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More than ready to ride

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Thompson lived his dream to ride horses

By Stevie Lowery

David Thompson remembers going to horse races in Green and Adair counties when he was 5 or 6 years old. There, he watched Dick and Pipel Cowherd ride horses named Davey Crockett and Francis, and he knew from that moment on that he wanted to be a jockey, too.
He had a pony, and he even asked his dad to make him a track on their property in Springfield. Thompson, now 62, even made his own stirrups out of grass.
After a lot of work, Thompson's dream came true in 1975 when he got his jockey's license.
"If you set a goal in life, you can make it," he said.
Thompson's road to racing was a winding one, to put it mildly.
At age 8, Clem Lovell got Thompson started working with horses in Washington County. When Clem Lovell died, Thompson went to live with Clem's brother, Cash, in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Thompson said his parents, Tom and Rita, were divided over whether he should go to the Tar Heel State, however. One time when he was visiting his family in Springfield, his father took him for a ride on back roads when the Lovells came to take him back to North Carolina. His father eventually kept him away until his truck started running low on gas and he had to return home.
Thompson lived with the Lovells for 11 years. They sent him to a private school where he was one of two African-American students, and he got to start riding 2-year-old horses when he was 13 or 14 years old.
"[The Lovells] were very, very good to me," Thompson said. "When I got married, they gave me $10,000."
He continued to work with horses until he got called up to join the Marines in 1970. He served for 16 months, which included a tour in Vietnam. He was discharged after he suffered a heart attack in 1971 when he was around 20 years old.
After his time in the Corps, Thompson said Paul Hamilton contacted him about returning to Kentucky. "Big John" Angel had 10 horses and wanted Thompson to ride for him.
In 1975, Thompson signed a contract with Angel. According to that contract, Thompson was paid $200 per month during his first year as an apprentice jockey, but there were conditions.
"If and when the Apprentice's weight should exceed 115 pounds, this contract may be terminated," the contract read.
Thompson is five feet, seven inches tall, and when he got out of the Marines, he weighed 156 pounds.
He practically starved himself to get down to and to maintain his riding weight. As a professional jockey, he said he used Ex-lax. He had days when he ate lettuce with a little salt and pepper for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Once during a stint in Virginia, he ate nothing but tomatoes from his garden for a week.
"I used to go to bed at night with a handful of corn flakes," Thompson said.
As a jockey, he was pretty much on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He got his start riding races in Adair and Green counties.
He also remembered that Angel showed up one day at 4 a.m. to let him know that he would be getting his license.
Angel and Thompson drove to Latonia (where Turfway Park is now open), and after he rode, the track official initially tried to deny Thompson his license, claiming he'd ridden too high. Thompson recalled that Angel told the official that he'd call Gov. Julian Carroll if he had to. He told Thompson to go back to the barn and wait.
It didn't take long before he got word that he had his license.
As a professional jockey, Thompson said he received $65 for each race and 10 percent of any winnings down to fifth place. During his 18 years as a jockey, he rode at Churchill Downs and Keeneland, including one time in the Bluegrass Stakes. He's ridden at tracks all over the country, from California to New York to Florida.
One thing he learned is that many horse racing fans have a misperception that jockeys get horses to run faster by hitting them with a whip. He said watching Pat Day can help explain how jockeys really control a horse.
"He hardly ever hits a horse. It's in your hands," Thompson said.
He also compared riding a thoroughbred to racing a car. Both require quick thinking, but there is a critical difference with horses.
"A race car's got brakes. They don't," Thompson said.
As far as he knows, he's the only African-American to get his initial jockey's license in Kentucky since 1975. Kentucky has granted licenses to other black jockeys who were initially licensed elsewhere.
Most states recognize one another's licenses, but Thompson learned that wasn't the case at every track, and he thinks his race was part of the reason they gave him problems.
At one track in Virginia, Thompson remembers trying to take his gear to the track.
"I took my bag in and they threw it back out in the street," Thompson said.
Tracks in Ohio and West Virginia allowed him to race, but they would only grant him a temporary license, which didn't sit well with Thompson.
"I tore 'em up because I didn't think it was fair," he said.
Thompson said he was called every name in the book during his racing career, but the most blatant discrimination he experienced occurred in Cicero, Ill.
Thompson had been exercising a horse at the track for a week. On the day he was set to race a big, black Cadillac showed up at the barn. A man got out and told Thompson he couldn't ride.
Thompson called Angel, and Angel came up to Illinois with a few other people. While Angel spoke with track officials, Thompson went with someone to get a bite to eat. The only restaurant they found that would serve him was at a hotel.
Then they attempted to go bowling. After they finished one game, Thompson said he was informed that blacks could not bowl there.
Aside from those instances of discrimination, being a jockey was difficult for other reasons.
"I've been called everything in the book. Every bone in my body's been broken just about," Thompson said.
He's ridden races with broken wrists and broken hands. He also said he learned it was better to not argue with trainers if they thought he had a bad race.
Instead, he would tell them, "Sorry, sir. I'll try to do better next time."
He said jockeys must be both physically and mentally fit to be successful, and as he got older, he realized he'd had enough.
Even so, he remains thin, and he speaks fondly of his days of sitting in sweatboxes and wearing vinyl suits and riding in cars with the heat turned all the way up just to lose a few pounds on race days.
"It's a fun life," Thompson said, "if you like it."

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