by Teresa Genaro

Earlier this year, on a cold January morning on the backstretch at Laurel, exercise rider Chelsey Keiser asked agent Kevin Witte the best time to try to start a career as a jockey. She’d been told, she said, to start in January, to leave herself as much time as possible to get wins, in the hope of competing for an Eclipse Award as an apprentice.

Witte had different advice.

“Start,” he told her, “when you feel ready.”

She didn’t feel ready, she said, and she said that she didn’t care about an Eclipse Award. Six weeks later, Witte heard from Keiser again.

Chelsey Keiser got a bath, courtesy of the other riders, after her first win, at Laurel aboard Smileforthecamera. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.

Chelsey Keiser got a bath, courtesy of the other riders, after her first win, at Laurel aboard Smileforthecamera. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.

“I’m ready,” she said. “I want to try it.”

She rode her first race in March at Laurel and got her first win with her fifth mount, Smileforthecamera, on March 29. She’s made it to the winner’s circle 48 times since then, earning a little over a million dollars.

With her March debut, it’s not a record that puts her in the Eclipse conversation.  Nonetheless, people around the game are starting to take notice.

“She saves ground, and she saves horse,” said Bill Brasaemle, one of the Equibase chart callers at Laurel.  “She’s patient, and horses usually have a nice stretch kick for her.”

“I can’t believe all this is happening to me,” Keiser said earlier this week. “I do it because I enjoy riding horses and then there are all these bonuses that come with it.”

The Ohio native got her start barrel racing on her family’s horses; her parents also owned and trained Thoroughbreds, including a troublesome filly named, perhaps ironically, All I Do for You.

“She wouldn’t load onto the trailer,” Keiser remembered. “She was awful. My mother spent four hours with her and she finally loaded. She ended up being one of the nicest horses we had.”

All I Do for You was owned by Robert Zircher and trained by Keiser’s parents, Deborah and Michael. She won two races, both at Mountaineer, and retired as a four-year-old in 2005.

“She was a bit of a headache for everyone,” said Keiser affectionately, “but the races she won made it worth it. She was my mother’s first winner, so she was really special.”

Now 12 years old, All I Do for You lives on the Keisers’ farm; she didn’t pan out as a broodmare, so, said Keiser, “She’s our pet.”

Describing herself as “very competitive,” Keiser began thinking about a career as a jockey when she was a teenager. She’d work with her parents’ horses, preparing them for races, then watch as someone else got to ride them in competition.

“They got to do the fun part,” she said.

Keiser graduated from Versailles High School in Ohio in 2010 and planned to get a four-year nursing degree before pursuing a career at the track. She studied first at Wright State University in Dayton, returning home every weekend to ride, then spent a year at Sinclair Community College.

“In high school, I was in a group that visited nursing homes,” she explained. “I liked being around older people and hearing their stories; I liked that I could brighten people’s days.”

She added with a laugh, “And a nurse’s schedule would have been great: I could work three days a week and ride the other four.”

In addition to riding and studying, for two years Keiser worked at a radio station, producing a daily four-minute broadcast on agricultural news, including horse racing. She remembers including Zenyatta in the broadcast, along with the local farm calendar and stories about grain beds, and in October 2011, she was named the National Proficiency winner in Agricultural Communications by Future Farmers for America, winning a trip to Costa Rica for her efforts.

Her college plan lasted two years; then, she said, “I couldn’t take it anymore. It was always the horses for me.”

She headed south, to Florida, working the two-year-old breeze sales with Nick de Meric in the spring of 2012. She got her first track job at Colonial Downs, galloping horses for trainer Hugh McMahon; she credits his assistant, Eddie Warner, for her decision to move to Maryland when the Colonial meet ended.

“He needed a rider, and I heard that Maryland was a good place for bug riders to get started,” she said. “I haven’t looked back yet.”

The 21-year-old Keiser lives in Laurel, and after working for McMahon and Warner for a few months, she began exercising horses for trainer Jason Egan, who put her on her first winner.

“I galloped Smileforthecamera for about six months, and he was just terrible to gallop,” she said. “He’d walk out with his head down, he’d turn around and spin and take off as hard as he could. I came back with him one day and Jason said, ‘Did he feel all right? Do you feel like you could ride him?’

“I thought he was talking about my riding him in the morning, but when the entries came out, I realized he was talking about my riding him in a race!”

She recalled riding onto the track with some of Maryland’s top riders, and thinking, “I can’t believe I’m competing against them.”

But she also thought, “I know this horse can do it.”

Sent off as the favorite, Smileforthecamera won by a length and a quarter, and for the first time in the winner’s circle, Chelsey Keiser was indeed smiling for the camera. Her sister had travelled to Maryland to spend Easter with her and joined Chelsey that first winner’s circle photo.

She got her first stakes win in October, for trainer Ann Merryman on this year’s Maryland Million card when Tooth N Claw won the Starter Handicap; Merryman’s also named her on a horse at Aqueduct on Friday, Grant Park, in the seventh race.

“She’s given me a lot of opportunities,” said Keiser. “I don’t think it hurts anything that we’re both women.”

Merryman said that it’s the jockey’s talent, not her sex, that makes her a good rider.

“The first horse I rode her on was probably the last horse you’d put a bug girl on,” said Merryman. “He was a tough horse and not in a good spot. He was in the one-hole with tons of speed, and he was a horse you couldn’t take back.”

Not, at least, until Keiser got on him.

“She just gave him a lot of confidence and got him to really relax,” said Merryman. “He wasn’t ever a horse that closed and he closed really well. She got him to breathe and have some confidence.”

It’s that talent that her agent Witte said sets Keiser apart.

“She’s got an innate ability to get horses to relax and come off the pace,” he said. “It’s the way she can communicate with animals.”

Tooth N Claw wins the Maryland Million Starter Handicap with Chelsey Keiser up.  Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.

Tooth N Claw wins the Maryland Million Starter Handicap with Chelsey Keiser up. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.

That ability, believes Merryman, comes from having grown up riding horses.

“She was on a great big filly of mine that was tough to gallop,” Merryman recalled. “Before the race, she warmed the filly up by herself, and I never thought she could gallop that filly on her own. She made the filly look like a kitten.

“She gets on horses that are so tough to gallop and she makes it look easy. She’s got steel nerves and she rides with no ego.”

While her parents would like her to finish her degree, they are, Keiser said, “very supportive” of her riding career.

“It’s nice to know,” she said, that “your family’s always there. Win or lose, they love you and are proud of you.”

(Featured image: The current crop of apprentice riders in Maryland includes, from left, Trevor McCarthy, Chelsey Keiser, Eclipse Award contender Victor Carrasco, and Jevian Toledo.  Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.)

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