Racing loses out to Valley for jockey
Foothill resident Barbara Slade sat on her first horse when she was 3 years old, a humble beginning that led to a career of competitions and racing with some of the best, including jockey Willie Shoemaker.
“She beat Shoemaker twice,” said husband Jim Slade with pride.
Barbara put it in perspective.
“I raced against Shoemaker in New York at a stakes race at Belmont,” she said. “I rode with a lot of top jockeys and they were all very supportive and professional. They treated me with respect.”
She talked about her four-year stint as a jockey while holding the reins of a big warmblood mare named Ophelia.
“It’s an amazing experience to be one with a racehorse at 45 mph,” she said. “Thoroughbreds are fast, intelligent and athletic. They have a lot of heart and a lot of them love their jobs. They love to run.”
Raised in New Jersey, Slade was one of seven children. She first competed in the show ring when she was 5 years old and credits her success to mom and dad, who carted her from competitions to lessons and back.
“New Jersey is horse country, with race tracks, jumping, three-day eventing and dressage competitions,” she said. “There are also a lot of top trainers and riders.”
She fell in love with thoroughbreds in her late teens, after she started working a local racing barns exercising young racehorses.
“I’ve always been little, so some of the racing farms asked me to gallop horses. I started at 5:30 and finished at 9:30 in the morning. Then I’d ride show horses the rest of the day,” she said.
Women jockeys weren’t accepted on the East Coast, so Slade moved to the Midwest for her racing debut.
“They were willing to let me race in the Midwest,” she said. “After I did well there, I moved back to the East Coast.”
When the tracks were busy, she worked six and sometimes seven days a week, a hectic schedule that could include racing at Monmouth Park Race Track in Oceanport, N.J., during the day and Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., in the evening.
“The job was nonstop. I was on the go all the time,” she said. “I only weighed 100 pounds and it was tough to keep weight on.”
Her career choice received mixed reviews from her parents. Her mother never came to see her race, but Dad loved it.
“Mom put up with a lot of my antics,” she said. “I was kicked in the head when I was 10, and had neurological problems for a time after that.”
After unsuccessful treatment with epileptic medications, a specialist prescribed a different treatment and she was symptom-free after three years.
She was never injured during her show career. The real injuries came when she was a jockey, falling off a race horse at 42-45 mph, she said.
One of her worst spills came when the horse she was riding broke both front legs at the same time.
“We were in front, so I was run over by several other horses,” she said. “Race horses wear special racing plates with raised metal edges. They tore up the right side of my face, back and thigh. I had internal injuries, but no broken bones.”
Slade raced for a couple years after that, but then took time off to give her body time to heal before resuming her career on the West Coast. She settled in Douglas County to recuperate, but never left Carson Valley.
That was 20 years ago and she said she has no regrets.
“I never meant to stop,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t have more time on the racetrack, but that’s a decision that should have been made 20 years ago.”
Since that time, Slade met and married her husband, Jim. She trained at Carson Valley Equestrian Center in Douglas County and Franktown Meadows in Washoe Valley, but retired in 2000.
She still has a small private training business, but divides her time between her work on the board of the Carson Valley Trails Association and traveling with her husband.
Jim Slade has been an adventure travel guide for more than 30 years and the business takes him around the globe.
She also works with a nonprofit organization called the Angwin Family Foundation, which is dedicated to teaching horsemanship skills to children and young adults.
“Jim and I have never fit into a routine kind of life. We’ve always done our own thing and for us, it’s always been easy and natural,” she said.
“Right now, there is so much balance in my life,” she said. “I love working with the Trails Association and giving back to this community.”
Susie Vasquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 782-5121, ext. 211.