Dashed Childhood Dream to Job of a Lifetime in Mandella Barn

November 24, 2023

Taylor Cambra and Tamara (Benoit Photo)

By Jim Charvat

Every adult, at one time or another, had a childhood dream. Maybe it was being an astronaut or a doctor or a baseball player. The dreams begin as young children and usually stem from a relationship or an experience that triggers a desire from within to pursue a certain path in life.

For some, through no fault of your own, that childhood dream becomes unattainable as they grow older. The dream is dashed before they reach adulthood. Some shrug it off and go on to prosperous lives doing something else, while others will take what they’ve learned and parlay it into a career in the same occupation, just a different job. It’s sort of the old lesson, if someone gives you lemons…what do you do?

Taylor Cambra is 6’3” and weighs 205 pounds. As a kid he wanted to be a jockey. Already one can see the enormous obstacle that stood between Taylor and his childhood dream. He pushed it as far as he could, but in the end had to surrender to genetics. So, what did he do? You could say, he made lemonade.

Cambra has just been named assistant trainer in the Richard Mandella barn. He’s the one sporting the beige cowboy hat who is all of 26-years-old. While he never got to live out his childhood ambition, he’d be the first to tell you he’s living a dream in the Hall of Fame trainer’s barn.

Taylor Cambra congratulates Mike Smith aboard Royal Ship (BRZ) for their win in the 2022 San Diego Handicap (G2) (Zoe Metz)
Taylor Cambra congratulates Mike Smith aboard Royal Ship (BRZ) for their win in the 2022 San Diego Handicap (G2) (Zoe Metz)

Taylor’s story began in Pleasanton, California where he grew up with a father who worked at the racetrack.

“My dad was an outrider,” Taylor says. “From the time I was a kid in first grade until I graduated high school, I went to the track every day before school. So, the racetrack is in my blood. 

“I idolized my father,” Taylor continues. “He was my superhero growing up, watching him handle horses. I always wanted to get to his level. If ever I’m half the horseman he was, I’ll feel like I accomplished something.”

Taylor was born in Pleasanton in 1997. He was raised in the Northern California community where mom was a bartender in town. She also worked at the various fairs around the region, so she worked at the tracks as well.         

“They have pictures of me when I was a baby on horses,” Taylor recalls. “My first memory of riding horses was when my dad taught me how to ride. I rode bareback before I could ever ride in a saddle.” 

While most little boys are dreaming of hitting the game winning home run in the World Series, Taylor had other childhood fantasies.

“I can remember sitting on horses as a five- or six-year-old playing races in my head, riding around the arena pretending to be a jockey. I always had a whip in my hand, twirling it and walking around the house beating up all of the couches.”

For years everything Taylor did was geared toward being a jockey. And then he turned 15.

“I had my growth spurt,” Cambra says. “When I turned 15, I was 120 pounds and then I shot up like rocket.”

He didn’t give in to his genetics without a fight.

“I starved myself to make it,” Cambra remembers. “But I was way too weak. I could hardly get out of bed. I was breezing horses and I was trying to get my license, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it. At that point I was 16-years old and five eleven.”

Most of your professional jockeys are 5 foot 5 or less and weigh 115 pounds at the most. So Cambra reluctantly gave up his dream of being a jockey but held fast to his desire of making it as an exercise rider, helping out around the barn, still working with horses.            

“You have to be 16 to get your jock’s license so I never got to ride any races professionally,” Taylor says. “I rode some match races at bush tracks, so I did get to ride a few races as a kid.”

About this time in Taylor’s life, another opportunity afforded itself that provided him with an outlet for his desire to still ride and work with horses…the rodeo. 

“My dad always roped,” Cambra says. “He was actually a professional header (the person who ropes the front of the steer) and all of my cousins rode bulls. I always fancied the rough stock side of things a little more. A little bit more adrenaline and, of course, the girls like rough stock cowboys. I started riding bulls when I was 15 or 16. Then when I turned 17, I decided to get into riding bucking horses because I wasn’t any good at riding bulls. 

“I actually was pretty decent riding bucking horses,” Taylor continues. “So, I did that through high school and, when I turned 18, I got my pro card and a started bucking horses professionally. I did that for about a year and a half and I still dabble in it, get on a few when I can.” 

Cambra recalls going on long road trips from Colorado to Texas and Texas to Utah.

“Going down the road with four guys in the car,” Cambra remembers. “We’d do 24-hour road trips. Get on at a rodeo and get back in the car and go on another 18-hour road trip. That was our life from Thursday through Sunday. We’d have a few days to sit around the campfire and recover. I’d have to say of all the cool things I’ve got to do in my life, rodeoing was probably the best. I was just good enough to get by. I was broke and broken.”

All the while Cambra had not given up on working at the racetrack. He had landed a job in the barn of Northern California trainer Ari Herbertson, working as an assistant and a gallop boy. One summer, the two decided to venture down the 5 Freeway to Del Mar.

“We stayed just for the summer meet,” Cambra says. “I got to see what real racing is all about and I didn’t want to go back. When Ari went back up north, I told him I was going to stay here and see if I could make it. If it didn’t work out, I’d go back up and work for (him).”

