Hannah Leahey. Photo by Robert Yates
Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates
HOT SPRINGS, Ark.— In less than a year as a jockey, Hannah Leahey has already ridden in three time zones. It will soon become four when she makes her Oaklawn debut in Friday’s first race aboard Spark for trainer Nathaniel Quinonez.
The well-traveled Leahey, 27, was scheduled to ride regularly at Oaklawn when the 2022-2023 meeting began Dec. 9. But during training hours Nov. 30, Leahey was involved in a spill and broke five ribs, her left shoulder and suffered a collapsed lung. Undeterred, Leahey began getting on horses again in early January at Oaklawn with the same goal she had before the accident. She wants to be Oaklawn’s leading apprentice rider. Erick Medellin, four victories, tops the apprentice standings through the first 24 days of the scheduled 68-day meeting. Leahey hasn’t ridden since Nov. 26.
“I put everything into coming here and it would take a lot more than that (injuries),” Leahey said. “Even if I could only ride here a month, I probably still would. So, I’m definitely behind track from what I originally thought, but anything’s possible. I’ve overcome bigger obstacles.”
A native of Bloomington, Ill., Leahey has 23 victories from 223 starts and purse earnings of $416,254 in her brief career, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.
Before the injury, Leahey recorded 10 victories at Penn National in Grantville, Pa. (Eastern time zone), where she was previously based; eight at Turf Paradise in Phoenix (Mountain time zone); four at Arizona Downs in Prescott Valley, Ariz. (Mountain); and one at Delaware Park in Stanton, Del. (Eastern). Leahey has also ridden at two heavyweight venues in Southern California, Santa Anita and Del Mar (Pacific time zone).
Oaklawn will mark the first time Leahey has ridden at a track in the Central time zone. She has a 7-pound apprentice allowance.
“I started riding last March,” Leahey said. “At that time, my goal was to ride at Santa Anita. That wasn’t happening, so I had to adjust.”
That gas-guzzling adjustment led Leahey to Turf Paradise, where she won seven races to become champion apprentice at the 2021-2022 meeting that ended in May. Leahey resurfaced at Penn National in late June because of its proximity to several other tracks, but quickly informed her agent there, Tony Kofalt, of her intention to ride at Oaklawn in 2022-2023.
“He knew that the whole five months I was there,” said Leahey, who has also ridden at Parx and Finger Lakes. “That’s what I was aiming towards. But I told him the same thing as a I told my friend: ‘If I’m not ready to leave here when it (Oaklawn) starts, I’m not going to leave.’ I want to be more than ready because this track is no joke.”
That friend, Ricardo Santana Jr., has collected eight Oaklawn riding titles since 2013. Leahey said she reached out to Santana last fall and asked if he believed she was seasoned enough to ride at Oaklawn and recommend an agent.
Leahey received the green light from Santana, along with his endorsement of Jay Fedor, who is enjoying a successful run as the agent for Francisco Arrieta after previously representing high-profile talent like Hall of Famer Gary Stevens and Corey Nakatani at Oaklawn. Arrieta was Oaklawn’s co-leading rider in 2021-2022. Now, Fedor is also booking mounts at Oaklawn for Leahey.
“It’s the best place to be,” Leahey said. “Everyone who is a jockey wants to ride at Oaklawn.”
Although Leahey got a late start in her riding career, she has an extensive and eye-catching equine background.
Leahey said she started riding at 5 and moved to eventing at 9, hoping to eventually turn professional. After reaching what she termed a “semi-professional level,” Leahey made a career U-turn because “it’s a lot of work for a little return.”
Leahey said she was around 20 when she began breaking Thoroughbred yearlings to pay for her event horses and transitioned into an exercise rider about four years ago.
Leahey said she began building her resume at two famed Kentucky farms, Juddmonte and WinStar, and also broke horses in Florida for prominent sales consignors Eddie Woods and Brandon and Ali Rice.
Leahey said the most accomplished horse she broke was Improbable, the flashy chestnut who was crowned the country’s champion older dirt male of 2020 after capturing three consecutive Grade 1 events following a runner-up finish in the $150,000 Oaklawn Mile to begin his 4-year-old campaign. WinStar, in partnership, raced Improbable with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
“He’s amazing,” Leahey said of Improbable. “He just had so much power and movement under him. There’s always a little bit of an eventer that resides inside me, so when I sit on these horses, even here, all these years later that have like that big, floating, nice movement, I’m just like, ‘Wow!’ That’s what you look for in an event horse. All of us knew anything that horse ended up doing, if he didn’t make it as a racehorse, which we thought was very unlikely, he would excel at whatever he ended up doing.”
Leahey said she also broke future Grade 3 winner Talk Veuve to Me, who later sold for $1.3 million at the 2019 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale.
“I’ve been so lucky,” Leahey said.
After galloping horses in Kentucky for nationally prominent trainers Mike Maker, Joe Sharp and Kenny McPeek, Leahey relocated to Southern California in 2019 and was working as an exercise rider when she decided to take out a jockey’s license early last year at Santa Anita.
Unable to generate any business at Santa Anita, Leahey launched her riding career March 9 at Turf Paradise and recorded her first career victory there nine days later. It was her third career mount.
Leahey said she rode Monday-Friday at Turf Paradise, then drove six hours back to Santa Anita in suburban Los Angeles to gallop horses and accept a handful of mounts Saturday and Sunday.
“Those are some long drives,” Leahey said. “I think I put about 30,000 miles on my car in two months. But it was worth it, and I still have a lot of connections in Phoenix and I kept going back there.”
Leahey returned to Turf Paradise Nov. 26 and guided La Castiglione – her last mount – to a one-length victory in the $60,000 Glendale Stakes at 7 ½ furlongs on the turf.
“It was amazing,” Leahey said. “That filly just leaves me speechless. I love her.”
The Glendale marked the most lucrative career victory to date for Leahey and her third career stakes triumph. She also won two stakes aboard La Castiglione last summer at Arizona Downs. Leahey is scheduled to return Saturday to Turf Paradise to ride La Castiglione in the $60,000 Molly P Stakes for older fillies and mares at 1 mile on the turf.
“If I had it my way, I wouldn’t have started riding at (26),” Leahey said. “I would have made it at Santa Anita. I wouldn’t have had to feel like I’ve backtracked a little after I had had so much success exercising and breezing horses there to go somewhere I had no legitimate business. But I know that in time everything will work out how it’s supposed to. I feel behind right now. There’s got to be a reason for it. I still have things I need to work on and once I start perfecting those things, I know the wins will just flood right in.”
Leahey said she hopes to parlay any success at Oaklawn into a return to Kentucky – this time as a jockey. She attended the University of Kentucky for two years before leaving to chase her eventing dream.
“That was home for six years for me,” Leahey said, referring to Lexington. “My parents are there and one of my sisters goes to UK. The older I get, the more I want to be close to family. I’ve been kind of this gypsy soul my whole life. I would just love to be closer to family and Kentucky’s the place to be for racing. Right now, I am still a gypsy. I don’t have a home base. That’s why I have to get a U-Haul every time I go to a different track. But I’m hoping it’ll be Kentucky.”
Iowa-bred sensation Tyler’s Tribe will return to Oaklawn in the “next day to two” to continue preparations for his yet-to-be-determined next start, the gelding’s co-owner/trainer, Tim Martin of Hot Springs, said Tuesday morning. Tyler’s Tribe resumed training late last month at Martin’s nearby farm following a third-place finish in the $150,000 Advent Stakes for 2-year-old sprinters Dec. 9 at Oaklawn. The gelding received a break after bleeding in the Advent, Martin said. …
Eight-time Oaklawn riding champion Ricardo Santana Jr. rode two winners Sunday, pushing his career total in Hot Springs to 694. Santana won the seventh race aboard favored Dark Timber ($4.80) for trainer Norm Casse and the eighth race aboard favored Cogburn ($3.40) for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Santana is the seventh-winningest rider in Oaklawn history. …
Barber Road, runner-up in last year’s $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1), is entered in Friday’s eighth race, a $104,000 allowance for older horses at 1 1/16 miles, for trainer John Ortiz.