Someday, Jackie Davis will sit down to read the story. She will find a quiet space, a place where she can delve into the details she already knows, and her father will be revealed to her. She tried to read it once, but got distracted, couldn’t concentrate. And so the words written 23 years ago in Sports Illustrated — words that exposed her father’s tragedy to the country — continue to wait.
She was 2 years old when her father, jockey Robbie Davis, rode a horse that crushed the skull of his fellow rider and friend, Mike Venezia. It was an accident, no one’s fault, but it was a devastating moment for him, for the family, for horse racing.
The dangers are ever-present for any jockey. There are broken bones and concussions, missing teeth and damaged organs. For Robbie, there was more than that; there were awful memories, seared into his mind.
That is why, when his daughter told him she was going to be a jockey, Robbie tried to save her. He said no. “It was a definite and stone-stamped no,” said Jackie Davis, 25, now the second-leading rider at Suffolk Downs. “ ‘You’re not doing this. No shot. My daughter is not going to get killed doing this.’ ”
This was his tiniest daughter, a 4-foot-10-inch girly girl, who had spent her childhood in poofy Easter dresses and red cowboy boots riding her pony bareback on the family’s land. She was studying fashion design. She was into cheerleading and dance.
‘I t’s very hard on the stomach, it’s hard on the nerves, it’s hard on the heart.’
“I almost wanted to break down and hit the ground,” Robbie Davis said. “Just . . . oh my God. I about fell to my knees.
“You have to come to the realization that this is what I’ve done. This is what I love. And I have passed it on.”
He had always wondered whether his sons would want to ride. He never thought it would be Jackie, a girl he pictured as a first grade teacher, safe in a classroom. Maybe it was a joke? Maybe this wasn’t what she really wanted?
No. She was doing this, with his support or without. So he told her the truth. Robbie told her she was a 90-1 shot to make it.
“She goes, ‘What do you mean? You’ve got no confidence.’ I said, ‘Jackie, it’s a tough world. It’s really hard.’ ”
She didn’t care. She didn’t care if she was 200-1. This is what she wanted.
“You’ve got a little chance,” her father said. “But you’re no favorite at all.”
Dealing with aftershocks
It was years later that Jackie met some of the people there that day, EMTs who cared for Venezia, carried his lifeless body, with its smashed skull, off the track. They told her half his face was gone.
They tried to grab Robbie before he could see what his horse had done, before he could see the remains of his friend. They couldn’t stop him. He saw. It shattered him.
“It gives you the creeps to talk about because you’re thinking, ‘This is my job, that could happen to me,’ ” Jackie said. “I don’t know how anybody can come back off of that.”
He did, and he didn’t.
Robbie took off after the accident, as he calls it, stuffed his family into his truck and set off west from Belmont Park. They went back to his home in Idaho, as the jockey tried to heal, from the death of his friend and from the memories of childhood sexual abuse that had resurfaced in the trauma.
He spent six months there, wondering whether he would ever ride again. And then suddenly, there it was. The old desire. So the family packed up again, and headed to Santa Anita, where Robbie got back up on a horse.
But it wasn’t that simple. There were aftershocks — too much alcohol, his fears of another accident quelled only by the bottle. He wanted to give up, desert his family, live on the streets.
“But after I got home, looked my kids in the face, I couldn’t do that to my kids,” he said. “I brought these kids into the world, I need to give them the best life I can.”
He went back, returning to full-time racing in 1992, and finishing his career with 3,382 wins. But that one race, that accident, is still there, the horse’s hooves still clipping a man’s life.
“It was just a very humbling moment for me,” Robbie said. “It was a real rough time because I was the leading rider [at Belmont] and I was having to swallow a bitter pill. Do I go on? What do I do?
“The reality sank in that this is really a rough sport. It’s a great sport, too. But you can pay the ultimate sacrifice for something that you love.”
Success as a student
When his son Dylan followed Jackie into riding, it was different. Dylan was a boy.
The message to Dylan, 18, who rode his first race at Saratoga Aug. 6, was to buck up, knock ’em dead, kick butt. To Jackie, the message had always been to be careful, pay attention, take care.
“I never forced it upon them, probably mostly because of the accident,” Robbie said. “I would never forgive myself if something was to happen.”
He tried to stop her. But, like her father, Jackie has always been stubborn. When she mentioned the jockey school that Hall of Famer Chris McCarron had just started, Robbie thought he had the answer.
