Shelbyville, IN--Brooke Nickells has a little edge on the trainers of the other trotters entered in the unusual race under saddle at Indiana Downs Saturday (Oct. 20).
It was Nickells who made headlines in harness racing 18 years ago when she rode a trotter at The Red Mile in Kentucky, shattering a speed record set 54 years earlier. On Saturday Nickells, 40, is the trainer, not the rider, of the 7-year-old gelding NF Soaring in the $10,000 non-betting race.
“I wanted to ride him,” she said. “I tried riding him a little bit, but I’m not legged up for riding in a race, so I’m very lucky to have Rachel Matthews to ride for me.”
The innovative race will be held at 6:45 p.m on Saturday night before the regular races start at Indiana Downs. Weather permitting, it will be raced over the track’s turf course. If not, it will be held on the main track.
|Photo by the author|
NF Soaring has post 5 with four rivals--Felipe Makaay, Dakota Dancer, Rock With It, and Chinese Cuisine--starting inside him.
Harness horses normally pull a sulky and a driver, so carrying a saddle and rider requires an adjustment for a horse. Nickells, however, was confident that NF Soaring would take the change in stride.
“He’s just the type for a race under saddle,” she said. “He trots very square and has great manners. You could put a little kid on him.”
When Nickells first put a saddle on her horse, she said he acted as if he’d been ridden every day.
“He’s really a lazy horse and not scared of anything,” she said. “He’s not going to do anything in a race to hurt someone. He’s just a very honest horse and stays on the trot all the time.”
She admits that a horse going at high speed under saddle has to get accustomed to having the weight on its back instead of behind it with a driver and sulky. She added some rubber bell boots to NF Soaring’s front feet to help balance him in his new role.
Matthews, 28, was able to train the horse over the turf course at Indiana Downs to get familiar with NF Soaring and allow the trotter to adjust to the grass surface.
“It was hard work for him,” said Nickells. “He came back huffing and puffing. It’s hard work for the riders, too. Some people think riding a trotter looks like fun, and it is fun. But physically it’s hard work.”
The five riders in the race are all female and Nickells says that they use different styles.
“Some ride standing up, some sitting down, and some post with the horse,” she said. “A rider finds what works best and what is most comfortable through trial and error.”
Nickells added that she appreciates the fact the Indiana Downs racing secretary Scott Peine has been willing to try so many new ideas. She said horsemen have been interested in Peine’s innovations, too.
Nickells grew up around horses as her father, Bruce, is an accomplished horseman with a string of outstanding horses to his credit. Still, she was shocked in the fall of 1994 when she was drafted into riding the trotter Preferential.
“Don Swick trained Preferential and he had a girl working for him who rode the horse at Scioto Downs in Columbus, Ohio,” Nickells said. “Don asked my parents if I’d ride him in an exhibition and they said yes without even asking me.”
Her parents were confident that Brooke could handle Preferential, and that confidence was validated. Preferential and Brooke created a sensation when he broke the time record set by the legendary Greyhound in 1940. That sparked an interest in trotting under saddle, but it wasn’t sustained. It has enjoyed a revival in 2012 with several under saddle races at major tracks in addition to Indiana Downs.
When Nickells saw Rachel Matthews on a horse, she knew immediately that she was a good rider and would fit NL Soaring.
“She looks good on a horse, very natural and poised,” she said. “I sure wish I could ride him, but it’s good enough to be the trainer in this race.”