Paying The Price

by Ed Meyer

posted on March 4, 2009 in General Discussion | No Comments >>

Around the track, they call 15-year-old Tyler Kaplan “Little Stevie.”

That’s because the youngest student to attend jockey Chris McCarron’s racing academy in Lexington has been compared to Steve Cauthen, the champion jockey who made history when he won the Triple Crown as a teenager in 1978.

Tyler, a home-schooled student, took online classes year-round to get his high school diploma at 14, so he could study at the jockey school McCarron opened in 2006.

Last year, his parents put their careers on hold, packed up and moved from California to Lexington. Tyler is now on schedule to get his jockey’s license by the time he’s 16, said McCarron.

“He doesn’t just talk about being a jockey,” McCarron said in a recent interview, “he talks about being a champion.”

Tyler, who is also the youngest person to land a job at Juddmonte Farm breaking yearlings, is trying to shape what his teachers describe as an innate talent into a multi-faceted package.

Every second of Tyler’s day is part of the plan to become a professional jockey: From the jangle of the 5 a.m. alarm, his schedule involves riding and college classes, running, taking care of horses, nightly sessions with a personal trainer, and a 9 p.m. bedtime.

If he is to become a professional jockey within months, he will have to draw the attention and respect of trainers who will ultimately decide whether he gets a mount for a race.

“You have to have drive,” Tyler said during a recent interview at the Thoroughbred Training Center. “People can teach you things, but they can’t take you to Churchill Downs.”

What makes Tyler Kaplan, one of four equestrian students who won $1,500 scholarships from the Kentucky Horse Council in January, different from any other kid who dreams of winning the Kentucky Derby?

“He’s a natural. It’s the way he rides horses, the way he handles horses, the way he handles himself,” said Frank Garza, who runs a jockey school in California and started working with Tyler when he was 13.

McCarron and Heather Peck, a teacher at the North American Racing Academy, say they see another trait that could serve Tyler well: “He can be aggressive with the tough horses,” Peck said.

It was Garza, a former jockey, who thought Tyler looked and rode like Cauthen and dubbed the 4-foot-11, 95-pound rider “Little Stevie.”

“It won’t be long,” Garza said last week in a telephone interview from California. “We’ll be watching him on television.”

“If he’s ready to ride in the Derby,” Cauthen said, “someone will give him a mount.”

In addition to winning the Triple Crown at 17, Cauthen won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey of the Year in 1977.

“Being in the right place at the right time has a lot to do with it,” said Cauthen.

Tyler and his parents, Heidi and Fred Clemons, have spent years trying to get him into the right place at the right time.

“I was riding a horse before I could walk,” said Tyler.

Heidi Clemons remembers the day that her son, then 10, decided on a 4-H field trip to Santa Anita racetrack, that he was going to be a jockey. Not long after, his father ordered some silks in Tyler’s size on eBay and, when he wore them to the races, an owner invited him into the winner’s circle.

McCarron said Tyler is the first or second student to arrive at school each day.

Tyler has memorized the instructions McCarron gives him as he rides: “Keep low, pull the reins down and back, not just back.”

He is working toward an associate degree in applied science. The racing academy is part of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, and is fully supported by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Part of each day is spent learning how to care for a horse, right down to knowing what kinds of vaccinations it requires.

Since a jockey must know public relations, Fred Clemons has helped Tyler start his own Web site, tylerkaplan.com, where Tyler writes monthly about everything from riding in the snow to taking a class in commercial equine reproduction.

But Tyler says he and his classmates got some advice last week from champion jockey Pat Day about what to do if success eludes them.

“He said to have a good attitude and don’t get down when something doesn’t go your way,” Tyler said.

Cauthen, meanwhile, offers more advice.

Tyler has an advantage by being at McCarron’s school, Cauthen says, but the teen’s schooling will go on after graduation even if he becomes a champion.

“You literally learn until the day you retire,” said Cauthen. “I would tell him to learn as much as he can every day, and to follow his dreams.”

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