Riding Titles, Recklessness and Redemption

February 2, 2022

An attitude of gratitude and daily discipline keep Bush in the saddle. 

There was never any question in Vernon Bush’s mind about what his future vocation would be. 

How many four-year-old’s have the prescience to know what they’ve wanted to do with the rest of their life? The son of a successful jockey, he found himself going to the racetrack at the age of four, and he fit seamlessly with the colorful characters on the backside, sporting his own helmet, silks and pants. 

Kentucky Reared 

Bush was born in New England, a place that would play a pivotal role in his life and career, his father had been riding there at the time, but would spend his formative years in Kentucky.

”I grew up at Latonia Racetrack, which is now Turfway Park, River Downs which is now Belterra, and the old Beulah Park, that’s where my dad rode, and I remember a couple of winters where we came down to Tampa, when I was a kid,” said Bush. “Other than that, we stayed in Kentucky. I didn’t go back to New England until 1979.”

It was an unlikely source that gave Bush many of his early lessons in horsemanship, ones that continue to resonate to this day, and that early bond provided him with a passion not only for the sport but for horses as well. it’s an enthusiasm that’s engaging, enveloping and palpable. 

“My father had gotten me a Shetland Pony,” said Bush, the pony’s name was Pearl, and it was my responsibility to take care of the mare and her foal. “He told me when I first got it, ‘We’ll find out whether you want to ride or not.’ Because a Shetland Pony is one of the hardest horses to ride. I rode her to death that horse. He said, ‘You’re either going to get killed, or you’re going to love riding.’ She fell with me, rolled over, bucked me off, kicked me, and I just kept getting back on.”

However, having a father who was an established jockey in the business did open some doors for the aspiring rider. 

“I hung out with my father, he introduced me to a lot of people,” said Bush. ”He rode for some very powerful outfits. He rode for Spendthrift Farms for a couple of years. He had a very good name in horse racing. It was just being around him. He knew everybody, and they knew me.”

Raised on the Racetrack 

The opportunity to be a part of the racetrack community from such a young age, came with its own series of experiences, when children his age were involved in other disciplines and endeavors, Bush found himself establishing the foundation that was already starting to become routine. He spent the fall and winter in school, but would be at the racetrack on the weekends, until his father retired in 1972. 

“I galloped a horse, like when I was 10 at River Downs,” said Bush.” Before that, right when my dad was coming off the track in the morning, he would take his helmet off and put it on me, and give me a leg up, and I’d ride the horses back to the barn. It was the greatest feeling in the world. I was in the jocks room every weekend. On Saturdays and Sundays, I was at the racetrack. In fact, I was up before my dad and dressed, and couldn’t wait to go. He basically walked away from the track. I was 11 years old.”

Bush’s father rode from 1939 through 1972. His childhood evokes fond memories of the time spent on the backside. But his time in that type of environment and having the opportunity to learn from his father and through observation and practical experience, added to his desire to see his dream become a reality. 

” I think It really crushed him that he couldn’t do it any longer, “said Bush, about his father. “He would take me out to the track. We’d go out and sit in the kitchen. When I was 14 years old, I got a job on a farm in the summertime. I started getting on horses there. I was in Kentucky, and then in the fall I would go back to school. When I was 15, I did it again, and I worked in the summer. And then, when I was 16, I quit school and I went right from the farm to the racetrack, at Latonia.”

Early Influencers

His father provided him with a good foundation, but there were other horsemen who added to that base with their knowledge and allowing Bush to evolve through practical experience. 

“The first one is Penny Gardiner,” said Bush. “She’s actually still galloping horses. I think she’s almost 70, and she’s down in Miami, and her ex-husband, Felix Chavez. That’s where I was when I was on the farm. That was in Kentucky, a place called Liberty Hill Farm. That was 1976, 1977. She was a jockey and they had two children. They both ended up being jockeys and one of them is still riding. Mark Chavez and Casey Chavez. Mark’s an assistant trainer for some trainer in New York and Casey’s out west riding.”

The racetrack was a place where Bush would learn patience and find horseman who would play an important role in his evolution as he started on a sojourn that’s ongoing, one that’s taken him nationwide, learning about the sport, the industry and more importantly about himself. 

