Bobbi Brostoff, the owner of Hunter-brook farm, was upset at first to find this teenage girl riding her $40,000 hunters and jumpers bareback through her pastures, but she offered a deal to Jocson: If Gwen would muck stalls, feed horses and care for the equipment, Brostoff would give her riding lessons. The arrangement lasted only a few months, because Brostoff divorced and put the farm up for sale. She told Gwen that if she bought her own horse, she could keep it there until the place was sold. Gwen had been saving for a while, mowing lawns, squirreling away birthday money, and for $200 she bought an unbroken 2-year-old, half quarterhorse, half saddle-bred. Brostoff had given Gwen enough instruction to cover the basics, but Gwen really taught herself to ride, primarily through trial and error and reading books such as George Morris's Beginners' How to Ride Guide. Eventually she broke the horse, and for two years she roamed the empty grounds and buildings of the 36-acre farm while it remained unsold.
By this time the situation at home had deteriorated. Jocson says, "Anything that I did that wasn't perfectly right, my [step]father punished me by saying, 'You can't see your horse today.' Finally I said, "Well, fine, you have the horse,' and I left." She was 17, and one day she slipped out of the house with only the clothes on her back and moved into a trailer on John's Island with her boyfriend, Henry Blewer. "My mom had stayed in a bad relationship for 10 years with my father, and then she married again, and she had never been independent. That's why she stressed in me that she wanted me to be independent," says Jocson. "It hurt when I left home, but my mom still made sure I stayed in school." Gwen caught the school bus at her grandmother's house nearby so that she wouldn't be expelled for not living at home.
Even with all the disruption, Jocson graduated from high school half a year early, freeing herself to spend more time with horses. She broke thoroughbreds at a farm on John's Island. She spent a winter working at a training center in Aiken, S.C. "The guy I lived with was always satisfied to make a paycheck," she says. "I always said there's gotta be something more. It's like stairs for me: I don't think I'll ever get to the top. The more I get, the more I want, the harder I work for it. I'm not satisfied to make a paycheck; I think it's fear of going back to what things were. Money means control. Being good at something means you're in control of your life."
Jocson slowly reestablished relations with her family, but by then Cook had left Powers and moved into her mother's two-room trailer. With the savings from her jobs, Jocson bought her own trailer and after making the last payment, gave the trailer to her mother. Then, in the summer of 1986, Jocson packed a duffel bag and, with the $60 she had left, moved to Florida with Blewer.
Eventually she started exercising horses at Calder Race Course in Miami for trainer Dan Hurtak, who gave her her first mount: She won her first time out, wire to wire, with Ed's Hope at Calder on July 16, 1989.
Along the way her relationship with Blewer suffered. "I still feel guilty, because he did have to take a backseat," says Jocson. "He wanted us to live as wife and husband, and have a nine-to-five job. I wanted to travel." Sadly, a year after they separated, Blewer was killed in an auto accident.
Jocson eventually tried the New York tracks but languished. So she headed west, where the competition for mounts wasn't so tough. In 87 rides at Sportsman's Park near Chicago in the winter of 1990, she was 6-9-9. Trainers began to appreciate her ability and her eagerness. From there she went to nearby Balmoral Park. On opening day, May 13, 1990, Jocson was entered in the second race, but a pony kicked her mount during the post parade, Hipping her and her horse. Jocson suffered a fractured vertebra, with a bone chip lodged near her spinal cord. In a 10�-hour operation surgeons removed the bone chip, but there was irreversible nerve damage.
"I was told I'd never ride again and that I'd probably never walk," says Jocson. "What scared me was that I had always planned my life around riding horses. I could live with not being able to walk, but I had to be able to ride." She spent two weeks in the hospital and another 10 weeks convalescing. On Oct. 1, 1990, she was back exercising horses for Hurtak at Calder. Because of her injuries, Jocson will never regain feeling in her upper left arm or in three fingers of her left hand.
By mid-October she was racing at Hawthorne in Cicero, Ill. After she had been back riding for a few weeks, one of her mounts suffered a heart attack and collapsed under her, causing her to reinjure her spine. Her arms went into convulsions. Her legs went numb. She missed only a couple of days, but when she came back, another mount she was on went down in a race after breaking both forelegs. Again Jocson's spine was injured and she went into convulsions. Her left side went numb. After a few days the swelling against her spine went down, and she was back at the track.
She left Hawthorne in late November having won five of 96 and headed to Philadelphia Park. She needed a fresh start, a place where trainers wouldn't be concerned for her safety on their horses. She was back knocking on stable doors, ready to exercise anything for anyone at any time. She galloped horses for meal money, got a few mounts and a few wins—always on long shots.