Taylor wandered around the backside at Santa Anita for two or three weeks, riding a horse or two a day, but everybody told him he was too big to gallop even though he was only 150 pounds. He was ready to call it quits and go back up north. The only two people he had not talked to were Bob Baffert and Richard Mandella. 

“I’m thinking, if these little trainers aren’t going to hire me, certainly these bigger trainers aren’t going to want me,” Taylor admits. “I grew up watching racing and idolizing Richard. I really didn’t figure he’d give me a job, but I decided since I was heading back up north, I’d stop in his barn at Santa Anita and give it a shot. When I walked into his office he asked if I could ride a bad colt. I said, ‘I can ride anything’.” 

Taylor wasn’t stretching the truth. His rodeo days gave him the ability to handle the orneriest horses. It would prove to be the key that opened the door to a job in Mandella’s barn. Richard had a Godolphin horse named Loomis who would rear up going to the track.

“The first horse I got on for Richard was Loomis,” Taylor says, “and he flipped over on me. Reared up, fell over on top of me. I jumped back on him, took him down to the track and galloped him. Richard kind of fancied that and so he invited me back the next day to get on a couple of horses. He put me on Loomis and two other tough fillies, and I galloped them. The next day he had me on seven and that’s where it took off.”

“He came in asking for a job exercising,” Mandella remembers. “I didn’t know him, and I didn’t need anybody real bad and then I saw how tall he was and I thought he must be good or nobody would let him ride.”

Cambra loved being around the horses, so without being asked he would gallop horses and when he finished, he would help feed and hang out around the barn without getting any extra pay or asking for anything extra. Mandella took notice and after some time he gave Taylor a little more responsibility, exercising some high-profile horses like United, runner-up in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Turf and winner of four Grade II’s in 2020. He also rode Jolie Olimpica, a Brazilian filly who set a track record.

But the biggest thrill of his riding career came in 2019 when he exercised Omaha Beach leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

“That was a dream come true,” Cambra says. “In my whole career as an exercise rider I just wanted to be on one front cover of the DRF and I made it. Honestly, the whole trip went by so fast I didn’t get to soak it in as much as I should of.”

Despite winning the Arkansas Derby that year and being installed as the morning line favorite, Omaha Beach never ran in the Derby. Three days before the race Mandella discovered his colt was suffering from an entrapped epiglottis and much to his, and many others’, chagrin – he scratched him. But Taylor will never forget the feeling of Omaha Beach beneath him.

Taylor Cambra Galloping Omaha Beach (Zoe Metz)
Taylor Cambra Galloping Omaha Beach (Zoe Metz)

“I’ve never been on another horse like him,” Cambra notes. “I’ve been on some nice horses, some nice stakes horses, but none as smart, smooth and strong. He was the full package.”

Taylor returned to Southern California and continued working for the Hall of Fame trainer. But it was becoming more apparent that his days as an exercise rider were also numbered.

“When I quit galloping a year and a half ago, I was 150 pounds,” Taylor says. “I was way underweight. I was killing myself to continue to gallop horses. I was pushing weight probably more than most of the jockeys in the room were. But I was getting on Breeders’ Cup horses, I was living my dream. It was worth it for the time being.”

Taylor’s transition away from being an exercise rider was made easier when he graduated to barn foreman. 

“He (Mandella) would test me and see what I knew,” Cambra says. “He realized that I’d been around enough and was capable of being a barn foreman.” 

Taylor’s climb up the ladder in the Mandella barn didn’t stop there. His promotion to assistant trainer came just a few weeks ago.

“I put my work in, and he was gracious enough to let me be the assistant,” Cambra says.

“He has terrific hands on a horse,” adds Mandella. “He’s a natural horseman. He has a lot of potential. He’ll make a good trainer. Probably have a good career.”       

Being Mandella’s assistant is no easy task. For one, it comes with early morning wake-up calls.

“On a normal morning I get to the barn at four o’clock,” Taylor says. “I make sure all the grooms are taking temperatures, seeing who ate, making sure everybody’s well. I make sure the gallop boys are sending the right equipment to each horse. Then we pull out all of the horses that are working that day or that worked the day before, or horses that are having issues. We jog them down the shedrow to make sure they’re moving well. The first set usually goes out at about 5:10.”

And what’s it like working for Richard Mandella?

“He’s extremely tough and for good reason,” Cambra says. “It’s our job to make sure these horses are taken care of and he doesn’t take that lightly. He’s very strict, but at the same time he’s fair. My maturity in the past five years is thanks to him. I can’t imagine working for anybody else.”

But Taylor Cambra hasn’t stopped dreaming. Like any 20-something, he’s setting his sights toward bigger and better things.

“I would love to have my own barn,” Taylor admits. “Get to wake up in the morning and see my name on the webbings. Hopefully have half the career Richard has had. I grew up in horse racing. It’s all I know and it’s all I want to do.”

Oh, and he makes a mean batch of lemonade, too. 

@PastTheWire you did do her justice, this is a great read on a tragic moment in the history of our great sport, thank you.

James Giliberto (@97charmed19) View testimonials

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