“And then when I got to the racetrack, one of the first people I worked for was Jim Sayler,” said Bush. “He’s still a trainer, he’s training in California now, and that was at Latonia. His brother was a jockey, we called him Bernie, but his name was Bernon, just like my name but it had a b on it. They were a Godsend. I was galloping horses in the morning, and ponying every race at night for free, because he wanted me out there learning everything. It’s probably why when I ride, I’d rather have my stick in my left hand, because I galloped everything with a sick in my left hand. I’m right-handed, but I’m more comfortable riding left-handed.”

The Realities of the Business

Bush secured his license to work at the racetrack in 1977 and went to work in the industry that had been a part of his life for more than a decade fulltime in familiar environs, the racing oval based in Florence, Ky., Latonia Park. However, his first mount would come at a racetrack 15 minutes from his home, one that was across a body of water that serves as a boundary between the Midwestern and Southern states, River Downs, on May 25, 1978. 

However, the initial phase of his career wasn’t something that could be mistaken for a meteoric rise, it was a learning process, one that at times was frustrating for the young rider who knew he possessed the talent, but the experiences provided him with a series of challenges that unbeknownst to the jockey, would establish a deep foundation that would prove advantageous in the years to come. 

“Success didn’t come real fast, but I did win the third race I ever rode in, and then I ended up winning the fifth or sixth race I rode,” said Bush. “My father, who was very old school, he was basically my agent at that point. I didn’t win my third and fourth race until November. He made me ride every rat that there was. I won my first race on June 1, 1978, and my second in the same month, and I didn’t win my third and fourth until November. I didn’t care. I was riding. I was riding races every day, not realizing what I was learning. And then when I won my fourth race at Beulah Park, he had me stop riding. Because when you win your fifth race, your apprentice starts. After I won my fourth, he made me quit riding.”

What the younger Bush didn’t know was his father had made plans to connect his son with one of Thoroughbred racing’s legends, the man who conditioned the 1968 Horse of the Year, Dr. Fager.

“He hooked me up with a friend of his up in New York at Belmont Park, with Tartan Stables. John Nerud,” said Bush. “And when I got to New York, John started putting me on horses, but it was at that time of the year, in December, when John was taking most of the Tartan horses back to Florida for the winter, and I started working for his son Jan. I rode a couple for Jan in December. He didn’t think I was quite ready.”

Untimely Passing 

Patience would come into play, and that winter would be the start of the next part of Bush’s sojourn as a victory at the Big A, found the horseman realizing what had been his destiny, but things were still far from seamless. 

“It was in February that I won my fifth race on a horse called Causal Observer at Aqueduct,” said Bush. “That’s when I started my apprentice. Then I won another one a week later for Jan, and then things started falling apart.”

A well-respected name in the industry had been watching Bush closely and gave him the advice to stay where he was, because he was in another part of the country and wanted to take his book when he returned in the spring. However, the unexpected occurred, but that would lead to a propitious opportunity, one that would change the direction of the young rider’s career. 

“He passed away in Florida, and he was one of the top agents in New York,” said Bush “After that, I just couldn’t catch on. Jan’s horses weren’t doing that well. I hung around a little bit and then my dad had me go to Suffolk Downs, and that was in June of 1979. He hooked me up with his old agent, from when he was riding up there in the 50s.”

‘Next Stop New England

And what seemed like an arduous, painstaking start to Bush’s career paid immediate dividends at the racetrack in East Boston, Mass.

“The first horse I rode at Suffolk Downs was a horse called Shoot Little Luke, and I think he paid $79,” said Bush. “The first horse I rode at Rockingham Park won also. Things just took off from there.”

Success continued with his shifting his tack to New England as Bush seemed to have an undeniable Midas touch, adding another first to his resume, winning the first stakes race he ever rode in, with a horse named Beau Britches. He was in the right place at the right time when he got the call on the longshot. The 4-year-old chestnut son of Oxford Account provided the young rider with the first of what would be many added money scores. 

”The only reason that I rode in the race was because it was the Lou Smith Handicap,” said Bush.” It was a $50,000 handicap, and there was no one who could tack 106 pounds. So, that’s how I got the mount. I weighed about 100 pounds at the time. My agent said to me, I got you a mount in a stake.  It’ll make you look good riding in a stake. I think the horse paid $137.00.”

He was provided with implicit direction for the first stakes race of his career, and after following the advice the results spoke loudly, resonating with not only the bettors and audience in attendance but the overwhelmingly appreciative connections, and especially the jockey.

