‘It Plays Games With Your Mind’: Maryland Jockeys Have To Find New Ways To Stay Busy

Trevor McCarthy is raking leaves and cutting grass. Sheldon Russell is changing diapers. Katie Davis is (re)planning her wedding.

Members of Maryland’s jockey colony are taking whatever steps they can as they join with fellow horsemen at home and around the country to stay busy and keep fit while live racing remains temporarily paused out of health concerns.

“It’s very devastating to be out of work and not do something that we love to do every day. We’re used to always being on the go, riding races here and there,” McCarthy said. “We stay pretty busy here in the Mid-Atlantic, so for everything to kind of come to a stop is disappointing.”

McCarthy, 25, held a 12-win edge over Alex Cintron, 38-26, with six days remaining in Laurel Park’s winter meet when racing was suspended after its last live program March 15. The spring stand was scheduled to start April 2.

Maryland’s leading rider four times (2013, 2014, 2016, 2019) and ranked in the top 10 nationally in each of those latter three years, McCarthy owns 11 meet titles and six of the last seven at Laurel and Pimlico Race Course, not including the truncated winter stand.

“I’ve been trying to stay busy, just doing lots of yard work and work around my house, trying to stay positive and take this time to enjoy being home and being with my fiancé and talking to family a lot more on the phone, a lot of FaceTime and stuff like that,” he said. “I’m trying to find positives, but it is tough. We’re not working, we’re not making any money, so it’s tough times.”

A winner of 1,467 career races, McCarthy is one of the nation’s busiest riders, often traveling to tracks in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia in addition to his regular clients in Maryland. He can frequently be found riding night programs after spending the day in Maryland, as well as out of town on Laurel and Pimlico’s dark days.

“When I’m riding I’m always on the go, my body doesn’t get much of a break. So, I’ve kind of taken these last few weeks to give my body a break and relax,” McCarthy said. “I hope sometime soon we do get back to racing. It’s kind of hard to see that; things are getting worse by the day. But I am staying active doing things around the house, and I’m still good with my diet, but I just wanted to give my body a little bit of a break that it hasn’t gotten in the last two or three years.

“I’m still staying active to where I don’t want to lose too much fitness but I wanted to give my body a good three, four weeks of a break and then go back to working out and riding the Equicizer, jogging, doing different things. It’s tough that we don’t have a gym to go to but I do have a few things that I can do here at home,” he added “At the moment we’re in a state lockdown. We do have to have a letter to get to the racetrack, if we were to come to the racetrack. But, a lot of guys aren’t going to the track and everybody’s staying home because that’s what the governor has requested.”

The 32-year-old Russell owns 1,371 career wins and was fourth with 21 in the winter meet standings coming off a 2019 season where he won 107 of 657 mounts, his busiest and most productive year since 2014 having battled back from assorted injuries.

Russell and his wife, trainer Brittany Russell, alternate taking care of their 7-month-old daughter, Edy. He happily takes over when his wife heads to her Laurel barn for the necessary care and training of her horses, but has occasionally passed the duty on to his mother on rare days when he accompanies Brittany to work a horse for her or other trainers.

“It would be a lot easier if we had a time frame of when we were getting back, but right now I’m still trying to work horses in the morning. I’m not going out there every day; I just try and go out when people really need me, maybe a couple days a week,” Russell said. “In my case, it’s sort of a bit easier for me because I sort of just look after Edy in the morning and I let Brittany go take care of her barn, because right now I think that’s more important than me walking around the barns looking for horses to work.”

Last week, while Russell was working a horse for trainer Phil Schoenthal, Brittany Russell remained on the frontside watching from her car as her horses trained. When Sheldon was done, she handed Edy off and went back to the barn.

“They’ve got a rule where Edy is not allowed on the backside, so that’s just a no-brainer. It’s just easier if I stay at home with her or if she sits in the car with Brittany,” Russell said. “[The other day] was different. We both went into the barns. Brittany [watched] her horses at the wire and I took the car and worked one. It’s tough times for everybody. Obviously, I hope that we can get a handle on it and get an idea when we can get back to work. Right now, the main goal is just to stay healthy and keep everybody safe.”

Russell said he and his wife also try and get out of the house when they’re away from the track, while following the guidelines set forth by the state regarding social distancing.

“There’s a trail straight out of our back garden, so what we’ve been doing is taking the dogs and Edy for a walk. Every other day we try and do something like that. I’m going to be honest with you, you feel like you’re going a bit crazy. There’s only so much TV you can watch,” he said. “We just try and do a little something, and at the same time we’ve got to sort of stay fit. We can’t just go from being so active to not doing anything. I think that’s the hardest part about it. We were so fit and it’s almost like a 24-7 job. You go from doing so much to not doing anything at all. It plays games with your mind, but I have Edy as a distraction. You try and do a little something every day. It’s all we can do.”

Davis, 28, and McCarthy became engaged last summer and had planned to be married on what would have been opening day of Laurel’s short spring meet that precedes the Preakness Meet at Pimlico. They are planning to reschedule the ceremony for some time in December.

Like McCarthy, Davis has worked her way back from shoulder surgery in recent years. She missed much of 2018 but last year had the second-best season of her career with 52 wins and more than $1.4 million in purse earnings.

“The mental part is harder than trying to stay fit, I think. When you’re always on the go, your brain is always moving. So when you stop, like Trevor says it’s kind of like an injury,” Davis said. “You’re put on pause and that’s the hardest part, I believe. It’s a battle between not getting depressed because you’re not doing what you love and you’re not always on that on-the-go system. It’s hard.”

Said Russell: “And it’s not just us jockeys, it’s everybody. I feel for people that are used to going to work and having all these things to do and then really there’s nothing to do but sit and wait. As long as we can do our part, then I feel like we’re doing something.”

Maryland horse people hold 705,000 acres for horse-related purposes, more than a quarter of the state’s agricultural acreage, including over 16,000 horse farms. According to the Economic Impact Study by the American Horse Council (AHC) in 2018, Maryland boasts more horses per square mile – 10.5 – than any other state.

The ACH Foundation in 2018 reported the Maryland horse industry adds $1.3 billion to Maryland’s economy and its total employment impact is more than 21,000 jobs.

“We’re just really looking forward to getting back to racing. For the whole racing industry there’s just been so many ups and downs, a lot of struggles for certain people. It’s terrible,” McCarthy said. “I feel absolutely terrible about it. Hopefully we can all come together as an industry and we can get over this and become stronger in the long run.”

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