For Jockey Donna Barton Brothers, Horse Racing Runs In The Family
When the thoroughbreds burst out of the starting gate at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, fans will have their eyes on California Chrome as a potential Triple Crown winner. And there to interview the winner on horseback will be Donna Barton Brothers, an analyst for NBC Sports.
Before she was an analyst, Brothers had a distinguished career as a jockey, winning more than 1,100 races before retiring in 1998. When she retired, Brothers tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, she knew it was time to get out in part because it started to feel dangerous.
"That's the thing about being a jockey — or anybody who's in a dangerous sport — is that as long as you have a real passion for that thing that you're doing, the fact that it's dangerous sits in the back of your mind and not the front of your mind," she says. "If it starts to ride into the front of your mind, then it's time to quit."
Brothers comes from a family of riders. Her brother and sister were both jockeys, and her mother, Patti Barton, was among the first generation of female jockeys. Her father was a rider on the rodeo circuit. Brothers has also written a layman's guide to the world of horse racing called Inside Track.
Brothers talks about her mother, her life on the track and the thrill of riding.
On her mother getting into fights with other jockeys
Yeah, my mother ... would fight at the drop of a hat. ... In her words she said, "I couldn't lose. If they beat me up, they just beat up a girl, and if I beat them up, they got beat up by a girl."
[One time] she hit a guy after the race. He came walking back into the jocks' room and she was waiting, "laying in wait," as they say. I think she kind of blindsided him after the race and then he called the stewards and she said, "Well, you should see what he did to me." So she went into the stewards' room and dropped her pants right in front of them because during the running of the race he had reached over and hit her across her rear end with his whip. And they hadn't seen that part, so she made sure that they saw the evidence of that.
On whether the speed scares her
No, that part is the really fun part! So even if you get to a point where you start to go, "OK, this can be dangerous," the faster they go, the more fun it is. One of my favorite horses was Lord Carson. ... When we would turn for home — at the quarter pole when they come out of that turn and now you're headed to the final stretch — as soon as I would set him down and ask him, he literally would lower his body about 4 or 5 inches as his stride lengthened. So as his stride lengthened, his body dropped and I could feel his body drop and his speed quicken and it was one of the most incredible feelings that you will ever feel.
On how she'll be evaluating the horses before Saturday's Belmont Stakes
For people who have been around horses for a large part of their life like me, you almost have a photographic memory about what a horse looks like. And so you remember what a horse looked like the last time you saw him. And then if you don't see him for three weeks and suddenly you see them and they've lost a lot of weight or even a bit of weight — or gained weight — you see it, because you have in your mind an image of what you expect to see. And if what you see doesn't meet that image, then you go, "OK, what's different?"
So I look to see how their weight is and I look to see how their attitude is, how their energy is. I want to see them look like they're happy to be there on their toes, kind of excited. When I say "on their toes," I mean like prancing a little bit, sort of excited. But I don't want to see them pushing the pony over to the other side of the track, kicking and biting and all those kinds of things, because that's more a sign of irritation or aggravation.
On retiring from racing
I just loved it for 11 years. ... I never felt like I was going to work even though I was getting up at 4:30 a.m. and going to work seven days a week. And I would say the last six months it started to feel like work. ... I did start to recognize that it was a dangerous sport and my husband now, we had been dating for like five years, he was a trainer, and there's this real archaic rule in horse racing that if you marry a trainer, you have to ride their horse in every race or sit the race out. And so finally it came to a point in my career and with my relationship with my now husband that I just said, "If I can't marry him because I'm a jockey, maybe I shouldn't be a jockey anymore."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. When the thoroughbreds burst out of the starting gate at the Belmont Stakes this Saturday, there will be some extra electricity in the air because a potential Triple Crown Winner, California Chrome, is the field. Waiting to interview the winner for NBC sports, on horseback herself, will be our guest today Donna Barton Brothers.
She's been an analyst for NBC for more than a decade, but before that she had a distinguished career as a jockey winning more than 1,100 races before retiring in 1998. Barton Brothers comes from a family of riders - her brother and sister were both jockeys and her mother, Patty Barton, was among the first generation of female jockeys. Donna Barton Brothers has also written a layman's guide to the world of horse racing called "Inside Track." We invited her on the show to talk about her mom, her life on the track and the Belmont Stakes. Well, Donna Barton Brothers, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DONNA BARTON BROTHERS: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Good to have you. Before we talk about the Belmont Stakes, I want to talk a little bit about your life. You grew up in a family of horse people. And your mom, I know, was a groundbreaking jockey - in that she was one of the first generation of women jockeys. What memories do you have of her in her career?
