Jockey School Gives a Leg Up to Low-Income Students

by Margaret Ransom

Lacombe, Alberta, isn’t exactly the place anyone would figure the next generation of jockeys would come from. The Canadian province, which actually is well-known worldwide for horse activities in general, thanks in large part to events like the Calgary Stampede and Spruce Meadows, does have a handful of racetracks, but it’s not exactly a place where one thinks future riders will hail from.

The Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey Training Academy in Panama City, Panama, and the North American Riding Academy in Lexington, Kentucky, are where most minds go when the words “jockey” and “school” come together.

But former jockey Roy Sturgeon wants to change all that.

Every day, seven days a week, Sturgeon gives riding lessons, mostly to children, at his facility — a former racehorse training center and boarding operation known as Flying Cross Ranch — in Lacombe. And though he has no specialty since he’s ridden in just about every discipline throughout his life, racing is where his heart is. He teaches Western and English and general horse care, but three times a week he teaches racing.

“I rode in my first [fun] race when I was six years old,” Sturgeon explained. “I always wanted to ride races and [as a child] I had a friend who was a trainer. At 13, I walked out of school and began galloping horses and I got my license two days after my 16th birthday.”

The wins as a jockey came for Sturgeon — and so did the injuries. After battering his body for far too long, he retired from racing and switched to training of a different kind. At his facility located halfway between Calgary to the south and Edmonton to the north, Sturgeon brought riding — often considered an expensive sport — to a community of people who mostly couldn’t afford such luxuries. He explains he has students from all backgrounds, many of which come from lower-income families and who would otherwise be finding their after-school activities on the streets.

“They all do the hard work, regardless of social status or economical means,” Sturgeon said. “About 60 percent of our students come from low-income families or are children of single parents. This program, I know, helps keep them on the straight and narrow and that’s a good thing.”

On Saturdays, in addition to riding, the kids in his program are taught how to clean stalls, feed, groom and learn about tack and equipment. Basic horsemanship skills are a requirement to ride. And Sturgeon operates under strict safety guidelines. Helmets are a must, as are speed limits and extreme caution and respect for their fellow riders and horses. Those who don’t follow the rules don’t ride.

“We even have a starting gate,” Sturgeon explained. “And one thing is for sure — no sticks!”

About 50 kids, age six to 18, who love the sport of horseracing and hope to not grow up someday (so they can become jockeys), are regular participants in Sturgeon’s racing program known as the “Junior Jockeys of Flying Cross Ranch.” They ride the mixed bag of school horses, which ranges from ponies of all sizes to former racehorses and even some Standardbreds and Saddlebreds. Many of them are someone else’s discarded former best friend, saved from the fate of slaughter —which is legal in Canada — by Sturgeon. All have been evaluated for safety, too.

The Junior Jockeys are also taught racing history, which is a key component to the program.

“We have a deep history in horse racing here, believe it or not,” Sturgeon said. “[Canadian Hall of Famer] Don MacBeth came from about 20 miles from here. He inspired the [now defunct] Don MacBeth Fund [which assisted more than 2,000 injured jockeys and exercise riders for more than 25 years].”

But the big part of the jockey education is what Sturgeon refers to as “actual race days,” which are held twice a year at his Flying Cross Ranch. He and his wife Christy put together an actual condition book and horses are then “entered” in the races based on the somewhat simple conditions set forth in the book. Also, on race day the horses are saddled in a “paddock” and the entrants participate in a post parade before the actual race. Jockeys also weigh out and in, and winners are honored with their own winner’s circle presentation.

Horses don’t run for purse money, but there is pride in successfully riding a winner.

The first actual race day of this year is known as “Talk Derby To Me,” which celebrates the Kentucky Derby and will be held on the first Saturday in May, just like the Run for the Roses. The kids and their friends and family sell tickets to the event, proceeds of which go to cover some of the costs of the Junior Jockeys program. Everyone who attends dresses up in their Derby Day finest and they all enjoy their mock race day together. And when their own race card is over, everyone celebrates with a party before watching the pageantry of the Derby.

“We try to keep it as close to real as we can,” Sturgeon explains. “These races are actual races for these kids. We have jockey saddles and silks that have been donated, though we’re hoping some more tracks will donate these kinds of items, because the kids really can’t afford it. Some of the kids have helmets, but some don’t and we provide them, but it would really be nice for these kids to have their own.”

This year, the “Talk Derby To Me” event means even more to the kids in Sturgeon’s program. This year, the group is planning to attend the annual Jockeys and Jeans Fundraiser for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, set for June 22 at Santa Anita Park in California. Since many of the kids in the program can’t even afford the costs of lessons, they are determined to raise the travel expenses themselves, hoping to sell more tickets to their mock race meet and maybe get lucky enough to solicit some donations from the racing community.

The Jockeys and Jeans Fundraiser allows fans to “meet and mingle with Hall of Fame riders, current and retired riders, and PDJF beneficiaries, autograph session, live & silent auction of racing memorabilia, buffet lunch, and a great day of racing to benefit the PDJF.”

“This is something we’ve been working for and it’s also a lesson for them in that, when they want things, they have to work for them,” Sturgeon said. “We are doing all we can as a group to get the funds together. And, of course, since we’ll be in California, we’d like to take everyone to Disneyland.”

At the end of the day, Sturgeon doesn’t know if any of his willing and bright-eyed students will become the next Don MacBeth or Gary Stevens or Mike Smith or even an Ortiz brother. The joy for him is the hope that maybe it will happen — and that he’s instilling the hard work ethic he found necessary to be a successful jockey in kids who may not have otherwise had the chance to learn about it. And the sense of community and horsemanship and pride he feels sharing in each child’s successes while learning to ride.

“I hope I’m getting them to set goals and work hard for those goals,” Sturgeon said. “And I hope this is something good for racing, something as good for racing as it is for the kids [in the Junior Jockeys program].”

If you want to help the Junior Jockeys and donate to their trip to the Jockeys and Jeans Fundraiser, click HERE.

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