by Kathy McKenna
Being a steeplechase jockey in the eastern half of the USA is like being a bull rider in the west. It is not a matter of if you're coming off, it's a matter of when. And when you fall off and crash on the ground, break your collarbone and have a horse step on your face ...if you are Jody Petty you get up, say you are okay -- sincerely -- and walk back to the jocks' tent to get your equipment ready to ride the next horse. Or you may go to the hospital for a week-long visit while your spleen heals from being rolled on by a horse.
This morning I was watching Jody school a young horse, generously introducing him to the idea of jumping. Gently, confidently urging him to jump the green brush fences out of stride so that in a race he won't lose time when he is competing against ten other horses for a purse of $20,000. It was a cool Monday morning and the horse had had Sunday to rest so he was feeling frisky. The horse jumped the first brush fence, landed awkwardly and leapt in the air bucking like a rodeo horse. Jody shot in the air and landed hard on the ground. As he rolled away his horse took off flat to the boards back to the barn and his feed, hay and friends. Jody got up, but he didn't pop up. My sister, champion trainer Sanna Hendriks, asked him if he was okay. I couldn't believe what he said: "Yes I'm fine and the horse is actually jumping really well." As I watched my friend Jody get on the next horse that was waiting for him, it dawned on me that he is a phenomenon.
Fifteen minutes later the aforementioned rodeo horse was walked back from the barn to finish his schooling. Jody jumped six fences beautifully. He never admonished his horse, but instead rather generously offered him the benefit of the doubt that he would not throw him again.
So goes the day of steeplechase jockey Jody Petty. If he broke his collarbone today he would not breathe a word of it. He would never complain of his aching or doubt that his choice to be a steeplechase jockey is anything other than the right path for him. He would tell you he is the luckiest man, how grateful he is to my sister Sanna for putting him on Eclipse award winning McDynamo. He would laugh as he hopped in his sports car with his dog Shaggy, telling me how lucky I am to have seen him. In a day and age when drugstores are on every other block and we go to doctors for every thing ...and anything... Jody is truly a phenomenon. He has had 35 broken bones and countless operations and he cannot wait to get up and ride next weekend at the races. And by the way did I mention he is also very good at what he does?
Jody grew up under humble circumstances in northeast Maryland, raised by an adorable mom with too many children to keep track of. Jody started working for Bruce Miller at eighteen just out of high school. He would hunt, ride and work like a slave for Uncle Bruce and then go ride for Paul Bernsie. The horses Jody rode were not the ladies hunters or the pleasant rides. They were the ones that everyone else was scared to get on. They were often crazy and one flipped over on Jody and broke both of his knees, putting him in a wheelchair. I honestly can't remember the guy complaining for a minute. When he healed up he started racing again. He won his first race on NAP for Ricky Hendriks, and 15 years and 20 broken bones later he has won every single major steeplechase stakes race in the United States. He has been champion jockey twice and has won three Breeders Cups on McDynamo. He has collected more trophies than Tiger Woods. But that's not the story here.
The story is that if time is the judge of greatness... than this humble scruffy man lives a great life at 37. He is the best at what he does, refusing to be beaten by being raised by a single overwhelmed mother, by injury, by circumstance, by time or by pain. Jody has had ample excuses for why he should quit, why he should not follow his passion, and he does nothing but laugh, and smile and be truly grateful for what he has.
Jody is one of the leading riders at the Willowdale Steeplechase. He will be at the races May 10th 2009 ...riding and most likely winning as well.
Kathy McKenna, a native of Unionville, trains for Move Up Stables, Crestview Farm and Irv Naylor among others. Training successes include Young Dubliner, Trebizond and Raise a Storm. Daughter of Paddy Neilson, sister of trainer Sanna Hendriks, daughter of Nina Strawbridge, sister of amateur jockey Steward Strawbridge, married to amateur jockey Todd McKenna and mother of three, Kathy McKenna has been a leading NSA trainer for 10 years.