BARTON BROTHERS: Well, my mother, as you said, she was actually one of the first half-dozen women to be licensed as a jockey in the United States. So she had a bit of an uphill battle. I was fortunate in that I wasn't around her when she was first - when she first started riding. I actually lived with some other family members when I was real young. But when I was six years old I went to live with her. This was in - that would have been 1972. And she had been riding since 1969 at that point. By the time I lived with her she was firmly established as one of the leading riders at a track called Waterford Park - it's now Mountaineer. And I just remember thinking that she was really cool and, like, what a really cool job she had.
But, you know, like, everybody who watches a horse race for the first time, for me, there was a lot of mystique early on. So I remember when I was 6 and I watched my first horse race I thought - wow, they only go around once? That's not very exciting. So, you know, I was used to watching car races. So I had a learning curve, too. But my learning curve with horse racing just came little younger than most peoples. By the time I was 10 years old, I could read the Daily Racing Form's "Past Performances" and by the time I was 12, I was going to the betting windows trying to pretend like I was 18 so I could bet. So, it didn't take me long Dave.
DAVIES: And your brother became a jockey. But you, as I read the story, were more interested in school and didn't - didn't see yourself racing horses. How'd you get in?
BARTON BROTHERS: My brother and my sister actually both became jockeys. My sister only won 13 races, though, so she just rode briefly. She married a jockey and they had four children and after she was pregnant with a second child she retired from riding professionally. Yeah, when I was growing up I had no interest in it. In fact, as my mom says she had three children - one with no interest in horses or horse racing and that was me.
You know, it was kind of one of those things, Dave, where I think you don't give your family the credit sometimes that maybe they deserve. And my brother and sister weren't particularly good in school and I liked school. I was good at it. I thought, you know, it would be exciting to be something like a politician or an attorney or, you know, maybe even a vet. But I just didn't think being a jockey could be that exciting and it probably didn't require a whole lot of, you know, mental skill set. So it wasn't something I was interested in.
But then when I left high school - I graduated from high school a year early and, for whatever reason, I was not prepared to go to college. I wanted to go to college but I just had not prepared myself for that. So I went to work on the racetrack doing what I knew I could do. And so I galloped horses on the race track - that's the morning training that they do. And I did that for about four and half years. And then one day somebody offered some horses for me to train. And I thought, well, you know, people have been bugging me to be a jockey for a while I should probably ride one race and just eliminate that as a career choice before I decide to become a trainer. I was 21 at the time - I knew was time to get serious about something. So - and by the way, I hadn't gone to college yet at that point. And so I rode my first race.
DAVIES: So tell us about that first race.
BARTON BROTHERS: I was amazed at how exciting it was and how challenging it was. My brother happened to be in town and I came back after the race and when a jockey pulls up - they're supposed to help the valet. We call them valets, in real life people call them valees (ph), but on the racetrack they're called valets - so the jockey's supposed to immediately help the valet get the saddle off the horse. But I forgot all about that - I just had this wide grin on my face and I walked over to my brother and I was like oh my God that is the coolest thing I've ever done. And he said go unsaddle your horse, OK. Then we'll talk about it.
And so, yeah, I suddenly had a brand-new respect for my brother and sister and realized that even though they weren't, you know, - maybe they didn't enjoy school and do well in school - certainly, they were intelligent. And it definitely took a lot of mental capacity to be a good jockey. As my mother used to say, the one muscle that she used more than any other muscle was her brain. And I think all, you know, really great jockeys what they have in common is that they're usually very intelligent people.
DAVIES: Can you put into words what it felt like to ride in that first race?
BARTON BROTHERS: Sure, you know, in the past I had been on horses in the morning and I had gone, essentially, race speed - race speed when you work a horse in the morning, we call it either morning work or morning breeze, as opposed to a gallop. You go almost race speed. So I had gone fast and I had been out of the starting gate with, you know, three or four other horses at a time in the morning and so I had broke from the starting gate. And again gone, you know, at race speed. But what was so different when I rode my first race is that so the gates flew open and I sent my horse, like, the first jump away from there and then, like, I realized, like - oh, wait, he's waiting for me to tell him what to do.
So, like, I have to make a decision here. And now at the same time this onslaught of dirt is flying back at me in a way I had never anticipated and had never happened in the morning because now I have horses in front of me. So I've got dirt that's flying back and pelting my face. It feels like 1,000 rubber bands hitting your face all at one time - maybe even harder than a rubber band. And so your immediate reaction is to blink and then you realize, like, I have goggles on so, like, I can keep my eyes open. And so that was all in the first, like, 10 strides. So now I'm, like, 10 strides out of there and I'm focusing on keeping my eyes open and telling my horse what to do and then I realize, like, I can't see anymore so now I've got to pull up - and pull my hand up from the reins and pull one pair of goggles down so that I can see.
