HOT SPRINGS, Ark.—Chel-c Bailey came to the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting known more as a 20-something unbeaten MMA fighter. Barring something unforeseen, Bailey will leave as the leading apprentice jockey.
Bailey’s victory aboard favored Malintent ($8) in the seventh race April 22 represented her 17th at the meeting, breaking a tie with John Hiraldo at the top of the apprentice rider standings. Hiraldo, a finalist for an Eclipse Award in 2021 as the country’s champion apprentice, won 16 races at the 2021-2022 Oaklawn meeting before becoming a journeyman March 19.
With just six days remaining in the Oaklawn meeting, Bailey’s closest pursuers in the race for leading apprentice are Erick Medellin and Kylee Jordan, who have seven and six victories, respectively.
“When I came in here, it’s like I didn’t really have a goal, exactly,” Bailey said during training hours Sunday morning. “I know that I said something like, ‘Oh, I want at least 10 wins or something’ because I just can’t aimlessly have nothing to shoot for. I guess it’s just like work as hard as I can and see how far I can get, just see what I can do and what my capabilities are.”
A former high school and collegiate wrestler, Bailey launched her professional riding career in 2019 and recorded her first career winner Feb. 28, 2020, at Oaklawn aboard Burtnjoe. She added two more winners that year at Oaklawn and another that fall at Keeneland.
Citing COVID-19 issues, protecting her 10-pound weight allowance and possibly resurrecting an MMA career (she’s 3-0-0, but hasn’t fought since early 2018), Bailey spent most of the 2021 Oaklawn meeting working as an exercise rider for trainer Brad Cox. She resumed riding last May in the Mid-Atlantic region, but couldn’t generate business and moved her tack last summer to Arlington Park.
Although Bailey didn’t win a race at Arlington, now shuttered, the move to the Chicago area was fortuitous because she got her foot in the door with trainers Tom Swearingen and John Haran, who both winter at Oaklawn, and began to build momentum. Bailey rode seven winners at the Hawthorne fall meeting before returning to Oaklawn for the expanded 2021-2022 season that began Dec. 3.
Through the first 60 racing days in Hot Springs, Bailey had her first career six-figure victory, first career stakes mount aboard the Swearingen-trained Richness in the $150,000 Downthedustyroad Breeders’ March 5, first career riding triple March 6, struck twice in two $106,000 allowance races – the most lucrative of her career to date – including March 27 aboard Summer Shoes for Swearingen and surpassed $1 million in career purse earnings. Summer Shoes (2 for 2 at the meeting) is scheduled to make her next start in the $150,000 Natural State Breeders’ Stakes for Arkansas-bred females at 1 mile May 6.
Bailey’s 17 victories have come for 11 trainers. She has five victories for Swearingen (Bailey’s husband, David Kembrey, is an exercise rider for the trainer), two for Haran and two for Mike Puhich, who, like Bailey, is a native of the Pacific Northwest. Bailey regularly gets on horses in the morning for Puhich. Bailey rode Malintent for trainer Shea Stuart.
“At the beginning of the meet, I thought 10 wins at Oaklawn would be good,” Bailey said. “There’s people who come here every year, I mean, that are leading riders elsewhere, they fall through the cracks here.”
Bailey, who rides with a 7-pound weight allowance, has 28 career victories. In addition to 20 at Oaklawn and seven at Hawthorne, Bailey rode a winner at the 2020 Keeneland fall meeting. The Keeneland victory was noteworthy because it made Bailey the leading apprentice at the meeting.
“Nobody else won other than me, so I consider myself the leading apprentice rider there,” Bailey said. “Here, they would have to do extraordinarily good these last few days to catch me. For sure, this would be the highlight for me.”
Bailey said she will move her tack to Horseshoe Indianapolis (formerly Indiana Grand) after the Oaklawn meeting ends May 8, with John Herbstreit her agent there. Bailey is represented at Oaklawn by “Big Steve” Krajcir of Hot Springs.
Bailey has 28 victories from 414 mounts and purse earnings of $1,062,353 in her career, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization.
Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates
Photo: Chel-c Bailey (Coady Photography)