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Apprentice rider Maggie Hardison joins Emerald Downs jockey corps | Horse Racing

A rookie on paper but a pro in the saddle, apprentice Maggie Hardison is ready to prove that she belongs in the field of race riding at Emerald Downs.

A native of Nashville, Tenn., Hardison joins the 2013 jockey colony in preparation for her first career mount on the track’s 18th opening day, Friday, April 19. Hardison, who turns 29 on Thursday, likely has more experience than most debuting apprentices, considering she grew up riding horses and has spent the past several years galloping horses for Southern California training greats John Sadler, John Shirreffs and Peter Miller.

In fact, Hardison’s precocious talents impressed Miller enough that he assigned her to gallop Comma to the Top, a multiple graded-stakes winner that has earned more than $1 million the last three years including a win in last month’s Tom Fool Handicap at Aqueduct.

At racetracks, however, it’s a big difference between mornings and afternoons. Like they say, horses don’t earn money for workouts. Similarly, the earnings difference between exercising a horse and winning aboard one can be significant*not to mention the exhilaration that comes with riding a Thoroughbred at 40 miles per hour.

While she’s developed the necessary tools to start a successful riding career, a poised Hardison knows that there’s still plenty to learn this season.

“I really just want to learn as much I can and be a sponge,” she said. “I don’t want to set any goals in terms of wins. I just want to learn.”

It’s worth noting that female apprentices have had sensational campaigns lately at Emerald Downs. Three current riders*Jennifer Whitaker in 2001, Cassie Papineau in 2009 and Eliska Kubinova in 2012*all set apprentice records for wins during their respective seasons. In fact, it was Kubinova, the current record holder with 75 wins last season, who first encouraged Hardison to kick things off at the Auburn track.

“I talked to Eliska in Southern California and she told me that Emerald Downs would be a great place to start and that female riders do really well there,” Hardison said. “I’ve been really encouraged so far.”

Hardison already has put her adept networking skills to good use, impressing several local trainers including Doris Harwood, the track’s all-time leader in stakes wins, with her work in the mornings. Harwood not only praised Hardison’s natural riding ability but her equine intelligence, as well.

“She’s an excellent horse person and a great communicator, which is very important to me,” Harwood said. “I’ve already talked to a few of my owners to see if we can give her a shot.”

Hardison, who earned a degree in Psychology at Auburn University, knows that horsemen will be watching her closely early in the meet, studying her strengths and weaknesses in the saddle.

“I’m really nervous about my first ride,” she said. “I know people will be watching, but I can’t wait to get started.”

Denise Mitchell, wife and agent of all-time leading Emerald Downs’ jockey Gallyn Mitchell, is handling Hardison’s business here, and said the fledgling jockey takes her work seriously.

“She’s a real nice gal, a real professional,” Mitchell said. “I think she’ll do fine.”

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