So my horse ended up running fifth and, I mean, for me it was just a magical experience. It was like I realized that there are so many things that go on in just the first 16th of a mile of a race that I never knew about. And that, you know, if I had really applied myself to this both physically and mentally to understand the best way for the race to unfold and the best way for me to get position - that it would be one of the most exciting things I've ever done and indeed it was.
DAVIES: You became an apprentice jockey and then became a jockey. And you were a woman in a male world. I mean, what kinds of challenges did that present for you?
BARTON BROTHERS: You know Dave, I mean, the honest answer to that is that I've only ever been a girl. So I don't know if my challenges were much different or if my obstacles were much higher than the men. Back then it wasn't as bad as when my mother started riding, you know, where a lot of times I think in programs she would write Pat Barton so that people might think she was a guy...
DAVIES: Patty Barton was her name right, yeah?
BARTON BROTHERS: Patty Barton was her name or Patricia Barton. But, I think, sometimes they would put Pat Barton in the program so people didn't know. So when I was riding - you know, you were still trying to become accepted, like, look I'm one of you guys - I'm one of the guys. I didn't wear a dress to the jock's room. When I went to the jock's room I, you know, wore slacks. Or, I mean, I dressed professionally. But, like, it wasn't about me being a girl. And so the point is that I just wanted to be seen as a jockey. I didn't, you know, want to bring any more attention to the fact that I was a girl. I was really trying to make them believe I was a boy but they didn't believe me.
DAVIES: We're speaking with former jockey Donna Barton Brothers. You may have seen her on horseback interviewing the winning jockey on race days - she'll be part of the team for NBC Sports for this Saturday's broadcast of the Belmont Stakes. Her mother, Patty Barton, was among the first generation of female jockeys. They sometimes faced hostility from male jockeys. Donna Barton Brothers told me about one scrape her mother got into that involved a whip.
BARTON BROTHERS: Yeah my mother - well, first of all, she would fight at the drop of a hat and...
DAVIES: Do you mean actually physically fighting?
BARTON BROTHERS: Physically, yes. In her words, Dave, she said - well, you know, I couldn't lose. I mean, if they beat me up they just beat up a girl and if I beat them up, they got beat up by a girl. And so some years ago I asked - mom did it ever occur to you, mom, that most people don't fight at the drop of a hat? She said well, you know, it was never occurred to me.
So in this story with the whip, she hit a guy after the race. He came walking back into the jock's room and she was waiting - lying in wait as they say. And I think she kind of blindsided him after the race. And then he called the stewards. And she said, well, you should see what he did to me. And so she went into the steward's room and dropped her pants right in front of him because during the running of the race he had reached over and hit her across her rear end with his whip. And they hadn't seen that part. So she made sure that they saw the evidence of that anyway.
DAVIES: Do you know what came of that?
BARTON BROTHERS: I think they were both fined. Like, you know, $50 at the time. It was sort of like - OK you guys are both at fault. Don't do it again.
DAVIES: So she would get into fights because why? The guys were trying to intimidate her?
BARTON BROTHERS: Yeah, I mean, definitely they tried to intimidate her. And also, you know, I think my mother was just a bit more confrontational. And also, you know, the stewards weren't on her side because a lot of the stewards at that time were like - they were like yeah, well let's see if these girls can cut it out there, you know.
DAVIES: The stewards are kind of like the officials who monitor the race for infractions?
BARTON BROTHERS: Correct. There are three stewards at every race track and they watch every race. And so Dave, the thing that changed by the time I became a jockey in 1987 and she started in 1969 is that we had a few more camera angles now.
DAVIES: You said you didn't live with your mom for a lot of your childhood. Why was that?
BARTON BROTHERS: Four years of my childhood. My mother and father got divorced when I was two, my brother was one and my sister was four and a half. And it was just the nature of things. My father was a cowboy in the rodeo circuit. He moved quite a lot. My mother essentially had the responsibility of raising us and she just knew she couldn't do it on what she was making, you know, tending bar and so she went on to pursue her career. And that was as a jockey.
And once she became financially stable and in a place where she could get all of us children back with her that's what she did. And, you know, one of the amazing things about that - I know it sounds odd that a mother would give up their children, but it is odd. And so for a woman to be able to give up their children and then get their children back - and, Dave, she was a great mother. I mean, dinner on the table every night, taught us really good moral values, taught us really good work ethics, taught us right from wrong, gave us a really strong foundation. So it wasn't maybe the ideal childhood and it certainly wasn't the normal childhood - but it worked for us.
