Dawn at the Track with Kentucky Derby Winning Jockey Stewart Elliott

NORTH HOUSTON – A jockey’s day starts early. At Sam Houston Race Park, training begins before sunrise.

For champion jockey Stewart Elliott, meeting the sun on a race track somewhere across the country has been part of his morning routine for over 40 years.

Another day at the office.

Sunrise at Sam Houston Race Park (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved)

“He’s just breezing, just breezing,” said Elliott adjusting straps atop the dark bay horse he had headed toward the track for training. All the early starts are about getting ready for race day. Elliott said horses are like, “athletes. They have to be fit and conditioned. So we’ll work ‘em, you know, half-mile, five eighths of a mile, we’ll just get them ready and keep them fit...keep them in shape for racing.”

It takes around fifteen minutes to ride a horse out and around the track. Back at the barn, a team of grooms will not only get the horse ready to go out but upon a horses return, the same team untacks, washes off the sweat, and hooks the horse up to a clothesline-type of merry-go-round, more simply known as a hot walker. This mechanical device can walk up to four horses a time and is an important step after a horse trains. By keeping a horse moving, it allows the horse to gently cool keeping blood and oxygen moving trapped heat out of the horses muscles.

Early morning horse training at Sam Houston Race Park (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved)

Elliott lives in Kentucky but is rarely home. “May be two or three times a year,” he said. Otherwise, he is moving from track to track following the season. The 2023 season is his fourth racing at Sam Houston Race Park. Riding for trainer Steve Asmussen keeps bringing him back. By wins, Asmussen is the top trainer in North America. Elliot has also racked up an impressive amount of wins in his career. Almost five thousand five hundred and counting. However, he said his 2004 Kentucky Derby win riding Smarty Jones is the highlight by a long shot.

“Oh, it was very good,” he said. His silver blue eyes shining, a big smile crept up his face. He was back in the moment, feeling the historic ride. “First of all, it’s a thrill just to be there. You know, to be in that race. But to win it was like, I can’t even explain it. I’ve been asked hundreds of times. It’s just something I can’t explain, the way that you feel.”

When Elliott won the Kentucky Derby, he was the first jockey in a quarter of a century to do so in a first appearance in the race. “That’s a special race,” he told Houston Life reporter Melanie Camp.

Houston Life's Melanie Camp talks with Kentucky Derby Winner Stewart Elliott (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved)

While every race looks like a frantic dash viewed as a spectator, Elliot said from where the jockey sits, it is far more controlled, “there’s a plan, and there’s a strategy,” he explained. “Pace is always on your mind. You know how fast to go and where you’re supposed to be in the race, and you try to get a position according to the horse you ride and the way the race plays out.”

When handling each horse and their different personalities, Elliott said his secret to riding a tricky horse is “just try to get along with them. Sometimes you can figure something out on a horse what they like or what they don’t like but, basically just try to get along with them.”

At this point in his career, Stuart has had over 34,000 starts and has won hundreds of millions of dollars. As far as the exact number goes, “you’d have to look it up. Because I’ve been doing it for so long.” Elliot does not take home all the money he wins. There are trainer and agent cuts. Nevertheless, it is obvious he made a good choice when, as a 16-year-old, he decided to become a professional jockey.

Elliott’s father had been a jockey too but had to bow out after struggling for too long to keep his weight down, as Elliott explained. While Elliott senior ultimately made the transition to trainer. Elliott junior, picked up on the track where his father left off.

Weight limits loom a constant consideration for all jockeys, Elliot said some struggle more than others, but at 57 years old, he said he no longer has to fight his weight in the same way he did as a younger rider. “May be it is because I’m getting older, I don’t know.” He said eating healthy has helped, and he only allows himself one meal each day, “Dinner.”

His exercise regime is riding. Elliott gets his entire workout in during a morning training at the track. Squatting up on the horse for several minutes straight, core tight, and arms engaged, holding reins taut. Off season, he said he “might go for a run” if his weight is threatening to creep up.

Still riding strong, decades after his first start as a teen, Elliot said as long as he still feels good and “business is good,” he will keep racing. He loves horses. “Since I was a little kid, I was always around him. I grew up around them.” If he had not liked horses, he said, “I probably would have chosen something different. Right?”

Catch Stewart Elliot ride at Sam Houston Race Park this season.

Racing is every weekend, Fridays through Sundays and special holidays right through until mid-June. General entry is only $5. Find out more online here.

Watch the Houston Life feature on Jockey Stewart Elliott in the video above.

About the Author: