Thursday, September 4, 2008 12:00 AM
FLORENCE, KY . . . September 4, 2008 . . . Michael "Mikey" James became the second North American Racing Academy (NARA) graduate to enter the winner's circle when he rode Lady Phoenix to a neck victory in Thursday's first race at Turfway Park.
The apprentice's first win came on the third mount of his young career. He finished out of the money on two mounts Wednesday, the fall meet's opening night.
"I'm very proud of him, very excited to see the hard work we've put into the school coming to fruition," said Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, NARA's founder and executive director, who was at Turfway to watch James ride. "The two years have flown by."
Until he enrolled in NARA, James had never even touched a horse. A native of Glendora, California, he worked part-time in a hardware store after school. Horsemen from nearby Santa Anita Park often commented that given his stature and athleticism he should try race-riding. When James was 19, a former jockey who knew McCarron stopped by the store and convinced him to contact NARA. He made the decision to go just before the school opened its inaugural session in 2006.
"I'm willing to try anything," said the 22-year-old James. "I've done snowboarding, skateboarding, cliff-diving from 60 feet. I interviewed with Chris and before I knew it I was on a plane heading to Kentucky. This is awesome.
"Chris was there every day at school, very hands-on. We started out riding mustangs and then Thoroughbreds, grooming, mucking stalls. We had classes in things like managing finances. After six or seven months we were taking Thoroughbreds to the track. I'm race-riding to learn—I have a lot to learn. Racing [professionally] takes more out of you, tests your fitness more.
NARA is part of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. The first graduating class, eight students, completed the two-year program this year. James is the fourth to ride. Matthew Straight, also currently riding at Turfway, was the first to win a race and picked up nine wins at Ellis Park this summer. Jessica Oldham Stith has had two mounts. Jackie Davis rode her first race last Sunday at Saratoga and has two mounts this Friday at Belmont Park.
Six students are in their second year at the school, which is located at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Twenty-five students enrolled this year, including 17 aspiring jockeys and eight students who are following the school's horsemen's pathway to work as exercise riders, grooms, and trainers, at sales, on farms, and in similar industry occupations.