DAVIES: And when you weren't with your mom where - who did you live with?
BARTON BROTHERS: My sister lived with - we all three lived with my grandmother at first. My father's mother - And then it didn't take my grandmother long to realize that she couldn't take care of all three of us small children. And so my sister stayed with her. My brother and I went to live with a family right outside of town. This was when we were in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
So we lived with a family in Boles Acres that my grandmother knew Annie and Clarence French. They had three other - actually four other boys and had always wanted a girl. So they were happy to have us. And, you know, quite honestly when we went to stay with the French's there was a good possibility that we would live with them forever and they were quite happy with that, too. And it just worked out where it didn't work out that way and I think it - you know, for my brother and sister and I it worked out really well the way it did.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Donna Barton Brothers. She's a former jockey. She's now a reporter and analyst who'll be working in the Belmont Stakes this Saturday on NBC. She's also the author of the book "Inside Track: An Insider's Guide To Horse Racing." We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you are just joining us, we are speaking with Donna Barton Brothers. She is a racing reporter and analyst who'll be working with NBC on the Belmont Stakes this Saturday. She's also a former jockey who won 1,100 races. I can't believe you won 1,100 races. I don't think I've done 1,100 of anything. Part of racing is getting hurt, isn't it? Do you remember your first injury?
BARTON BROTHERS: Oh, gosh, well my first...
DAVIES: Or a memorable one?
BARTON BROTHERS: Well, my first injury was well before I was ever a jockey. When I was about three or four years old and got bucked off of a horse and went headfirst into a fence post. My brother was on the same horse and he just got bucked off into the dirt. I couldn't talk for, like, three days because my lips were swollen shut - which everybody though was quite funny, except for me.
BARTON BROTHERS: So you know, Dave, I just always, like - I don't know - I mean, I always understood that it was inherently dangerous to ride horses but it's what I loved. You know, when I was growing up, as a said, I had no desire to become a jockey but we did have horses and we rode them quite a lot. And when I did start writing, I felt like my mom never encouraged, nor discouraged, us from riding. But when I did start riding, I noticed that she was pretty happy about it. So about a month into it, I said, Mom you never encouraged me to be a jockey but I can tell that you're happy I became one. And she said, no I'm just happy that you have a passion and that you have a direction. So, you know, that's the thing about being a jockey, or anybody who's in a dangerous sport, is that as long as you have a real passion for that thing that you're doing, the fact that it's dangerous sits in the back of your mind not the front of your mind. And if it starts to rise into the front of your mind then it's time to quit. For me, that was why retired after eleven and a half years. The fact that it was dangerous became something that I thought about every now and then and I just thought it was time to move on.
DAVIES: So what are the ways that jockeys get hurt?
BARTON BROTHERS: Well, you know, a lot of times just clipping hills like in the early stages of the race when the horses are all bunched up and often times going into that first turn in a two-turn race. A lot of times you'll just clip heels. And one of the horses will fall. And sometimes there's horses right behind them who can't avoid the spills. So sometimes spills happen because of that. A lot of times they'll happen - I broke my nose seven times and none of those times was in a racing - well, actually one of them was in a spill, but the other six were incidences where I had a horse just, you know, throw their head back and hit me in the face. One time it was in the starting gate - so things like that. The time that it was in a spill was when I was on the turf course in Remington - Remington Park in Oklahoma City. And I was on the lead and a horse came up and headed me. And when I say headed me, I mean they came up and now they were head and head with me. And I reached back and hit my horse twice right-handed. And then when I reached my hand up to reach back to hit him the third time, as my hand was in the air he took a left-hand turn and went over the inside fence. And actually, after he dropped me, he ran and jumped into the lake. So you never can predict how you're going to get hurt out there. But you do know it's dangerous.
DAVIES: When you're going on a track in a race, I mean, these animals are so powerful and you're going so fast. Do you feel a twinge of fear along with, you know, the concentration?
BARTON BROTHERS: No that part is the really fun part. So even if you get to a point where you start to, like, go, OK this can be dangerous - the faster they go, the more fun it is. So one of my favorite horses was Lord Carson. He was one of my favorites because when we would turn for home - so now the quarter pole is they come out of that turn and now you're headed to the final stretch - as soon as I would, like, set him down and ask him, he literally would lower his body like about four or five inches as his stride lengthened. So as his stride lengthened, his body dropped and I could feel his body drop and his speed quicken and it was one of the most incredible feelings that you will ever feel. Or Dave maybe you won't feel that. I'm sorry. It was incredible for me.
DAVIES: I know I won't feel it. But it's great to hear you talk about it. So a lot of what you're doing in the race is holding the horse back and waiting for the right moment to let him go, right?
