Woman on top

Trailblazer : Aparna Das Battula (23), the first Indian woman to win US jockey licence.Horses lend us wings. So they say. For those who have ‘flown’ on a saddle, feeling the wind on their faces and hearing the thundering of hooves, there can be nothing more liberating than the experience. It’s an experience that Aparna Das Battula (23) savours day after day, for she is the first Indian girl to win US jockey licence. Her nascent career track has seen “starts-38, firsts-2, seconds-3, thirds-3”.

How it all began...

As a kid, Aparna had never really seen a horse from close quarters. With a flair for sports, she had represented Karnataka thrice in speed skating and roller hockey, and was always “obsessed with speed”.

She gave up a seat in medical college to take up biotechnology at Mount Carmel College.
“I constantly looked for something that would thrill me,” she says. The search ended when her father came across an article on horse riding and showed it to her.

Aparna started to train when she was doing her second year of college — at an age when, she says, “makes a person daring, thanks to a devil-may-care attitude!”

She says the lack of sufficient learning opportunities and support in India led her to consider schools overseas.  She researched training schools in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. To all of them, she sent a video of her riding and was selected by the North American Racing Academy (NARA), Kentucky.

Back to school

Aparna then went through an intense two-year training course.

“There is a lot of hard work to be done before you get a jockey’s licence. A trainer has to name you on a horse  before  which you have to pass ‘breaking from gates’. But to get to this point, it’s a long, hard road with some ups and a lot of downs. It requires you to work at the track seven days a week, face disappointment almost every morning, focus on fitness every day, eat right and maintain a disciplined lifestyle.”

At riding school, she also learned anatomy and physiology of the animal, horse care and life skills for jockeying.

“Through NARA, I had the opportunity to work with some of the best trainers during my internship. I worked with the ‘Hall of Fame’ trainers — Todd Pletcher, Jonathan Sheppard and Kip Elser,” she says.

“Being a jockey is all about the feel and finesse that you develop with every horse you ride, and the experience which you get from riding as many horses as you can. You can also learn a great deal from listening to experienced professionals. You must look to constantly improve your style. But riding, irrespective of the training you get, is self-taught,” Aparna says.

Sweet taste of success

Her first win came on April 10 this year.

Still starry-eyed about the victory, she says: “The horse, River North, was the same horse which I rode in  my first race. It was a very special moment. And the horse made it more special. He is a brave athlete and I could trust him completely to give me the biggest thrill of my life.”

Aparna admits that she didn’t know what to expect from the race.

“I depended on my experienced horse to get me through it. It was a pure one-minute adrenalin rush (her winning timing was 1:10.52). I had full trust in him, but I also knew that it was up to me to get us to the wire first.  The pressure was on me. On the morning of the race,  I told the groom  that if I didn’t win I wasn’t going to show my face in the barn!”

Photo finish

Recounting the magical experience, she continues: “When the gates opened that morning, River North practically flew out! But the finish line seemed so far away and Spark Plug (the horse that finished second) seemed to be closing in. I just pushed on the horse and the wire came, but not without a heart-stopping moment. Paco, Spark Plug’s jockey, had passed me, saying , ‘I’m sorry. I know you were looking forward to your maiden (victory)’. I didn’t know how to react. I was on this horse that just ran his heart out for me. But it was a photo finish. As the official results came in, the whole crowd stood up to applaud me. I won by a nose,” Aparna exclaims.

The celebrations , as she describes them to me, were equally exciting.

She  had to face the time-honoured tradition, where the winner is dunked in ice-cold water and a smelly mix of shaving cream, eggs and soda! “It was absolute entertainment for the viewing public as the entire episode was on the big track screen,” she says, chuckling at the memory.  

Aparna credits her family and friends for all that she has achieved, but also has a special word of thanks for her mentor, Sinclair Marshall, President of the Jockeys’ Association of India.

“His work ethic has rubbed off on me. He always encouraged me to look for opportunities,” she adds.

According to her, jockeying is the hardest competitive human activity ever.

“It calls for constant training on fitness, working in extreme weather conditions, and working long hours with dedication and discipline. Above all, it carries the risk of career-ending or life-threatening injuries,” she explains. Yet, she hastens to add that she loves it all.

Aparna says she will be working towards her Indian licence. “I think I will be third woman jockey when I get it. It is good to see more and more girls taking up the sport,” she says. However, she is quick to clarify that “having a licence to race does not reflect success”.

“It’s a struggle that you have to endure every day. You have to make use of every opportunity to keep improving. Luck is probably the biggest factor in a jockey’s life,” she says. Right now, Lady Luck seems more than willing to match Aparna, stride for stride.

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