“I would just like to win races, do well, have a safe year, and for everything to run smooth.”
Clear-cut words spoken by none other than Slade Jones.
The Barbadian rider is the newest jockey calling Woodbine home these days. At 16, Jones is also the youngest rider in the colony since the likes of Hall of Famer, Mickey Walls.
While there’s been plenty of media buzz surrounding Jones’ arrival, the teenager is taking everything in stride. A stride that isn’t easy to maintain and one that many people aren’t privy to truly understanding. However, it is something that his mom, Sara Jones (Clarke), clearly understands and describes succinctly.
“He has the bloodline for being a rider on both sides of the family, but it has been a lot of pressure for him too, being Jono’s son and Chally’s grandson. He’s taken all that in stride. He’s pretty determined. He just puts his head down and wants to be Slade Jones,” said Sara, an accomplished equestrian rider and coach at Big C Stables in Barbados.
Indeed, the media has focused on the fact that his family lineage would naturally tilt Jones’ prospects toward becoming a rider. His dad, Jonathan ‘Jono’ Jones was a champion jockey in Barbados and Canada. Additionally, Challenor ‘Chally’ Jones, Slade’s granddad, was also a notable champion jockey in the West Indies in the 60s up until the 80s (woodbine.com/blog/feature-slade-jones-aspires-to-patriarchal-success/). Sara’s father, Neil Clarke, was also a trainer in Barbados.
But as Sara notes, her son rocked his way into the horse world on his own accord.
“He’s been in goggles, with boots and a whip in hand from like two-years-old. His riding career really started on a rocking horse, that he never kept stationary. It’s supposed to be one of those stationary rocking horses. He used to rock that horse around the house; we thought he was going to bust his nose. He was just rocking and rolling on Butterscotch around the house,” laughed Sara.
Butterscotch retired, and Jones found himself riding as soon as he could walk. Riding with just a rope and halter, bareback in the field, or simply on a horse in the stall – you name it, and Sara has a picture of it. Big C Stables in Frere Pilgrim (Christ Church) is where Slade found his footing as a rider. Run by the Clarke family, Big C has been in operation for nearly five decades. Over the years, both Sara and her mom, Di Clarke have brought on many young riders, whether it has been in dressage, show jumping and yes, a budding jockey in the ranks. Slade’s sister, Indy is also a skilled show jumper and helps her mom school and bring along young horses.
While Jones’ path to becoming a jockey seems relatively straightforward, there have been some curves and bends in his journey to race riding. “He did go through a time where he hit a growth spurt, and he thought he was going to be too big to be a jockey. At that time, he was doing some show jumping and he was very into Ninja Warriors. He competed for Barbados at the World Ninja Championships in North Carolina,” said Sara.
Deciding on a professional career path is important for any young adult, but sometimes that’s not a teenager’s top priority. For the most part, teens want to elongate that period between freedom and full-fledged adulthood. Ultimately, the youngsters (even the adults sometimes) want to hold off on the ‘adulting is no fun’ part, an adage that has found itself in more regular use these days.
Yet, Jones was confident that his calling and his future revolved around horse racing. Born in Canada, but raised in Barbados, the first track that began calling his name was the historic Garrison Savannah. The Garrison is where several well-known Barbadian jocks, such as Patrick Husbands, Ricky and Chris Griffith, Slade and Brett Callaghan (to name a few) got their initial start in the racing world.
At 14, Jones was issued an exercise rider’s licence and began galloping horses at the Garrison. According to the Barbados Turf Club he could not apply for his apprentice jockey’s licence until he turned 15.
“The week he turned 15, Robert Peirce put him on a horse, and he had to break out the gates. Both of his stirrup leathers blew out, and he had to ride three furlongs with no stirrups. He managed to get it done and they passed him. From there, he started race riding at 15,” said Sara.
On June 18, 2021, Jones rode his first race. Then, in mid-October, Jones won his first race aboard Pitons Punch for Peirce.
Although Sara is not a jockey, she has been a competitive rider in the show ring. Not surprisingly, she is keenly aware of the pressure one may feel to win.
“He took a few good rides to get his first win here in Barbados. People were starting to say, ‘oh gosh, he’s hitting the board all the time, but he just doesn’t know how to win.’ I just kept saying to Slade, ‘keep your head down, that win will come.’ And then there is a sense a relief when he gets his first win. They start learning to be more patient, because they are hungry, but the hunger is different. It’s off of patience and not off of anxiety.”
Two wins followed, and soon enough, word spread that the young apprentice would move his tack to Canada. In late May, Jones made his riding debut at Woodbine. The jock’s room at Woodbine is already home to several Barbadian journeymen, including Patrick Husbands, Keveh Nicholls, Jason Hoyte, Juan Crawford and Corey Jordan. Jones is the youngest of the Bajan contingent. Interestingly, there have only been a handful of teenagers to race ride at the track over the last six decades. Mickey Walls was licensed out in British Columbia before moving his tack to Toronto. Aside from Walls, Gunnar Lindberg, was also licensed at 16, and rode his first race on May 30, 1973 at Woodbine.
In this game, whether past or present, there’s a bounty of young riders from coast to coast. As a sidebar, it’s interesting to note just a few here, including Alonzo ‘Lonnie’ Clayton (explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/315?tour=26&index=24), who, at the tender age of 15, won the 1892 Kentucky Derby aboard Azra. More than several decades later, you’ll find that Hall of Famer Steve Cauthen (racingmuseum.org/hall-of-fame/jockey/steve-cauthen) began his riding career at 16. In 1978, at 18, Cauthen captured the U.S. Triple Crown aboard Affirmed.
It goes without saying, there are rules that govern the process by which individuals can be licensed to race ride. In Barbados, where Jones began his career, the Barbados Turf Club’s rulebook specifically states (Part X, Sec. 64) that a licence can be issued to an apprentice jockey under 18 (but not under the age of 15) if the application has the consent of the parents or guardians of that apprentice.
The AGCO, the Jockeys’ Benefit Association of Canada (JBAC/Jockey’s Guild), Woodbine and the HBPA oversee the licensing of all riders at the Rexdale oval. Senior steward, Fenton Platts is clear on the *rules involving riders such as Jones who are under 18.
“He has to get consent from his guardian or parents, depending on which category he is in. He has to have a licence and a clearance from the jockey club from which he has been riding. So those are two of the things that have to happen,” said Platts.
*Licensing rules for riders in Ontario can be found on the AGCO’s (Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario) website (www.agco.ca/horse-racing/thoroughbred-chapter-4-licensing)
It’s important to recognize the licensing process is also different for Jones. Not solely based on his age, but because the young rider was previously licensed as a jockey by the Barbados Turf Club. If you’ve never been licensed (as a jockey) by another governing body, there’s a specific set of criteria you must meet in order to qualify for your licence.
“We have the forms; you need a letter of approval from the starter that says you’re capable of handling a horse in the gate. You need three letters from three prominent trainers that would say you have worked horses for them, and you will ride them (i.e. use them as a rider). And then you need three letters from three veteran jocks that are in the top 10 (standings) stating that they have worked horses with you, and you are confident in what you do,” said Daren Gomez, the executive director of JBAC.
Additionally, every jockey needs to have a clearance letter saying they are fit to ride. “The physical has to be done every year and the eyes have to be done once every two years,” said Gunnar Lindberg, the former jockey turned senior AGCO racing official.
Gomez establishes whether a jockey meets the required criteria and will send a letter to the stewards to proceed with licensing for that specific individual. Currently, the annual fee for an apprentice licence is $65.00, and for a jockey it is $130.00.
As a racing official (senior steward), Lindberg remains vigilant about issuing licences to future riders.
“Once this person brings this letter to me, before they get licensed, I will talk with them and tell them what it takes to be a rider out there and how to use a whip, the things to look for. I think one of the most important things I tell riders is to know where you are at all times out there, where your competition is, who is around you, and places that are very dangerous going into a turn and out of a turn. I will go over that with a young rider before I sign off on a licence. I just want to make sure they are very clear on what it’s like out there. It is a very dangerous sport, and you can work a million horses in the morning, but there is nothing like riding races,” said Lindberg.
Micah Husbands, Patrick’s nephew, has just started the licensing process. For the last couple of years, Micah has been an exerciser rider for well-known Woodbine trainer, Kevin Attard.
Meanwhile, Slade Jones will continue to ply his trade and work toward his goals with his agent, Tom Patton. A jockey agent for over two decades, Patton understands what it takes to survive and thrive in this jockey colony. Patton has represented a handful of great riders, including Patrick Husbands, Eurico Rosa Da Silva, and Slade’s dad, Jono. He also had Alex Solis’ book when he rode at Woodbine. Watching Jones ease into the colony, Patton has found the transition positive for the teenager.
“Initially, it’s a little slow because a lot of riders were here in the spring, getting on horses and building up loyalty in the barns. I think it’s been pretty quick for him. He’s won a couple of races already and we have a lot of riders, a lot of small fields, so it’s been a tough go for a lot of riders,” said Patton.
Slade Jones is the youngest rider Patton has ever represented. Asked if Slade has a similar riding style to his dad, Patton is quick to the punch.
“Absolutely, they do.”
On May 21, Slade rode his first race at the Rexdale oval. Looking on from the paddock, his dad, Jono watched as his son get the leg up on Tempereya for trainer Mike De Paulo.