BARTON BROTHERS: Yeah exactly. You know, we don't have to teach them to compete. Thoroughbreds are just naturally competitive, they're naturally fast. What we have to try to get them to do is just wait until we're ready for them to, you know, really unleash their powerful move - just not do too much too soon.
DAVIES: In a race, you have all of these horses that are trying to occupy the same space. They all want to get ahead. Somebody may want to move to the rail. Do jockeys try and intimidate one another out on the track?
BARTON BROTHERS: I wouldn't necessarily say that it's intimidation. There's sort of an unwritten rule in horse racing that if you have enough horse then you can get in and if not then you need to get the heck out. You don't stay halfway up into any position. So let's just picture in our minds that you've got four horses racing into the first turn - one horse is going to be wide if he stays out there. So he just goes ahead and takes back and drops over. So now you've got three horses. So let's just say the horse in the middle - if he's not being able to keep up - like, let's just say that his natural footing doesn't have him going as fast as the horse in the one hole and the horse in the three hole, and now they're a half-length in front of him, that jockey in the middle is just naturally going to ease back out of there because it's kind of an unwritten rule that if you don't have enough horse to stay all the way up in there, then get out. It's just an unwritten rule. This is the way that horse racing works. Now, when you turn for home, let's say that you are on a horse and you're on the rail and you've got two horses in front of you and a horse to your outside and you can't get out. You're just boxed in. There's nowhere to go. That's the point of the race where you'll see the rider on the rail just start to push the horse on the outside of them out a little bit because, especially in the turn, it's a little easier to get that horse to spread the turn a little bit - when I say spread the turn, I mean the jockeys are usually holding onto that left rein to try to keep them in on the rail. And if you kind of bump them a little bit, it's a little harder to get that horse to continue to hold its position. And sometimes, you'll see a jockey and a horse push their way out of that position there. That happens pretty frequently.
DAVIES: So you'll have your horse actually push the horse to your right? Make contact?
BARTON BROTHERS: Yeah, I mean, you don't want to do that, Dave, though. Honestly, jockeys do not want to do that because horses aren't bumper cars. And, you know, they end up with little injuries like chipped ankles or chipped knee, which is not a breakdown injury, it's something that would require arthroscopic surgery and, you know, they come back. But those kind of injuries happen in one step. And how do you not know that it's the step where you used your horse as a bumper car to run into another horse? And so we try not to do that.
DAVIES: Donna Barton Brothers is a former jockey and NBC sports analyst who will be working the Belmont Stakes Saturday. She'll be back in the second half of our show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who is off this week. As we look forward to the Belmont Stakes this Saturday, we're speaking with Donna Barton Brothers, a former jockey with 1,100 wins who's now an analyst for NBC Sports. She'll be interviewing the winner Saturday while on horseback herself. Barton Brothers has written a layman's guide to horse racing called "Inside Track." Before a race, there's a routine where the horses come out of the paddock. And there's what they call the post parade, right? What does the post parade refer to?
BARTON BROTHERS: So the post parade - when the horses walk out onto the race track and sort of parade in front of the grandstand at a walk, that's what we call the post parade. And then when they break post parade is when they begin the warm-up. And so in the warm-up, that's when they start the jog, gallop or whatever they do. And then they'll get back in line and head to the starting gate.
DAVIES: I read that you said that when a writer goes out in the post parade with the horse that there's a subtle conversation going on between the horse and the rider. They may be new to one another.
BARTON BROTHERS: Exactly.
DAVIES: What is that conversation?
BARTON BROTHERS: Well, I'll give you an example of something that happened to me once. I was riding a horse named Mushroom Tea. I looked at the form and every time the horse had been on or near the lead that's when he ran his best races. But in his prior like four races he hadn't been on or near the lead in the early stages and he didn't run any good. So when I walked out into the paddock, you know, David Caroll actually was the trainer and he said he really needs to be on the lead. So just send him away from there and try to get some good position. So I get on him. And this is the first time I've been on him.
DAVIES: Can you explain what you mean when you say send him away and get a good position?
BARTON BROTHERS: So meaning - he needs to be laying in the first, like, flight. He needs to be laying one, two, three - in the early part or he's not going to run well. He doesn't like to get dirt in his face. He doesn't like to get shuffled back. And so -
DAVIES: So once the race starts he's got to be out front in the front group. OK.
