At age 26, Forest Boyce (Garrison Forest) is in her first full… (Jed Kirschbaum / Baltimore…)
In the summer of 1996, 11-year-old Forest Boyce, like a lot of other little girls, wanted to ride horses.
And she found a way to do that by working at the farm of late, renowned point-to-point jockey Mike Smithwick in Monkton, where Boyce grew up. Soon she was there on weekends. When school started she was there before classes. When the weather got cold and rain and snow began to fall, she was still there.
Year after year.
"Forest sort of grew up with us," said trainer Alex White, who worked at Smithwick's farm for more than 20 years before being out on her own the past 10. "I think she wanted to be a jockey when she was 16 years old. But her parents, myself and [trainer] Dickie Small all tried to turn her away from it. We all knew what a tough life being a jockey is. A lot of kids think they want to be jockeys, but then they find out how hard it is, that it isn't just riding the horse."
They told her about the hard work, about the grueling schedule and about the danger.
But when Boyce was about 18, she said to White: "Alex, I really want to do this. Will you help me?"
They told her about the competition, the difficulty of competing on equal terms in a man's world and the possibility of serious, life-threatening injury.
When Boyce was about 20, feeling low and having a difficult time trying to get trainers to give her work, she said to White: "Alex, riding defines me. That's who I am."
"When she said that to me," White said, "I really knew this was something she wanted to do, and I decided to help her all I could."
On Monday, the 2010 Eclipse Awards will be announced. Boyce, a Garrison Forest and Maryland Institute College of Art graduate, is one of three finalists for Apprentice Rider of the Year.
At 26, she is in her first full season as a journeyman jockey after having wowed Maryland racing as an apprentice rider last year. During 2010, Boyce started slow, picked up speed in the summer during a meet at Colonial Downs in Virginia and never let up. She won the short summer meet at Laurel Park and then the fall meet with such good numbers that she won the overall jockey title for the year in Maryland.
Boyce, one of about 200 women competing on thoroughbred flat tracks in the United States this year, according to Equibase estimates, and one of 10 who rides at Maryland's tracks, ended her rookie season with 129 wins, 125 seconds and 109 thirds out of 757 mounts. Those finishes amounted to $2,065,984 in purse winnings.
The icing was two four-win days, Dec. 2 — when she was still riding as an apprentice — and Dec. 16, on her sixth riding day after becoming a journeyman.
The effort has put her in the limelight.
The learning curve
It's a long way from where she started, a long way from her first win, May 30, 2009, on White's Colony Club at Colonial Downs (Va.), a win Boyce holds close to her heart, and even a long way from the early days of last season, when the going was rough, the wins hard to come by and the learning curve steep.
She had been riding for a few months as an apprentice when she went to Philadelphia to ride a horse for Small and discovered how much she still had to learn.
"Mario Pino was riding in the same race, and he took me to school," Boyce said, laughing easily at the memory. "I was riding Dickie's horse, No Suitcases, and Mario was leading. As we came into the turn for home, I saw this wide opening along the rail and I thought I could go there and get away with it. Because the rail was so dead and no one was there, I thought, 'Oh, I can put one over on this guy!' Little did I know."
Pino is no rookie, having now ridden 6,300 winners, and didn't let her get away with it.
"I took my horse up inside of him as we turned for home, and Pino came in on me and shut me out," she said. "I had to pull my horse up and jump over his heels — the race report said we 'hopped heels' — and we did. We had to hop over his horse's heels."
When Boyce moved her horse up on the inside, Pino said, he was looking back to figure out who it was.
"It was really funny," Pino said recently, recalling the incident. "Most veteran riders won't do that. I kept looking and thinking, 'Who is that?' And she kept trying to do it. There's an old saying in racing: 'You can't go inside of one horse in front, but when there is a pair of them, you can.' And after the race, she filed an objection. I admit I did kind of laugh, but afterward we talked and I explained to her that it's not easy going inside of a horse when he's on the lead alone. She learned from that."
Pino's win withstood the review.
"The thing is, things like that happen in every race, and afterward some people get it and some don't," Small said. "She got it and hasn't done it again. In fact, at a race in Delaware [late last fall], there was a guy in front of her further off the rail than Mario was and she went around him on the outside and won the race."
Making her own road