It's the Entenmann's Amateur Cup, one mile at Garden State Park, in Cherry Hill, N.J., and the race is to the wire. Down the stretch they come. On the lead, three jockeys ride side by side, battling like Santos, Cordero and Stevens: exercise rider Kim Boniface, inside on In the Groove; exercise rider Christopher Grove, on Ski Along; and thoroughbred trainer Annie Smart, outside on Take It on the Lam. Close behind, newly licensed real estate agent Vicky Battaglini and Songanddanceman are making a valiant effort to catch the leaders.
But wait! Coming up four-wide, fastest of all, is Silver Sting. Under the lefthanded stick of Susan Runco—exercise rider, equine artist, mother of two and reluctantly retired professional jockey—Silver Sting passes the four horses and wins by half a length. It's a photo finish for second, third and fourth. Hold all tickets.
Not bad for Runco's second ride as a jockey on the Amateur Riders Club of America (ARCA) circuit last May. Back in the jocks' room, Runco, still a bit breathless from the ride, is both triumphant and wistful. "It's about time I go back, huh?" she says.
She is talking about her riding career, which was cut short before it really got started. After only 52 professional rides, most at Charles Town (W.Va.) Races, Runco became pregnant with her son Robbie, now 11, and then with Jeremy, now 5. Her husband, Jeff, a trainer and ex-jockey at Charles Town, was "dead set against" her pursuing a career as a professional jockey.
"He thinks women with children shouldn't ride," Susan says. "I wish I could talk him into it. I haven't quite gotten it out of my system."
Now, thanks to the four-year-old Amateur Riders Club, a nonprofit group with sponsorship from such corporations as Entenmann's bakery and Mo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•t-Chandon, Runco can maintain family peace while riding in a few of the 30 or so races that ARCA sponsors annually at pari-mutuel tracks and hunt meets across the U.S. "Jeff thinks if I don't do it often, nothing [bad] will happen," Susan says. "If I do it a lot, I'll get wiped out."
To qualify for an ARCA race, a rider must be recommended by a professional thoroughbred trainer, be insured, be over 16 and be able to prove that he or she can handle a horse properly in the starting gates. The trainers enter their horses in races, with the amateur riders drawn by lot.
When Runco, 34, applied to become an ARCA rider, ARCA president and co-founder Pierre Bellocq, a former European amateur rider better known as the Daily Racing Form's famed cartoonist, Peb, consulted with the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, and then approved Runco's amateur status. But since her victory at Garden State, some ARCA jockeys have complained about her professional history, and her future with ARCA is now up in the air, as Bellocq decides how to proceed.
For most of the 170 horse- and racing-crazy people who have ridden in ARCA-sponsored races and in the club's competitions with other riders in Canada and Europe, this amateur circuit offers a chance to chase a dream. The ARCA roster includes such frustrated would-be jockeys as Richard Coburn, a New York City plastic surgeon; former U.S. Alpine skier Tamara McKinney; TV horse racing reporter Charlsie Cantey; sculptor Celou Bonnet; and noted ice dancing coach Peter Dalby, as well as the odd banker, lawyer, CPA, car dealer, professional model, photographer and nurse.
Though hardly huge by everyday standards, they are too heavy to make it in the 110-pound world of professional thoroughbred jockeys. But the ARCA scale of weights—130 to 145 pounds, including tack, or saddle and bridle—fits these riders nicely.
Grove, two-time ARCA champion Smart and Boniface, who finished second, third and fourth, respectively, in the Garden State race, fit that category. So do the seventh-and eighth-place riders: Bellocq's son Remi, an executive at Long-acres Park, near Seattle, as well as a co-founder and executive director of ARCA; and college student-exercise rider Matthew McCarron, who is the son of journeyman jockey Gregg McCarron and a nephew of Racing Hall of Famer Chris McCarron. Their weights range from Smart's 118 pounds to the mid-130's.
"I weigh about 135—it's about 25 pounds too big for the pros," says Grove, 22, an exercise rider for trainer Dale Capuano at Bowie Race Course. "I'm glad this amateur club came along."
So is Boniface, 24, ARCA's 1990 women's flats champion. The 5'6", 125-pound daughter of Bill Boniface, who trained 1983 Preakness Stakes champion Deputed Testamony, was formerly her father's stable foreman and more recently an exercise rider for trainer Bill Mott. Now she's starting a new career as a trainer with a three-horse string at Monmouth Park. Racing is fun, but "I like eating too much," she says.
Calories are of no concern to 108-pound Battaglini and 105-pound Louise McDonald, from Toronto. Both decided against the hard life of a female jockey in what is still a man's world.
"I really would have to live on the backside, and I don't feel that I want to do that," says Battaglini, 29, an artist, Realtor, exercise rider and trainer of her own racehorse. Instead, she lives in the beautiful horse country of Unionville, Pa.
McDonald, 26, exercises horses for trainer Roger Attfield, who entrusted her with galloping and working 1990 Canadian Triple Crown winner Izvestia. She also takes occasional college classes, studying broadcasting and French.
"It was more a feeling that I wasn't aggressive enough to really want to scrape my living out doing that," McDonald says. "There's too much more out there that interests me."
And then there are the few ARCA members who springboard from the amateur to the professional ranks. The Garden State race was Keith O'Brien's final one as an amateur rider. Eight days later the 23-year-old son of trainer Leo O'Brien returned to Garden State and broke his maiden as a professional steeplechase rider, winning a $10,000, 2[1/16]-mile allowance with Skorpius.
Ian (Gus) Brown, 17, of The Plains, Va., hopes to follow suit in a year or two. If his Garden State race is any example, he'll do well: His mount, Pleasant Surprise, broke out of the gate in a rearing tangle, but the teenager quickly brought him together and rallied for a respectable sixth-place finish.
"It did look a whole lot worse than it felt," Brown says with shucks-it-was-nothing panache.
As far as Brown was concerned, the scary-looking break was part of the fun. This is a guy who prefers the dangers of jump racing to flats because, he says, "You're always wondering what's going to happen."
Thrills, fun, scares (ARCA riders may have fallen, but there have been no serious injuries) and seeing their names in the program are all these talented amateurs can expect from their racing, especially when they lose. The mounts are not of the high-class stakes variety, their share of the purses go to charity, and they pay most of their own expenses.
"That's what makes this club so nice, that they want to do it so badly," Runco says. "No pro rider would drive four hours for a 70-1 shot."
For Runco, the ARCA circuit offered a chance to ride competitively and keep peace within the family.
Pohla Smith is a free-lance writer in Pittsburgh who specializes in horse racing.