Riders wearing helmets, foam-rubber back braces and determined expressions bounce atop thoroughbreds as they circle the dusty track. In an observation tower, an instructor jots down notes on their performances. As the riders pass by, the instructor yells into a microphone, "Kate, heels down, toes straight ahead. Becky, your horse is not on the right lead. Looking good, Caroline, but tighten your reins."
The place is Hawkeye Hill Racing School in Commiskey, Ind., 50 miles north of Louisville. It is a state-accredited school where early-morning workouts in front of a riding instructor—and once a week in front of a video camera—are all part of the curriculum. Lisa Thompson, 42, a former high school history teacher who's now a licensed jockey and trainer, opened the school in 1979 to teach exercise riding and stable management after realizing there was a tremendous need for qualified racetrack help. The work of a groom, for example, is often considered menial but is, in fact, crucial. "You can have the best trainer and a multimillion-dollar horse, but get a groom in there who bandages a leg too tightly and you're in big trouble," says Thompson.
Yet, traditionally, a person contemplating a career in horse racing has had no sure way to learn the trade other than to hang around a stable. A would-be jockey usually starts at a track, wielding a pitchfork or walking horses to cool them down. Eventually, if lucky, he or she might get to sit in a saddle. But, Thompson contends, the racetrack is not the place for riding lessons.
So each month she welcomes a new class to the Hawkeye Hill campus, a 68-acre complex with two training tracks, starting gates, barns, a classroom building and a dormitory. Tuition is $1,500 for the stable-management program and an additional $1,295 for the exercise-riding course. Although most of the enrollees have had previous experience with horses, a few brave souls show up never having touched one. That's O.K., says Thompson. "Sometimes it's better to get them fresh, before they've learned a lot of bad habits." The classes are intentionally kept small, averaging about 12 students, to ensure individual attention.
Thompson mostly signs up young adults whose focus is on a first career, but there have been grandmothers, college professors, airline pilots, lawyers—even the truck driver who delivered heating oil to the school. "He ended up with Woody Stephens," Thompson says. Willie Shoemaker's son Mitch, currently a trainer, enrolled several years ago. So did Jennifer Fawcett. She quit her job at McDonald's, sold her car for tuition and one year later was taking care of 1980 Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk at Catoctin Stud Farm in Waterford, Va.
In preparation for their monthlong stint of nitty-gritty, hands-on work, students first complete a series of home-study lessons (10 for stable-management people, 20 for the exercise riders). The topics range from colic to racetrack etiquette. Students are allowed up to 52 weeks of residency to sharpen their skills as long as they pay an additional housing fee. These graduate students may practice breaking from the gates and breezing and also work with the school's stable of competing thoroughbreds. There are no pari-mutuel tracks in Indiana, so these horses race at tracks such as Churchill Downs in Louisville and Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., and are groomed and galloped at the track solely by the students. Thompson says it gives them a great opportunity to gain firsthand experience.
Experience in a safety-conscious environment is the key to Hawkeye Hill's success. Although Thompson can't promise jobs, the school does maintain a job-placement sheet. "Trainers want our graduates because they know they were interested enough to have paid for instruction, and they've been trained properly," says Thompson.
But how do track co-workers, alumni of the school of hard knocks, accept Hawkeye Hill grads? With a bit of skepticism and a little jealousy at first, says jockey Laura Hernan, a rider at Turf-way Park in Florence, Ky., who got her start at the school. "You have a jump on those who are struggling to advance," she adds. "Before long, they see that you know what you are doing and they appreciate you."