ya no me quieres,’ who had a lot of ability. However, he did not like having a handler in the starting gate. He refused to break until the handler let go of him. Consequently, he broke last and had to make up a lot of ground.
We ended up 3rd, I was happy when I realized what a nice horse he was. When we returned to the unsaddling area the horse was covered in mud and sweat from having run so hard.
When I got off, the groom took the lead shank and started beating the horse with the chain! I jumped on the kid, threw him on the ground and started beating him up, punching him! Suddenly, Papo grabbed me up off the boy, saying “No, you can't do that here, you are a woman!" It was quite a scandal, everyone in the grandstand was going crazy.
I was furious! Then I was told the judges are watching you. Later I had to present myself in front of the stewards who threatened to suspend me. I apologized to them, but I made it clear that I was not going to tolerate anyone abusing an animal.
After the fact, I explained to the trainer that I understood what was going on with the horse. He had been raced in the U.S., and did not want a man on his head in the gate. I begged him to let me ride the horse back, but to let me ride into the gate on him and leave me alone.
Trainer, William Morel, approved and gave me another shot on the horse. At the last minute the handler took ahold of the horses head again. They said it was too dangerous, and we ended up 3rd again.
I was really disappointed, I just knew the horse could win. Maybe someone was playing games and did not want him to win?
U.S. jockey gained glory through peril
I learned quickly that being in the number one post position was a dangerous place to be
Riding at Hipodromo Perla Antillana was very different than what I was used to in the U.S. Normally we would get on the horse in the paddock, warm up in the post parade, ride into the starting gate, grab a bit of mane and go.
However, there we had very little chance to warm the horse up. We had to dismount, walk over to the gate on foot to be checked to see if we were carrying an electronic device, a battery that some riders used to encourage their horses to run faster.
Then the routine was to climb into the gate and wait for a handler to bring our horse in to mount it and once on our horses, with a handler at the head and another person behind the gate whacking the horse on the hindend to keep him awake.
Well it took me a while to get used to that, also that the horse's manes had been shaved off. I was lucky if my horse had a little wisp of hair to hang onto at the break. Brick Lass, a horse I won on for Establo Doña Dorina, had no mane at all.
Fortunately, the groom put a leather strap around his neck for me to hold on to while leaving the starting gate.
I learned quickly that being in the number one post position was a dangerous place to be. Many riders would try to intimidate you or literally put you over the rail at the start.
Let's face it no man likes to ne beaten, especially by a girl. The other female riders, Michelena Ignacio, F. Leclerc and M. Martinez were tough. They were friendly off the track, but very competitive in a race. Everyone was hungry to win races and some of the boys gave me a good schooling.
Part 2 of 4
My brother in law had a warehouse on the backside of the racetrack (calle Ortega y Gasset) where he manufactured riding equipment. He made jockey boots, racing saddles and bridles, etc. Very nice, well made items that he would sell locally.
The majority of the products where taken to the United States. The warehouse was equipped with several industrial sewing machines and my new husband worked there creating the merchandise. He also began to teach me a few words in Spanish as I was still struggling to communicate.
His brother had been a very successful rider in the U.S. And was a mentor for me. He would critique my races and give me advice on how to improve my riding.
The warehouse was also where the insurance man would come by looking for his balance due.
One afternoon I rode a horse named Tutankhamen, he was the favorite. Everyone said he was sure to win. We were in front by several lengths going into the turn for home. I got nervous when I realized another horse was approaching.
I heard my coach yelling from the sideline," Hit him lefthanded!" I reached back and hit him right handed half way down the lane, the horse suddenly jumped the inside rail! I flew like a rocket out of the saddle and just missed landing on the 16 pole.
Instead I landed on my face in the dirt, very disappointed that I had lost the race. I was rushed away in an ambulance, I remember rolling around in the back of an old GMC, the driver went extremely fast.
Afterwards my coach scolded me for my poor performance, and I was ashamed, but I was glad I had insurance!
Part 1 of 4
Pioneer U.S. jockey tells how she got to ride in "Paradise"
I was invited to go to the Dominican Republic, to ride racehorses, by a fellow jockey and friend over 25 years ago. I fell in love with the country the moment I stepped of the plane at the Santo Domingo airport. When I felt the warm breeze hit my face and saw the palm trees swaying in the wind, I knew this was the place for me.
Quickly off in a taxi cab where my friend's family members were in an excited conversation, “Mira esto... Y mira el otro." I didn't understand a word. Soon I was taken to the racetrack, Perla Antillana, to meet owners and trainers who might give me a chance to ride. It was a big deal to get permission to ride.
We were told I would only be allowed to ride in a stakes race (clasico). Later it was decided that I could ride in an exhibition race against the other girl riders. So it was, Dominican jockey,
Felicia Leclerc won the race for Establo Induciba, and I had never been congratulated so much for running second in my life. Everyone was so happy to see that I could ride a little bit.
Shortly after I was told that in order to be approved to ride races regularly there, I would have to become a resident and be insured. The fastest way to become a resident was to marry a Dominican.