BARTON BROTHERS: Correct - to run well. And so I'm on the horse in the warm-up. And I noticed that every time I touch his neck, especially like in the middle of his neck, he just pins his ears back and lifts his head up a little bit - like get your hands off of my neck. Don't touch me. Now, in order for a jockey to send a horse - essentially you push on their neck. You pick up your reins and on each side. And then you get behind about midway up their neck. And you push and do some smooching noises and maybe tap with your whip on their shoulder. So I'm thinking, OK great. How am I going to send him if I can't touch his neck? So I was like -
DAVIES: And when you say send you mean give - go all out in the race.
BARTON BROTHERS: Well, no.
BARTON BROTHERS: Just try to get early positions. So I'm sorry, Dave - send away from the gate. Like I want to send him those first five jumps. Like ask him to go as fast as he can the first 5 jumps. So that then I can go OK. That's good. We're in good position. Now we're going to settle here. So when you send a horse though, you need to be able to be on their neck. And so anyway, the point is - is I couldn't do it with him. And so when I left the starting gate, I just kept my hands way back down by the saddle. And I just smooched to him just using (imitates smooching sounds) - just tapping him on the shoulder with the whip. And he just surged forward. And he was laying second. And the horse that was on the lead - he seemed to be quite content with that horse there. And we won the race at 20 to one. Now I'm not the only one who does stuff like that. That's just an example of what jockeys do. So you spend that time in the post parade and in the warm-up getting to know your horse by their signals. They tell you with their ears, their body movements, their body motions. And you just start that line of communication.
DAVIES: There's a great story about you riding a horse named Trick Artist at Turfway Park.
BARTON BROTHERS: Yeah. How did you read that? Where did you find that, Dave?
DAVIES: Eh, I studied up on you. You got to tell us that one.
BARTON BROTHERS: So Trick Artist was a horse I rode at Turfway Park. And he had been running shorter races. And they were running him in a two-turn race and really needed to try to, you know, get him to stretch out his speed. He had some natural speed. And by that I mean he wanted to be forwardly placed. But it's one thing to be forwardly placed and only have six furlongs to go. It's another thing to want to do that and then have to get to the wire with eight furlongs to cover. And so they asked me to, you know, just try to keep him like as calm early as I could. And so, you know, in the post parade and in the warm-up instead of really warming him up, I really just like jogged and walked around on him. I took my feet out of the irons and just got real relaxed in trying to convey to him to also be relaxed. And in that like kind of -
DAVIES: When you say take your feet out of the iron, you mean out of the stirrups so the horse would be relaxed - to just calm the horse down?
BARTON BROTHERS: Yes. So when you do that you just sit flat on their back. And when you're sitting flat on their back like that and your feet aren't in the stirrups, they know you're not getting ready to do anything. Like they relax because they know you're not going to suddenly break away from the pony, you know. It's just time to relax.
And so a song came into my head. And I just started singing the song in my head, but I'm not a very good singer. Well, actually I'm a terrible singer. And so I didn't sing the song out loud in the post parade because - or in the warm-up - because I had the pony person next to me. So now we're in the starting gate and that song is still in my head. And the gates fly open. And again, like, I'm just trying to get my horse to relax. Don't do too much too soon. So I'm not sending - not asking him. I'm just sitting there trying to get him to relax.
He breaks on the lead. And now I can sing the song because it's still my head. And there's nobody around. And so I just start singing the song like out loud - really trying to help him to relax, too. And all of a sudden he pins his ears back. And so like normally when a horse will pin their ears back when they're in the lead like that, it means somebody's getting ready to come up - either on your inside or your outside. Well, I was on the rails and I knew nobody was on the inside. So I looked over my right shoulder. And nobody was coming. But when I looked over my right shoulder, I quit singing. And when I looked forward, his ears were forward again. And so like - I was like OK. Everything's fine. I don't know what that was all about. But then I went back to singing it again. And then he pinned his ears again. And again I looked over my right shoulder and nothing. And then finally it hit me. I was like seriously? You are that offended by the way I sing? So I tried just one more time to sing and see if that was it. And as soon as I started to sing, he pinned his ears. So I just stopped singing and kept looking at him - ears went straight forward. So there we have it. That's why I don't sing publicly. And he went on to run well. I think he was second that day, but he went on to run well.
DAVIES: So ears back means the horse is anxious, right?
BARTON BROTHERS: Ears back means something. It always means something. It's up to the rider to figure out what it means. It could mean that they're just trying really, really hard and the dirt's cupping away from them. And they can't get a hold of it as well as that they would like. So they might be frustrated. It could mean that a horse is coming up on their left side or their right side. It could mean that they don't like the way you sing. It could mean a number of things.
