Weight and health have helped Florida jockey Gary Bain continue to compete
BY DAVE HYDE
Meet Gary Bain. A widower. A father of two. A grandfather of six. A man with 66 years of well-earned experience and a few scars as proof.
And here he comes down the stretch at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach in the lead and aboard the co-favorite KC Twostep.
Some long-time horse-racing fans at the fence perk up after the public-address announcer identified Bain.
“C’mon, Gary!” one yells.
“Go, Gary!” another shouts.
It’s a wet and muddy track, but as Bain says later, “I’ve seen wetter and muddier.” He’s seen everything across five decades of racing in a way no one else in this particular race or many others could.
‘I just ride’
Half the jockeys competing against Bain are in their 20s. The next oldest is 47. A whippersnapper.
“He’s the Grandfather of Racing, bro,” said Vinny Depalo, a valet for jockeys and horses, a few minutes earlier in the jockeys room as Bain talked about his career.
Bain’s work philosophy wears blinders regarding age.
“I just ride,” he said.
He’s always ridden too. He was born into a racing family in the Bahamas. His father was a jockey. So was his brother.
When their Nassau track closed soon after Bain started his teenage jockey career, he packed up and moved to South Florida’s tracks in the late 1970s.
“The only thing I knew was horses,” he said.
Churchill Downs too
Decades later, he has 1,145 wins in 14,441 starts, according to the racing site Equibase.
Some were big stake races in South Florida, Louisiana and Illinois. None were bigger than the 1996 WHAS Stakes on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Most were smaller races as time moved on.
“I feel like I’m 66 going on 19,” Bain said.
Bain has avoided two common pitfalls for jockeys: Weight and health.
He has only fallen twice in races. The second time caused a minor ankle injury. The first time in the mid-1980s came when his horse’s heels were clipped. Bain went down hard, breaking his collarbone and six ribs and puncturing both lungs.
“That was my teacher,” he said. “I learned how to protect myself after that.”
Harder to find
Others don’t see age the way he does, though. Bain had won at least one race for 45 straight years until 2017, when he couldn’t sniff the finish line. The drought stretched through 2018, too.
“I was in a slump,” he said.
Getting rides is tough enough for a 60-something-year-old. They became tougher with his slump.
He stayed in full shape, watched his weight in a manner jockeys must and earned money by working out horses most every morning. But rides became hard to find.
“Some people, some owners and trainers, said, ‘When are you going to retire?’ and, ‘You’re too old,’” he said. “I didn’t believe them. Like I said, I feel 19. I wasn’t going to let them tell me what to do. I knew I could win.”
Close to victory
A month ago, Bain won aboard Dancing Noelle in a $19,000 claiming race. He followed it up a few weeks later with a second-place finish on Dancing Noelle. He’s only had eight starts so far this year, though.
Sunday’s mount in a $17,000 claiming race came when the usual rider for KC Twostep couldn’t make it.
“I got a call saying, ‘Can you make it?’” Bain said. “I told them, ‘Hell, yeah, that’s my job.’”
The plan was to go grab the lead with KC Twostep, and Bain executed that perfectly. He had the lead in the stretch. But even as Bain saw the finish line ahead, the No. 3 horse, Joe Cain, overtook KC Twostep for the win. Bain had his second-place finish of the season.
“You want to win there,” he said. “We did everything we could.”
Response to taunt
Besides watching his food and regularly exercising, there’s another quality that helps Bain keep competing at 66.
As he walked from the track to the jockey’s room, disappointed at the race’s finish, a fan came to the rail and repeatedly taunted him for not winning.
Finally, Bain turned and shot his middle finger, saying, “This is for you.”
Yep, the fire still burns in grandpa.
No retirement talk
Jockeys can have extended careers. Jon Court, 58, on May 4 became the oldest jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The oldest jockey to win a race is believed to be Frank Amonte, who at 72 won at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts.
“Someone told me that after I won (aboard Dancing Noelle),” Bain said. “I’ve got my work cut out for me. I’ve got to keep going another six years.”
He turns 67 on Oct. 31.
“Halloween,” he says.
He won’t stop. He can’t, he says. He also says, “I’m just another rider,” when his age says he’s anything but that.