Aspiring jockeys get college credit at North American Racing Academy

Cheyenne Jones practices riding techniques on a racehorse simulator at UK's Sports Medicine Research Institute.

LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY-- When you glance into a second floor classroom at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, it appears to be a typical group of students listening to a lecture.

But when these students put down the books, they head to a barn. It's a place they've been to before classes too. Each day starts with grooming and feeding horses. The stalls at the nearby Thoroughbred Center become quite familiar to anyone enrolled in the North American Racing Academy.

Dixie Hayes, Program Coordinator, said "They can be the best riders in the world, but if they don't have the work ethic to get up early in the morning, be here and care for those horses, they won't move forward in our program."

NARA is the only school in the U.S. where aspiring jockeys can earn a college degree. It began in 2006 under the direction of Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron. The current executive director is Remi Bellocq.

Hayes said students come from all over the world to join the program. Some native countries include Norway, India and Australia.

Cheyenne Jones of Shepherdsville, Kentucky loves everything about the program, but admits it was difficult not being allowed to get on a horse right away.

"We have to start out with equine anatomy and learn about the horses, basic care and groom them before we get hands on with the horses," she said.

Shelby Spalding, a student from Concordia, Missouri, said she was thrilled to discover NARA. "I knew I liked to go fast and this is the perfect industry for that, so I looked it up, did all my research and was so excited to get started."

Right now, there are four students in the jockey program, but the school also offers a horseman's track for those who want other jobs in the thoroughbred industry, maybe as trainers , farm managers or bloodstock agents.

Being a jockey is dangerous. They are professional athletes, so a large part of the training is physical.

The students have fitness assessments at the University of Kentucky's Sports Medicine Research Institute, measuring such things as balance and grip strength.

And a ride on a simulated racehorse can record how a real horse would react to each shift of the body or pull on the reins.

"It's opened my eyes a lot on how strong and physically fit you have to be," Spalding said.

The academy's dozen horses are often the most demanding teachers.

"We've got a great mix of horses," said Hayes. "Some are really quiet and nice and some are pretty tough and challenge students in ways I can only create."

The program has placed 100 percent of its graduates in internship programs on farms and about 30 of them are working actively as jockeys.

Instructor Alicia Benben said "We follow our students like a handicapper would follow a horse, so it's really neat to watch their journey progress as they leave here."

She said when a former student gets a job in the industry "it's the most rewarding experience. They are my 'win' photo."

It's a long road to the big stage, but this program can definitely get students on the right track.

"Ten years from now, hopefully I'm a jockey," said Jones. "That's the dream."


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