DAVIES: Donna Barton Brothers is a former jockey. She's now a reporter and analyst who'll be working the Belmont Stakes this Saturday with NBC. We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with former jockey Donna Barton Brothers. She won more than 1,100 races as a writer. She's now a reporter and analyst who'll be working the Belmont Stakes this Saturday with NBC. She's also written a book "Inside Track: Insider's Guide to Horse Racing." Well, let's talk about the Belmont Stakes. Eleven horses have won the Triple Crown - the three races - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. California Chrome now has won the first two. When you see the horse come out of the paddock - I mean, you'll be there on Saturday. And you see him in the post parade. What will you be looking for?
BARTON BROTHERS: Well, the horses that - most of the horse I've seen before - Tonalist is a horse who won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. And I've have never seen him. So, you know, I'll want to see how he's handling himself in the post parade and in the warm-up. But most of the horses I've seen before, so I just want to see - are they maintaining their weight? Do they still have the same amount of weight on them as the last time I saw them? And for people who have been around horses, you know, for a large part of their life like me, you almost have a photographic memory, Dave, about what a horse looks like. And so you remember what a horse looked like the last time you saw him. And then if you don't see him for like three weeks and suddenly see them and they've lost a lot of weight or even a bit of weight or they've gained weight, you see it. So I look to see how their weight is. And I look to see how their attitude is and how their energy is. You know, I want to see them look like they're happy to be there on their toes kind of excited. And when I say on their toes, I mean like prancing a little bit sort of excited. But I don't want to see them pushing the pony over to the other side of the track and, you know, kicking and biting and all those kinds of things 'cause that's more a sign of irritation or aggravation.
DAVIES: And for California Chrome - anything in particular you'll be looking at before the race?
BARTON BROTHERS: California Chrome is a horse whose done everything so professionally to this point. So my expectation's that he will be a professional like he's been in every race. And that's what I'm going to expect to see. If I see anything differently from that, then it's going to be a red flag for me. And I will definitely tell the viewers what I'm seeing and why I think it's a red flag.
DAVIES: People who may not recognize your name have seen you do these post-race interviews on horseback. You 're probably the only sports journalist who does her work on a quadruped. Whose idea was it for you to do these interviews on horseback?
BARTON BROTHERS: Well, I wasn't the first one to do it. I want to say Charlsie Cantey was probably the first. I believe she was the first one to do it. I'm not sure if it was her idea or somebody else's. But it was Charlsie Cantey who first did it. And she did it so well that she gave me some big shoes to fill. But in between Charlsie doing it and me doing it there were some other people who did it. But I like the fact that I'm the only one who does it on NBC these days.
DAVIES: Right. You know, you're a part of a particular niche of sports journalist - the one who does the post game interviews. And, you know, that's a special moment for athletes. I mean, after the competition they're often adrenaline-filled and either exhilarated or filled with despair. I guess you mostly interview the winners. I wonder what you've learned about what works and what doesn't work interviewing people in that moment.
BARTON BROTHERS: So I think the biggest thing that I need to always be aware of is that whoever wins the races I am interviewing for - because we'll only have a reporter on horseback for the big races - that win is going to mean a lot to them. Winning that race is going to mean a lot to any jockey. But it's going to mean a little something different to everyone. So like let's say, you know, one of the jockey's wife just had a baby a week ago. And another jockey's father passed away last month or another jockey is riding this horse for the very first time - had never been on it before. Or let's say the opposite - had ridden a horse four times, got taken off, replaced by another jockey. And now three races later they're back on the horse. And they win the race. So my job as a reporter is to make sure that I understand the storyline and what this race means particularly to that jockey. Typically I'd rather just it be a conversation. And I want to pull out the emotion. I want to know what it means for them to win this race in this moment. You know, like I don't really care so much in the beginning when I first start asking questions about your trip - where you came from. I just - I want to know what you're feeling right now given the fact that you just won this huge race. And so that's what I try for, Dave - to find out what it means to them.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting when I think about comparing horse racing to other sports. We think of traditional sports like, you know, baseball or football or basketball. We see the athlete on the field. And we mostly, you know, embrace the athlete for the athlete's talent. And we recognize that there's some coaching involved. Some coaches do a better job of getting good performances or planning strategy. But in racing, I mean, you've this whole team. I mean, the horse itself of course is the real engine, but the jockey matters. And of course trainers are recognized for, you know, developing horses some better than others. And then there's the owner which buys and breeds the horses. How do you decide who gets what share of the credit?
BARTON BROTHERS: Well, first of all -
DAVIES: Or does it even matter?
