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JOCKEYING FOR FUN AND FITNESS



“Ride a racehorse!”
beckons the red-lettered sign outside the National Museum
of Racing and Hall of Fame. So I did.

For $5 on top of the museum’s regular admission price, visitors can take a spin on a mechanical horse, synchronized to gallop along with video of a real race on a 50-inch screen above the horse’s neck—a jockey’s-eye view. Before I hop aboard, a friendly attendant zips me into a jockey’s padded safety vest and bright-colored silks and finds a helmet my size. Riders must be at least four feet tall, and no open-toed shoes are allowed; aside from that, whether you’re six years old or sixty-four, you’re good to go.

First I’m asked to demonstrate my flexibility and balance on the Equicizer, a big rocking-horse with a tiny racing saddle, a moveable neck, and an adorable braided-yarn tail. Real jockeys use Equicizers for post-injury rehab and energetic warm-ups, but all I have to do is rock a little without falling off. That’s easy, so I’m invited to clamber aboard the simulator. Possibly the only one of its kind in the world, it was the brain-foal of the racing museum’s information-technology manager, Sean Picard. Inspired by an ESPN jockey-cam video, Picard hired local computer programmers to sync up the footage with a British-made motorized horse; they matched other helmet-cam videos to slower “warm-up” and “apprentice” rides.

Post time: Feet firmly in the short stirrups, I crouch low over the saddle and press my hands and reins into my steed’s narrow wooden neck. For starters, we do a gentle warm-up canter (linked to video from a morning workout at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track). “Does this horse ever shy or spook?” I ask the attendant. Never, he assures me.

OK, then let’s try the real race. For the first few seconds, my virtual mount and I are inside the starting gate. “Well behaved,” a gate worker remarks, and suddenly we’re off! As I’m busy adjusting to the neck-bobbing, fast-pumping mad gallop (the video shows a ride by renowned jockey Gary Stevens at California’s Hollywood Park, on a horse named Liyoun), we fall way behind, taking our sweet time as the emerald-green turf rolls away under us. But on the final straight, my horse comes alive, his virtual ears bobbing crazily and his mane whipping into my face. We barrel up on the rail, neck-and-neck with another horse. The crowd roars as we pass one horse on the inside and swerve out to overtake another. But the next instant we fly past the finish line (coming in third), and the motion slows and stops. (See video clip here.)

Full disclosure? I asked for the horse's slowest speed—well below the pace that usually runs with the race video—and my legs still gave out at the first turn, thigh muscles screaming, knees weak as jelly. How does a jockey do this six times a day? What athleticism, what guts!

“Be careful dismounting—sometimes people stumble be­cause they don’t realize what a workout this is,” says the attendant. Right. It will take four days before I can walk down stairs without wincing. But as I strip off my borrowed silks, the attendant presents me with a sticker that reads “I survived the greatest two minutes in sports.” And I’m hooked: I want to do that again—soon. That’s what I call finishing in the money. —BAM