“I can tell you exactly what my instructions were,” said Bush. “Alton Jordan told me in the paddock, ‘a horse called Jan Dan is going to go to the front.’ He said, you come out of the gate, Jan Dan has a big liver spot on his right flank and you put my horse’s nose right on that spot, and do not leave it to the head of the lane.’ I broke in front, and then I took back, and Jan Dan went to the front, and I just laid a half-a-length off him the whole way, and the rest is history. I think I ended up winning 16 or 17 races for the summer at Rockingham, plus the stake.”

Perfect Timing

A shift back to East Boston found Bush in a propitious position, as he would retain his five-pound bug, when others who had been riding with it lost theirs, putting him in an enviable position. But it was one conditioner that Bush acknowledges helped him more than others during that period -of-time a horseman who has been enshrined in the New England Turf Writers Hall of Fame. 

“Abad Cabassa was the leading apprentice rider in the country that year, there was Mary Ann Bogachow, Jorge Vargas and me, who were apprentice riders,” said Bush. “Cabassa lost his apprentice, Bogachow lost her apprentice and Vargas lost his apprentice and I was the last one there. I ended up riding horses for Al Borsch and Billy Perry. Billy Perry is my claim to fame, without him, I wouldn’t be where I am. I was the last apprentice left, and Perry was riding me on everything. When I lost my apprentice, he kept riding me. The day that I lost my apprentice, I think I won three or four races. I just kept going.” 

It was the man renowned as the “King of Suffolk Downs,” a conditioner who had won four training titles at the racetrack, who saddled the next two of Bush’s stakes winners in 1981, the chestnut juvenile colt by Cabin, out of the Pago Pago (AUS) mare, Pago Queen, Merriwell and the dark bay colt Cherokee Sky, who was by Cherokee Fellow out of the Bolinas Boy mare Two Alike. His confidence and good fortune brought with it opportunity as he found himself riding for some of the most successful barns in New England. 

” Merriwell won a stakes race that was named after a horse that my father won ten races in a row on, the Boston Doge Stakes,” said Bush. “Cherokee Sky was in a stake, $35,000 on the grass. Vinnie Blengs also helped keep my momentum going by putting me on nice horses. Billy Perry was the bedrock and foundation of everything about me as a rider. I basically learned how to ride good horses, riding for him.  I was also riding for Ron Dandy and Danny Hasbany. Lynn Whiting came to New England and brought up a jockey Tommy Barrow one year.  I was doing great riding for Billy Perry. I ended up riding everything for three outfits, Billy Perry, Hasbany and Lynn Whiting. I was riding 10 races a day. It was just unbelievable.”

Test of Faith

More success would come Bush’s way, winning the Dandy Blitzen Stakes with the mare Sassy Prospect in 1982, and he would also enjoy a series of victories on a Florida-bred son of Big Burn during the course of the year. But outside of the racetrack, the athlete’s life was taking a far darker turn. 

“Billy Perry and I kind of fell out at that point because the owner Mr. Paul Schein really didn’t have confidence in me, even though I was winning races for Billy,” said Bush. “I won the New Year’s Handicap (Jan. 1, 1983) on Let Burn, and they came in and told me I would no longer be riding him, and you probably won’t be riding him if he runs here. That hurt my pride and it hurt my feelings. I just told Billy, ‘I quit.’ About two months after that, my career started to spiral. I got messed up in things I shouldn’t have gotten messed up in. But even though I continued to win races, I wasn’t myself. I was winning races because I was riding the best horse because I was half the rider out there. I was doing drugs every day and riding.”

However, with all of the success and the powerful outfits who had put Bush on their best horses, he lacked the self-esteem consistent with someone who was excelling at a vocation renowned for its competitiveness. Bush found himself experiencing a journeyman’s hardscrabble existence despite his accomplishments. Life’s frailty could be unforgiving, and he found himself in a dark place. 

“Nobody grows up and says I want to be a drug addict,” said Bush. “It just happened. Most of my family were alcoholics, and I didn’t drink at that time. I picked up an addiction. Plus, I had a lot of problems with self-confidence. I was winning races and I was one of the leading riders in the country. I still lacked confidence in myself. I believe when I started doing drugs and everything, it gave me a false sense of security. That’s the only way that I could explain it.”

Expensive Decision 

His lifestyle began affecting his decision-making process, and it became increasingly evident by some of his choices, that his problem was far larger than he thought. 

