Apprentice, 21, finds success is a joyride

Horse racing: Quick success at the track couldn't be more fun for young jockey Ryan Fogelsonger - and it shows.

Horse Racing

October 11, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

After Ryan Fogelsonger earned his first victory in May, he returned to the winner's circle wearing a radiant smile. The slender jockey wore that same smile after his first stakes victory, first graded-stakes win and first Maryland Million stakes triumph.

Even after a recent mount acted up in the starting gate and was scratched, Fogelsonger smiled and joked with bettors as he made the long walk back to the jockey's room. And what did he do after riding his very first race - despite losing by 34 lengths?

"He came back with the biggest smile on his face, like my 5-year-old kid in a candy shop," said Brian "B.J." Jones, the trainer who gave Fogelsonger his first mount on March 21 at Laurel Park.

Fogelsonger, Maryland's newest jockey sensation, greets life with a glowing smile. And, especially lately, he has every reason to do so.

Since that inauspicious debut 6 1/2 months ago, Fogelsonger, 21, has soared to the top of the standings of apprentice, or beginning, jockeys in North America. He is the front-runner to become the ninth Maryland rider since 1974 to win an Eclipse Award, racing's highest honor, for being the outstanding apprentice jockey.

"I never thought it'd be like this," Fogelsonger said. "It seems like everything's coming overnight."

For someone who never sat astride a horse until three years ago, it is. Most jockeys grow up on farms or in horse-obsessed families. Fogelsonger grew up in Silver Spring playing soccer and running track. He lives at home with his mother, Kathryn, a legal assistant in a law firm, and his father, Len, a retired Naval commander.

"It does seem sort of bizarre," his mother said. "Ryan really has never been around horses. But he's always been very athletic. And he's always had this wonderful smile and positive attitude. I think people respond to that no matter what your walk of life."

People, horses ... Fogelsonger seems to have them all under his spell. And it's a fast-developing spell that the young rider has cast while learning quickly on the job.

After riding his first races this spring at Laurel and Pimlico, the stewards, who govern racing, called him in for a chat. They had watched Fogelsonger struggle trying to control his mounts charging down the homestretch.

They could have asked him to stop riding until he gained more experience. But instead, the stewards, two of whom are former jockeys, offered a few tips. Fogelsonger, eager to learn, responded, and the stewards gave him the go-ahead to continue riding.

His progress can be measured by this: Fogelsonger needed two months to win five races; he has won 157 races in the ensuing 4 1/2 months.

His 162 victories rank about 20 more than the next-winningest apprentices: Francisco Duran, who rides in Northern California, and John McKee, who rides in Ohio and Kentucky.

Trainers in Maryland have watched - and marveled - at Fogelsonger's progress.

"He has without a doubt improved more quickly than any apprentice I have ever seen," said A. Ferris Allen III. "He was just very lost out there early on in his races.

"But then he went to Colonial Downs and started riding six, seven races a day. He just blossomed. I'll ride him on anything now."

Dale Capuano, the veteran trainer, wonders whether any beginning jockey in Maryland has garnered so much success so quickly.

"He's got all the tools at this point to be something special," Capuano said. "The one thing he's had from the beginning: Horses run for him. That's like a gift. You either have it or you don't."

The summer after Fogelsonger graduated from Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, he accompanied a friend, Henry Colon, to Laurel Park. Fogelsonger had been to Laurel as a boy a couple of times with his father. But this was his first trip to the stables. Colon worked as an exercise rider for Capuano.

Fogelsonger was 18 and cooking in a pizza shop. A rider asked him whether he'd like to sit on a pony. "Sure," Fogelsonger said. The rider helped him up.

His reaction? "This is kind of big."

Still, the experience lit a fire in Fogelsonger. He had always considered horses to be beautiful animals. He had always been athletic but small, jockey-sized. He is 5 feet 3, 103 pounds.

After a couple of quick riding lessons, he shipped off to South Carolina for a crash course in riding thoroughbreds at a training center. His job: breaking yearlings, teaching them to accept a saddle and rider. They delivered as many, if not more, lessons to him as he gave to them.

After six months, Fogelsonger returned to Maryland and went to work at Bonita Farm in Darlington, learning his craft from the inside out: cleaning stalls, walking horses, galloping them, breezing them at near-race speed, assisting veterinarians, helping saddle horses before races.

He worked there one year and then joined his friend, Colon, at Laurel Park. Fogelsonger began galloping and breezing horses for Capuano. Eight months later, Fogelsonger rode his first race.

Kevin Witte, a former trainer, agreed to be his agent, booking his mounts.

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