At Jockey School, Aspiring Riders Learn Hardships of Racing, Getting Fit

PHOTO: Vanessa Reill, 22, races a thoroughbred horse down the dirt track at the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky.
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Wearing a bright-pink helmet, Vanessa Reill flies down the dirt track on the back of a racehorse. Standing at 5 feet, 5 inches tall, she pushes forward with the horse as one powerful muscle machine.

This is her shot at being a professional jockey in the death-defying, adrenaline-pumping sport of thoroughbred racing, reaching speeds of up to 40 mph.

"I just love horses, love riding, love going fast," Reill, 22, said.

In Lexington, Ky., where horses and horse racing are part of the local fabric, Reill, originally from Norway, is a few strides away from graduation at the North American Racing Academy, the only professional jockey school in the United States.

Through the academy, aspiring jockeys learn the techniques and rules of professional race riding, as well as how to care for horses, including courses in nutrition, fitness and technology.

Aside from the jockey-training program, the academy also offers a "Horseman's Pathway" program for students aiming to be grooms, exercise riders or, ideally, trainers. But no matter what the career path, everyone does barn work, has classes and takes exams.

Over the course of the two-year program, Kentucky residents pay $150 per credit and out of state students pay $450 per credit. After 60 credits, students earn an associates degree.

This year's freshmen class has 12 aspiring jockeys, 11 of whom are women, defying the professional racing odds. Only 16 percent of licensed jockeys in the United States are female, and of the top 100 jockeys right now, only two are women.

But the young ladies to whom "Nightline" spoke at the academy were ready to man up.

"No princesses, you've got to be one of the guys," Marissa Yetter, 19, said.

Looking at the odds, only two of these women will make it to the big time, but, first, they will have to elbow out the Pennsylvania native, who, at 5-foot-3 and about 105 pounds, knows full well it's a cut-throat sport.

"You have to go into any situation being humble, but yet still being able to say, 'Hey, I'm the best. I can kick all your butts.' It's a mental kind of duel personality," Yetter said. "When we first started riding, it was basically like the movie, 'Hunger Games.'"

Although Yetter's competition at the academy was mostly veteran riders, there was one freshman who had the audacity to be a novice. At 5-foot-2 and 112 pounds, Chase Roberts, a 20-year-old from North Carolina, was ready to stand his ground against his female classmates.

"I've never ridden and now I'm here," Roberts said. "All the girls didn't intimidate me, no complaints about that. But I saw that some of them were pretty good at riding and I was like, 'Dang, they know what they're doing and I don't.'"

Although he has been accepted into the academy's elite riding program, "Nightline" was there for his first time ever on a horse.

But no experience can be a leg up at the school because novice riders don't have bad habits to break. Racing a thoroughbred requires different techniques than show jumping or dressage.

Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron, one of the winningest jockeys of all time, founded the North American Racing Academy in 2006. Like Chase, McCarron said he came into racing without much prior experience.

"I never touched the horse until I was 16 years of age, and I was riding professionally when I was 19," he said. "[Jockeys] have the greatest ability to stay out of the horse's way to the highest degree."

That includes weighing so little that the horse barely feels you on its back.

"A horse is not going to be able to perform at its optimum peak if it's carrying 100-something pounds," McCarron said.

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