Mallory Strandberg was born to be a jockey.
In fact, she jokes that her first ride occurred while still inside her mother Glenda’s tummy. That was some two decades ago on the family’s cattle ranch in tiny Danville, Washington, an unincorporated community of 34 people in the northeast tip of the state.
Strandberg, now 22, began riding professionally this month at Laurel Park in Maryland, finishing third aboard Light of Truth in her first career mount March 7. The road to becoming a jockey has taken her a long ways from Danville, to places like Kentucky, Florida, New York and Maryland, with instruction gleaned from Hall of Fame jockeys and trainers along the way.
While Strandberg said it was her destiny to sit atop a thoroughbred, it took her a while to sort things out. A graduate of Republic High School*her graduating class had 13 members*Strandberg enrolled at Central Washington University with ideas of perhaps becoming an artist. But she still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.
While in Ellensburg, Strandberg was assigned to write a paper about her career choice, and that’s when it dawned on her: jockey!
“I’m an intense, outdoor person,” she said. “I come from a horse and cowboy kind of family.”
That’s an understatement. Riding horses literally since she was in diapers, Strandberg has handled all sorts of equines: Buckskins, Quarter horses, Thoroughbreds, you name it and chances are Strandberg has ridden it, probably bareback.
“My favorite was the pony express at the Omak Stampede,” Strandberg said of the notoriously rugged events held each summer in Okanogan County. “I knew (being a jockey) was coming, and it just never felt right until I was accepted into NARA.”
NARA is the North American Racing Academy located at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Ky. Founded by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, it’s the only accredited college degree program for fledgling jockeys on the continent, and accepts only a handful of new students each year. So it was no small thing when Strandberg, after being accepted by NARA, packed her things and journeyed cross-country to Kentucky to pursue her dream. The first thing she learned is why Kentucky is nicknamed the Bluegrass State.
“I had never seen grass so blue,” she said. “It was so beautiful.”
Strandberg proved a quick study and even remained in Kentucky during summer breaks to get some personal instruction from McCarron, although she points out, “Chris plays no favorites. He understands what each student is capable of doing.”
During the past two years, Strandberg has gotten further hands-on instruction while interning as an exercise rider for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott in Florida and for Breeders’ Cup-wining trainer Dale Romans in New York. In addition to galloping some of the world’s finest Thoroughbreds, Strandberg learned the intricacies of a stable’s inner-workings, including the necessary care, feed and tack required for first-rate horsemanship.
Strandberg recently completed her two-year Associate degree (65-68 credits) on equine study and Jockey pathway, and graduated from NARA with her jockey’s certificate in hand.
First stop: the Maryland circuit, where a young Chris McCarron set all sorts of records as a young rider in the 1970s. To date, Strandberg has three seconds and two thirds in 13 mounts, plus a healthy respect for the economic realities of her chosen profession. Being a jockey means earning 10 percent from winning mounts*and very little for anything else.
Friday, Strandberg rides four horses at Laurel including 2-to-1 morning line favorite Light of Truth in the opener. Saturday, she’ll be at Turfway Park for the inaugural BCTC International Catch a Riding Star Challenge for top young jockeys who have attended riding schools around the world. It’s quite an honor just to be invited, and Strandberg drew the mount aboard 5-year-old St. Armands in the six-furlong event.
“I’m enjoying it all,” she said. “It’s what I want to do.”
Should Strandberg ever become homesick for Washington, she might consider that female apprentices have fared exceptionally well at Emerald Downs. In fact, Jennifer Whitaker (47 wins, 2001), Cassie Papineau (70, 2009) and Eliska Kubinova (75, 2012) have all set single-season records for most wins by an apprentice at Emerald Downs.