Jayme LaRocca: From Fremont to the Woodlands and In-Between
By the Greater Kansas Racing Alliance, in conjunction with Jayme LaRocca
LaRocca knows racing inside and out. He’s worked in many roles and met many people during his nearly four decades in the horse business.
Jayme LaRocca’s entry into the horse business begins in Fremont, NE as a sixteen-year-old bus boy at Al’s Cafe. A man came in the cafe and commented to LaRocca on his size. He suggested that because LaRocca was small, he should become a jockey. LaRocca later came to find out the man was the father of Randy and Monty Meier, prominent riders in the Midwest.
LaRocca never thought anything of it and went along.
Several months later, Jim Schleis, a trainer from Ak-Sar-Ben, came in and said, “You’re awful small, you should try to be a jockey.” The trainer invited LaRocca out to Ak-Sar-Ben the next morning.
“I’ve been in the business ever since,” LaRocca recounts of the story.
Ak-Sar-Ben and Beyond
At Ak-Sar-Ben (a race track in Omaha, NE that closed in 1995. Ak-Sar-Ben is Nebraska spelled backward), Jayme LaRocca spent his time cleaning stalls and taking care of horses. At sixteen, he mounted a horse for the first time.
Hoss Inman, one of the top trainers at Ak-Sar-Ben asked LaRocca to work full time for him. LaRocca refused to pass up the opportunity.
It was with Inman and at Centennial Race Track in Littleton, CO that LaRocca got his start as a jockey. During LaRocca’s first race, he rode Tollstar, and lost by a nose. “I got beat at the wire in a race I should have won,” LaRocca said.
Jayme LaRocca’s first win was two races later on a filly named Lil Sissy.
Continuing with Inman, in 1982 they returned to Ak-Sar-Ben. At nineteen-years-old, LaRocca won two races on opening day with many family and friends in attendance.
LaRocca went on to Lincoln Race Couse and then back east at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. It was at this time LaRocca decided to break away from Inman and go out on his own. He ended up at Laurel Park in Baltimore, teaming up with agent Larry Cooper. Riding for some of the top trainers on the Maryland circuit including Steve Brown, who had a string of horses for John Forbes. He also rode at many other tracks on the east coast during this time.
It was working with trainer Steve Brown that LaRocca rode Twin Turn and won at Laurel Park.
Ten days later, Twin Turn was entered at Charles Town Race Track in West Virginia. After riding at Laurel Park that day, LaRocca went to Charles Town to ride Twin Turn that evening.
Approaching the 1/8 pole, Twin Turn broke a leg and went down. He fell on top of LaRocca. At nineteen, LaRocca received a spinal cord injury that permanently ended his career as a jockey. They believed he might never walk again. “I was fortunate,” LaRocca said. “I got movement back and now walk with two long-leg braces and crutches.”
LaRocca’s father worked for Western Electric (later bought by AT&T) and some of his siblings were already working there. So, LaRocca went there to work, but it just wasn’t him.
“I needed to get back to the race track in some capacity,” LaRocca said.
Back to the Tracks
In 1985, LaRocca headed back to Ak-Sar-Ben and worked as an assistant clocker. He clocked horses in the morning as they trained. That same summer, Canterbury Downs (now Canterbury Park) in Minnesota opened. He followed an Ak-Sar-Ben executive, who was to run the facility at Canterbury. It was at Canterbury that LaRocca was hired as a placing judge.
In 1989, he got his first stewards job. He became the state steward for the Minnesota Racing Commission for the Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse meet at Canterbury Downs.
Between 1985 and 1990, LaRocca also worked at Remington Park in Oklahoma City and Tampa Bay Downs. In 1992, he was a Steward at Birmingham Race Course.
The Woodlands Kennel Club opened in Kansas city in 1989. The following year, in 1990, the horse track opened. LaRocca worked at the Woodlands, as a steward, during the horse seasons.
In 1994, the Woodlands asked him to stay full time to run their simulcast department. Growing fond of the employees and the Kansas City area, LaRocca took the position. It also meant he wouldn’t have to move from place to place throughout the year. Instead, he could stay in one place year-round. In 2007, LaRocca became the general manager of the Woodlands.
Helping Injured Jockeys
Many jockeys are injured at a young age. “Your whole life is upended in a split second,” LaRocca said. “I was very lucky to have help from family, friends and people in the racing industry, from the time I got hurt until now. Many injured jockeys are still recovering and need assistance to rebuild their lives. They need help with everyday living expenses and to purchase things like wheel chairs.”
Jayme LaRocca was recently asked to serve as a committee member and liaison for the fallen riders to the Jockeys and Jeans organization. “It was an honor to be asked and I said yes,” LaRocca said.
Jockeys and Jeans is a new charity organization. It’s only been in existence since 2014 and helps to raise funds for the Permanently Disabled Jockey’s Fund (PDJF). The PDJF helps jockeys who have been catastrophically injured and can’t race again.
Each year, the funds raised by Jockeys and Jeans continues to increase. The organization has raised over $700,000 for the PDJF.
The fundraiser travels to a new racetrack every year. In 2018, the event will be held at Canterbury Park on June 23rd.
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