BARTON BROTHERS: -The owner has their money in the game. And so, you know, they get the first share because they're the ones who put their money up and played the game by putting their money up. The trainers and jockeys are getting paid. So they get the most credit. But as far as getting the actual horse ready - definitely the trainer. The trainer decides who the jockey is. Sometimes the owners will have some input there. But I would say most good owners know to let their - first of all, good owners know to hire a good trainer. And once they hire a good trainer, they know to let that trainer make those kind of decisions. I mean, you wouldn't hire an electrician to come into your house and then tell them how to do their job. And that's sort of like hiring a horse trainer. You let them ride the jockeys that they're comfortable with, that they have a good rapport with and the jockeys that they feel like are going to fit that horse because the trainer by the time that horse makes it to its first race or its 10th race - ideally nobody should know that horse better than the trainer does. And the trainer gets a lot of his feedback or her feedback from the exercise riders who get on that horse everyday, from the grooms who are with that horse every day - sometimes the hot walkers also. So the trainer knows, you know, to hire good help and who to listen to and how much to listen to. And from there they make their decisions.
DAVIES: So the trainers can be real stars in this game.
BARTON BROTHERS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, yeah. Absolutely.
DAVIES: You raced for 12 years or so, right? Won more than 1,100 races. When did you know it was time to retire?
BARTON BROTHERS: Well, I raced for almost 12 years. It was about 11 and a half years. And I just loved it for 11 years. I mean, it was just - I just loved it. I never felt I was going to work even though I was getting up at 4:30 a.m. and going to work seven days a week. And then I would say the last six months it started to feel like work. It just started to feel like - the sport is a game of peaks and valleys. You know, you'll see jockeys doing well and then not so well and well and not so well - same with trainers. And at the time I happened to be in a valley. And I knew what I needed to do and how much hard work it would take me to get out of it and be back in a peak again. And all of a sudden it just seemed like a lot of work. And also at the same time I did start to recognize that it was a dangerous sport. And my husband now - we had been dating for like five years. He was a trainer. There's this real archaic rule in horse racing that if you marry a trainer you have to ride their horse in every race or sit the race out. And so finally it came to a point in my career and with my relationship with my now husband that I just said you know if I can't marry him because I'm a jockey, maybe I shouldn't be a jockey anymore. So we got married. And right now we're doing the happily-ever-after part. It's been almost 16 years. And I've never looked back.
DAVIES: Well, Donna Barton Brothers, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
BARTON BROTHERS: Nice to talk to you, Dave. Thanks.
DAVIES: Donna Barton Brothers is a former jockey and NBC sports analyst who'll be working the Belmont Stakes Saturday, where a potential Triple Crown winner California Chrome be in the field. Donna Barton Brothers' guide to the racing world is called "Inside Track." Here's one of the most famous songs written about horse racing and gambling. The main vocal is by its composer Frank Loesser.
(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "FUGUE FOR TINHORNS")
FRANK LOESSER: (As Nicely) I got the horse right here. The name is Paul Revere. And here's a guy that says that the weather's clear. Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do. If he says the horse can do, can do, can do.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (As Benny) Are you crazy? I'm pickin' Valentine, 'cause on the morning line a guy has got him figured at five to nine. Has chance, has chance, this guy says the horse has chance.
LOESSER AND GROUP: I tell you epitaph. If he says the horse has chance, has chance, has chance. Can do - can do - this guy says the horse can do. If he says the horse can do - can do, can do
SINGER: (As Rusty) Telegraph. I tell you Epitaph.
SINGER: (As Benny) Valentine.
LOESSER: (As Nicely) Paul Revere.
AND GROUP: I got the horse right here.
SINGER: (As Benny) I know it's Valentine, the morning work looks fine. Besides the jockey's brother's a friend of mine.
SINGER: (As Rusty) And just a minute, boys. I've got the feed box noise. It says the great-grandfather was Equipoise. Shows class, shows class.
LOESSER: (As Nicely) For Paul Revere I'll bite. I hear his foot's all right. Of course it all depends if it rained last night.
SINGER: (As Rusty) I tell you Epitaph.
SINGER: (As Benny)Valentine.
LOESSER: (As Nicely) Paul Revere.
AND GROUP: I got the horse right here.
SINGER: (As Benny) I go for Valentine, 'Cause on the morning line. The guy has got him figured at five to nine.
SINGER: (As Rusty) So make it Epitaph, he wins it by a half. According to this here in the Telegraph.
LOESSER: (As Nicely) I tell you Paul Revere. Now this is no bum steer. It's from a handicapper that's real sincere.
SINGER: (As Rusty) I tell you Epitaph.
SINGER: (As Benny) Valentine.
LOESSER: (As Nicely) Paul Revere.
AND GROUP: I got the horse right here.
DAVIES: That's "Fugue for Tinhorns" from the Frank Loesser show "Guys and Dolls." Coming up Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new CD release of the first great serious Broadway musical "Showboat." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.