Being a jockey is one thing; being a parent of a jockey is another. No doubt, a set of emotions rocked through the former jock as his son headed out of the paddock.
“Obviously, I was very nervous, but I know he is very talented, and the kid can ride. As I told him before, “Just do what you know how to do,” said Jono.
While not a winner first time out, it didn’t take Jones too long to find the wire first.
On June 2, Jones piloted Arra Go Wan to victory on the inner turf for conditioner and owner, Breeda Hayes. While he’s already won several races back home, this moment is still very fresh in the jock’s mind.
“It was a little nerve wracking. The horse came out the gates and shot straight to the front. I wanted to go to the front, but not so far. It worked out well. When you cross the wire first there’s just that sort of relief, you’ve won and it’s just really good to get the monkey off your back,” said Jones.
Watching from home in Barbados, Sara also noted how special the victory was for the family.
“It was really exciting for us. I haven’t seen Breeda in years. We all knew each other well and we picnicked together at Gordie Colbourne’s barn and at his farm. We met her children. So, it was very special. Jono rode a lot for her and rode that filly’s mother and ended up winning on her,” said Sara.
Jono was on hand to watch Slade win with Hayes’ homebred.
“That was fantastic. You can’t really describe the feeling, but it was fantastic.”
A few days later Jones piloted Jegos Fire to victory for Barbadian trainer, Tedston Holder. Over the weekend, the apprentice picked up a third win aboard Rosebud’s Hope for trainer Kevin Attard.
Even after winning a few races at Woodbine, Jones understands that it will take time to learn the ins and outs of this track compared to the Garrison.
“The major difference is this track is a lot bigger. It has a longer straight, and overall, it’s just a lot bigger compared to Barbados which is tighter – a fantastic track to learn on, and it’s a very good coaching track.”
Whether it been in Barbados or Canada, Sara notes her son’s development as a professional athlete in the sport.
“I’ve watched him grow. He’s always been good at rating horses, but he’s grown as a rider, there’s no two ways about it. At the beginning he used to come home and watch races. The two of us would jump on the couch and re-watch his races. We would discuss the little points, on if he moved too early, or if he waited too late, and where to give your horse a little breather. Now, he rates a horse quite well. It’s always been more of a natural gift for him to get horses to relax in a race. But you are just seeing growth and development in his riding within the years, just riding that much stronger.”
A proud mom, to say the least, Sara admits they don’t see eye to eye on everything.
“He rides quite short for someone of his height. But he’s a stickler. He just says that’s where he is most comfortable and where he can ride the strongest from. So, we have agreed to disagree on his length of stirrups. I always say in order to come first, first you must finish. If a horse takes a little bob, you are more likely to come off when you are that short. He said his ninja warriors put him in good standing for good balance. We agree to disagree on that one.”
At 5’10, Jones, is considered tall for a jockey, but height is not always a ledger by which you weigh talent or ability against. Take for instance, Barbadian rider Rey Williams, who won the 2017 Sovereign for outstanding apprentice rider. Williams is six feet tall and still riding competitively.
All jockeys, regardless of age or height, feel the pressure to perform well. Taking everything in stride may look effortless from the outside, but for the newest and youngest rider in the colony its not that easy. Having a strong support system of family and friends throughout this transition has undoubtedly helped Slade navigate his path in the industry. While he is miles away from Barbados, the young rider is feeling pretty content at the oval.
“It’s like coming back home. There are a lot of West Indians up here, and the Canadians are real nice. It’s really nice here.”
Standing in the parking lot on the backstretch, several jockey agents and their jockeys discuss the upcoming race day ahead. Jones, standing sure-footed, answers the last question before heading on his way and prepping for the afternoon card. Armed with a diligent mindset, the young jock’s goals and hunger to win will no doubt determine the future path he carves out for himself in this game.
Meanwhile, his siblings have continued to carve out their unique paths too. Later this year, Indy is going into the agricultural program and majoring in animal science at the University of Guelph. Jones’ twin brother Tosh is doing CXC’s and applied for an engineering course, with a focus on either mechanical or civil engineering. While Indy and Slade have their equine endeavours at heart, Tosh shoots at the Clay Target club. “He’s actually a really good shot. It’s just the fluorescent bright clay targets. It’s called Olympic trap,” said Sara.
As Sara continues to keep busy teaching and coaching, she is also very proudly watching her kids venture into new chapters in their lives. As the weeks at Woodbine continue to fly by, you can also bet she’s keeping a close eye out for a former Big C rider guiding his mount steadily down the stretch at the Rexdale oval.
Of course, both Sara and Slade are taking every moment in each race in stride, and possibly in different stirrup lengths too.
Woodbine Communications, by Hayley Morrison