Skip to main content
Original Issue

A Long Shot Pays Off

Self-taught jockey Gwen Jocson, last year's top winning apprentice, attended the school of hard knocks

It is a chill December night at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, where recent rains have muddied the track. Jockeys stream into the jocks' room after the third race, wiping ruddy, dirt-splattered faces on vibrantly colored sleeves. Last comes Gwen Jocson, who yanks off her canary-yellow cap as she enters. Her face is spanking clean, her cheeks rosy. She wears an impish grin as she describes the race, a $5,000 maiden claimer, as if it were the Kentucky Derby. Her voice rises with each phrase, and a slight Southern accent creeps in as her speech accelerates.

"Man, I did win by a lot," Jocson says, watching the replay of her 10 Vi-length victory on a television screen by the scale. "I just glanced up at the matrix board, and it didn't even show me." By the time Jocson and her 2-year-old filly, Ms. Cormorant, got to the straight, they were far ahead of the field. "I'm glad they didn't show me, because I was whipping and driving her the whole way, and I win by 20," she says, gleefully exaggerating the margin of victory.

By now other jockeys are giving Jocson a hard time for riding all out when she had the race won. "You can't see the matrix board until you're almost at it," she says. "When I looked up, I saw one horse in front and two back, and I panicked. I just didn't hear anything, which sometimes does happen to you. I thought, There's somebody there,' so I kept cracking the whip." Jocson thought the two horses were right behind her, but in fact, she was so far ahead that the board was showing the race for second place.

"When you're out in front by 10, you know you've got the race won. That's a great feeling, but when you win by 10, it's the horse. If you win by this much," Jocson says, holding her index finger a half inch from her thumb, "sometimes it's the jock. If you consider everything you did in that race, every bit of ground you saved, every move you made, everything you thought of, and you win by that much, then you made the difference."

Jocson, 26, made the difference in enough races last year to finish with 376 wins. That placed her first for 1991 among all apprentice jockeys (over Eclipse Award winner Mickey Walls, who had 285), first among women riders (over veteran Julie Krone, who had 230 wins) and third among all jocks in North America (trailing only Pat Day's 430 and Russell Baez's 412). By the time Jocson completed her apprenticeship, losing the "bug"—the five-pound weight allowance for first-year jockeys—last Sept. 17, she had won 260 races, 29 more than the second-leading apprentice in North America. This made Jocson the first woman to become the leading apprentice race-winner and a finalist for the Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice in North America. She finished second in the Eclipse voting to Walls, a 17-year-old Canadian who was the No. 1 apprentice money winner. Still, that was but a minor disappointment for the resilient Jocson.

She has overcome loneliness, poverty, spinal surgery, heartache, an unhappy situation at home and prejudices against women in the largely male world of horse racing. Sadie Cook, Jocson's mom, says, "She had to make it all on her own. It was a million-to-one shot."

Gwen Jocson was born in Charleston, S.C., as were her mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother before her. She grew up on nearby John's Island in the South Carolina low country, among salt rivers, creeks and farmland, in a region enveloped by a sick-sweet smell of decay—the scent of tomatoes rotting on the vine, cow pastures, low tides and ocean breezes. She has fond memories of languid days spent with aunts, uncles and cousins, of singing and laughing, and vivid recollections of the food: buckets of shrimp pulled from the creeks and crabs hauled in on strings baited with chicken necks.

Cook's marriage to Ed Jocson, Gwen's father, was a stormy one, and after 10 years Cook divorced him. By then Gwen was nine and had a four-year-old brother, Jerry. Cook then married David Powers, a medic in the Army. The family moved from John's Island and traveled to various Army bases for the next three years before going back to John's Island. When Gwen returned to the same Catholic grade school she had attended three years before, the other children treated her as an outsider.

Each day after school she would go straight home. No sports, no friends. "I wasn't allowed; my [step]father was really strict; he just thought it was better if we came home," she says.

Wandering down the road from her house one afternoon, the 15-year-old Gwen came across a horse trailer going down a side road in the woods and followed it to a farm, where she discovered horses grazing in a 10-acre field. "I'd always get them to come to the fence by giving them apples or carrots or something," she says. "I'd jump on them, and eventually I got caught."

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 10½-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.

When she won Philadelphia's 1991 winter-spring meet with 94 victories, Jocson flew her mom (now married to Glenn Cook, a paramedic) from John's Island so she could stand in the winner's circle beside Gwen at the award ceremony. One hundred and one victories later she tied Robert Colton for the Philadelphia Park summer title; three months later she took the Atlantic City Race Course championship as well, with 41 wins. She was hungry for more.

Jocson decided to capitalize on her momentum and doubled up, riding at Philadelphia Park by day and the Meadow-lands by night. During her first full week after losing the five-pound weight allowance last September, she rode five winners in 36 mounts at Philadelphia and had another two victories in 16 rides at the Meadowlands.

Her future could not have seemed rosier when, on Feb. 6, returning to Garden State Park at the start of a new meet, Jocson was flung from her third mount. She landed on her face and broke her neck, fracturing the atlas, the top vertebra. She was hospitalized for a couple of weeks, then went to her mother's home in South Carolina to recuperate. The doctors told her she would have to wear a special neck brace for at least six to eight weeks. True to her history, she was back at the track galloping horses barely a month later, without the neck brace, ready to resume her career. "I'm a fantastic healer," she says with a grin.

On April 9, at Garden State, she rode her first mount since breaking her neck. As she pulled into the winner's circle after an 8¼-length victory aboard Imallkeyedup, the railbirds cheered and called out, "Welcome back."

"This is great," said Jocson as she dismounted. "It felt so good to be back out there. I can't explain it. It feels nice to be out there in the morning working horses. But you have to have the silks on and go into the gate to realize how great it is to ride in a race."

Philadelphia's top trainer, Mark Reid, says, "I've seen so many like her—Julie Krone, Chris Antley, even [Angel] Cordero to a certain extent—who are able to shake off tremendous fears, fear for your life. She has that, and that's what separates her from the everyday jockey. The only thing that can keep her from the top are barriers put there by somebody else, not her lack of talent or her lack of perseverance or her fears."

"You know what her greatest asset as a jockey is?" says veteran trainer Sal Campo admiringly. "She thinks that every horse she rides is going to win, just because she's riding him."

Says Jocson, "I've been on babies and bad ones. I've had to work with horses, make them do things they didn't want to do. I worked with hunters and jumpers, making them switch leads, getting the best out of them. I spent time with those horses. I didn't just come to the track, jump on and learn how to gallop.

"I love what I do. If I didn't make money doing what I do, I'd still be doing it—if it was paying enough for me to eat."

Her apartment in Bensalem, Pa., is clean and spare, with white walls and brown carpeting. "I have my own furniture, my own TV, my own bed," she says. "I came from having nothing, and now I go home sometimes and just look at it and touch it. Sometimes I go in and say, 'This is mine, this is mine, this is mine." I'll never be poor again."

It is only when Jocson is riding that all of her anxieties seem to disappear. She becomes completely focused on the race. "You almost go blind. Like when you hear about people who go blind with rage, and they do things they don't even remember later," she says. "You hardly remember. You get into a locus and you get into a drive, and nothing else matters. You don't hear anything. You know there are horses coming and you can't lose your concentration. I get real aggressive. I can sit like a saint and wait like a saint, but I can get real aggressive, too, and I get ahead and hold it. I just dig in and dig in, dig in. I mean I never stop."



Jocson loves horses so much that she would work at the track for a pittance.



Jocson is back in the saddle after breaking her neck in February.



Workouts with weights are helping Jocson to regain her strength.