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Leslie Mawing: Finding the passion for family and riding | Emerald Downs

Jockey Leslie Mawing has found a way to balance his family life while working in a demanding sport of thoroughbred horse racing.   - Courtesy Emerald Downs
Jockey Leslie Mawing has found a way to balance his family life while working in a demanding sport of thoroughbred horse racing.
— image credit: Courtesy Emerald Downs

Life is all about passion for Leslie Mawing.

It's evident when the 38-year-old jockey talks about his personal life as a husband and father of three. It's also apparent when he speaks about his professional life guiding swift ponies around the track.

Last year, Mawing rode that passion to the riding title at Emerald Downs, piling up 129 wins in the 2011 session. This season he's hoping it will guide him to a repeat title when the track's 2012 session opens this Friday.

Mawing's passion for Thoroughbred racing was fostered at an early age in his native South Africa.

“My dad owned horses, so I always went to the track with him,” Mawing said. “I was working part time for a trainer, just working horses in the morning.”

Although Mawing – whose older brother Anthony is also a jockey – said horse racing is in his blood, his father envisioned a different path for him.

"He never wanted me to be a jockey," he said. "I guess he knew what it involved as far as the dangers. He always wanted me to become an accountant or a lawyer."

Mawing tried to honor his father's wishes after graduating from high school.

"I kind of went in that direction for a little while, but it didn’t appeal to me," he said. "It wasn’t my passion.”

After his father passed away, Mawing took a break from school to backpack around Europe. After he travelled to Southern California where his brother was working as a jockey.

It wasn't long before the call to ride become too great to ignore.

“There was no way of stopping me from being a jockey,” he said.

On the advice of jockey agent Tony Matos, Mawing headed north to Idaho's Les Bois Park where he got his first win in 1994 at the age of 20.

"I got a late start,” he said. “A lot of the guys that become jockeys they start way younger, at 17 or 18.”

Mawing has overcome any negatives from his late start on the track, however, and in recent years has become one of the top West Coast jockeys, racing mainly at California's Golden Gate Field and Emerald Downs.

In 2008 he found success aboard the Frank Lucarelli-trained Gallant Son, riding him in the Breeder's Cup.

A year later Mawing overcame the worst injury of his career, a fractured tibia and fibula suffered when his steed crashed through the inner rail at Golden Gate.

"I had a rod and three screws put in," he said. "I still have two screws in there. And I don’t think they’re going to take those out. So it will probably be in there for the rest of my life."

The seriousness of the injury didn't hamper Mawing's passion for riding.

"It's all part of being a jockey," Mawing said. "(Quitting) crosses your mind, but you can’t dwell on it. If you start dwelling on it you should get out of the sport, because you can’t have any fear during the races. When you have fear you make unsound judgement calls and that’s going to make it ten-times worse for you and your fellow riders. It’s a split second thought, ‘Geez did I choose the right career?’ But at the end of the day your passion overcomes it. Your passion for the horse racing itself. And you remember all the good things.”

In 2009 and 2010 Mawing took a break from racing at Emerald Downs to try his luck back east, racing at tracks in Ohio, Minnesota and West Virginia.

“Back east it’s a different lifestyle because there are so many tracks so close,” he said. “You’re constantly going from one track to the next track to the next track. You could pretty much ride two tracks in a day. And that’s what I was doing, riding Thistledown (in Ohio) in the afternoon and then driving to Mountaineer (in West Virginia) and riding at night. I just totally got burnt out though. I was losing too much time with my kid, we only had one at the time. And for me, family comes first.”

In 2011, family also played into Mawing's decision to race full-time at Emerald Downs.

“I started off good at Golden Gate,” he said. “When I left I was third in the standings in wins and purse money. I wasn’t going to leave, but my kids were missing me a lot. Every time I would go home for three days, when I’d leave they would cry. And that just got to me. I just couldn’t continue doing that, because when I was in California I could only go home once every few weeks."

With the home front secured with weekly commutes from Washington to his home in Idaho, Mawing concentrated on putting together a breakout year at the Auburn track.

“Everything just worked out and fell into place last year, all the stars were aligned,” he said.

This year, Mawing is excited about his chances at a repeat.

“I’ve been working with Gallant Son, who I rode in the Breeders Cup,” Mawing said. “He’s been working really hard. Frank (Lucarelli) has a lot of great young horses. I’ve been working with Winning Machine, who is working great. He’s had some time off and he’s coming into the races fresh.”

He said he's also looking forward to riding horses trained by Chris Stenslie, Jim Penney and Doris Harwood.

“I know it’s going to be tough year because we’ve got some good riders coming back,” Mawing said.

Although Mawing admits he is looking to future, he has no immediate plans to quit riding.

“I’ve always had a good business mind on me, so I’ve always looked at other things,” Mawing said. “But I enjoy being a jockey, it’s my passion. Of course I’ve looked down the line at other things, but if Russell Baze is still going strong at 53 I can do it. I have short term goals and long term goals. Down the line I’d like to have my hand in the horse business. Maybe as a steward or a horse owner eventually.”

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