Before she left for Kentucky, he sat her down. He told her, again, about Venezia. He told her about the realities, about the joys and the dangers. He told her the truth.
“Why do you want to try to kill yourself?” Jackie said her father asked. “He said, why would you want to risk your life every day? I looked at him and said, ‘Dad, I’ve never wanted anything so much in my life.’ ”
“You’re taking your little baby, your little princess, with tap shoes and dance and all the videos, always wearing a dress, just a little girl,” Robbie said. “It was hard for me to accept that. I really had torn emotions, but I didn’t want to break her bubble.”
Jackie, the second of his six children, would get bored of classroom work, he hoped. She would realize she wasn’t good enough. The dream would fall away, and she would try something that was less likely to end with her in that ambulance, sitting at the side of the racetrack.
But then McCarron, who once rode alongside Robbie, called. She can ride, he said. She’s one of my best students.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Robbie thought.
She had started from scratch, despite growing up at racetracks. When McCarron put her on thoroughbreds, she requested mustangs, to which the true beginners are banished.
She demanded perfection of herself because that was the way she had always seen it done. It came easily, and she ended up at the top of her class, before starting in New York as an apprentice rider, and later making her way to Suffolk Downs, a track known for being friendly to women.
“She proved me wrong,” Robbie said. “I’m really glad she did.”
As she sits in the jockeys lounge on a recent Tuesday, Jackie reads through the program, diagramming how she will run the next race, the fifth at Suffolk Downs.
One of seven female jockeys at the track this season, Jackie is a favorite in the barns, for her ever-present smile and positive attitude, traits that might get her a few extra mounts. But she is talented, too, with a reputation for having a way with hard-to-tame animals, particularly fillies.
“I’ve worked for a lot of really, really, really good riders, and I’ve never actually seen anybody that can communicate as well,” said her agent, Max Hall, who has spent 45 years in the business. “She just has that gift, that inner communication.”
Over a few sublime months in her first season at the track, she won 30 percent of her races, and found a following.
“Jackie doesn’t seem to be intimidated by being a girl in this business,” trainer Jay Bernardini said. “It’s a cold business. For a woman, it’s even harder.”
But that hasn’t seemed to be an issue for her. Perhaps it was growing up around the sport, the respect earned by her father, the knowledge that she can hold her own in the saddle.
“Everybody kind of wants her,” Bernardini said. “Sometimes when you’re 25-1, that’s when you put Jackie on and hope for the best.”
Sometimes that works. But not quite often enough for McCarron, who expected even more from her at this point in her career.
“She’s got fantastic balance, and she’s got great hand-eye coordination,” McCarron said. “She’s learned how to be very rhythmic on a horse’s back. She’s incredibly petite, and for her size she’s quite strong.”
There is so much of her father in her. She even looks like him in the saddle, or so Robbie hears from friends. He sees her leave the gate, and he knows what she will do in most races. He knows the tricks, and the techniques. It’s almost as though he is on the horse.
Concern is always there
It’s easier to watch her now. Before, Robbie had to wait until he knew she was safe to watch the replays. Now she has experience, and he can suffer through the live action, his hands clasped together.
“It’s very nerve-racking,” he said. “It’s very hard on the stomach, it’s hard on the nerves, it’s hard on the heart.”
He would run into the bathroom to avoid seeing her races, an echo of the broom closet where he sought refuge in the moments after he saw the body of his friend years ago.
“I say my prayers probably 15, 20 times a day,” Robbie said. “Just continually saying my prayers because it’s rough. It’s rough.”
She was too young to remember when Venezia died, when her father was wrecked. She has been told the story, understands as best she can, more now that she’s a jockey herself. Still, there might be greater comprehension, Robbie thinks, if she could find a space quiet enough for William Nack’s words in that long-ago issue of Sports Illustrated.
The love is evident. In her voice. In his voice. It’s a family that could see as many as four of the six children become jockeys, something Robbie could never have pictured in his darkest moments.
But they know, too, how real the business can become. They know the thrill of a winner, of grabbing tight to a horse’s mane, of riding him first across the line. They know the highs — the money and fame and exhilaration. They know the lows.
“This isn’t a lifetime,” Jackie said. “This is just day by day. You try to save as much as you can as you go, so for your future you know you have something if you can’t ride. Because you’ll never know if you’ll be able to walk tomorrow.
“When I walk out of the jocks room, I thank God I’m walking out of there. It’s always a good day when you can walk out by yourself.”
And yet, she can’t help herself. “It’s just the best job in the world,” she said. “I love it.”