“I was riding for Robert Wheeler, who wanted me to come to Maryland with him, but I didn’t,” said Bush. “I was mentally so messed up. My mind was not in the right place.”

Dealing with Demons

Bush managed to amass seven stakes’ victories in 1986, but his descent into darkness would keep him from the winner’s circle in added money events until 1993, although there were several accomplishments in the interim that he could take pride in. It was more than a brief interregnum in between stakes wins, but his talent and ability never completely left him at a time when he was faced with a series of challenges that were more daunting than any field on the most difficult of racing dates. His itinerant lifestyle became far more routine than most in the industry, traveling with a companion he couldn’t distance himself from. 

“In 1987, I rode mostly at Finger Lakes and Thistledown,” said Bush. “I also rode my first winner at Saratoga in 1987. My bouncing around was because my drug addiction, and it started getting really out of hand. My wife and I were separated, and there was our son Vernon. Instead of trying to correct the problem, I just kind of shipped an elephant in a crate and moved it across the country. When you opened it up, there was still an elephant. I ran from my problems. The problem was still there. I went to Finger Lakes and I did really well there. I went to Cleveland and did extremely well there. That’s why I wasn’t in Boston.”

And despite his addiction issues, there was still success, but as much as he tried, every effort to change his direction and get back on the right path, he couldn’t. But unlike a train using Positive Control Technology to avoid a disaster, Bush seemed to be on a collision course, consistently derailing as he avoided his problems, failing to cope with the burden he was carrying to every destination. 

“I was just running from my problems and not trying to fix my problems,” said Bush.” From 1986 to 1990, all I did was run back and forth from Ohio to Massachusetts to Kentucky, trying to stay out of trouble, and if there was trouble where I was, trouble was always going to be there.”

Fatherhood and Facing Charges 

He became a bit of an anomaly, not only in his professional life but off the track as well. Even as he struggled with addiction, his life was filled with some wonderful experiences, paradoxical in its nature, leaving a number of people perplexed and trying to understand what was unfolding. His high profile would eventually be toned down as he would find himself riding at times riding on lesser circuits, after competing on the sport’s biggest stage. 

“I met a terrific girl in 1988, and we had my daughter in 1989.,” said Bush. “I even went to New Jersey and destroyed them at Garden State in 1991. I did good in Maryland. I was the leading rider at Timonium. I was at Turfway and then I went to Jersey. The only reason I left New England then was because at Rockingham Park, they wouldn’t let me ride. They told me that they got tired of me being a fool. That’s when I started going to the fairs a lot. I was a whale in a fish bow whenever I went to the fairs in Massachusetts. In ’87, when I was riding in Finger Lakes, I went to Saratoga, rode and won, and two days later, I’m riding at Northampton. In September of 1991, I was arrested in Massachusetts. I didn’t ride again until 1993. I missed all of 1992. I was ruled off.”

But even with recording two stakes’ victories in 1993 at Suffolk Downs, with Philismo in the Tonight’s The Night Handicap and Nifty Operator in the Isadorable Stakes, Bush’s world was about to come crashing down. Humility was a lesson Bush still needed to learn, and then he would hit rock bottom. 

“In 1994, I did well, and then I derailed again,” said Bush. “I ended up going to Waterford Park, trying to run from my problems. My life really derailed on January 15, 1995, I was arrested in Levy County, Florida, and I did four months in jail.”

Reflection and Healing 

It was while he was incarcerated that Bush began to understand the destructive behavior he had been engaging in, but an inner strength allowed him to climb out of a dark abyss, making him realize that there was far more to life, and he would begin the recovery process, one that has been part of his life for more than a quarter of a century. 

” I had to sit there for four months, and that was when I did a whole lot of soul searching,” said Bush. “The last time I ever did crack cocaine was January 15, 1995. I didn’t ride from 1995 until 1996.”

A lot to prove 

Bush’s abstemiousness and clear-headedness would be in question, during the mid-to-late 90s, with entities and organizations keeping a close eye on the jockey who possessed the talent, but who had let deleterious behavior escalate to such an extent that even those most close to the horseman, were circumspect regarding his actions. One racetrack in particular had questions and concerns regarding the rider’s sobriety.

“I got put down by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, because they wanted to make sure that I was drug and alcohol free because that’s how bad I was at one time,” said Bush. ”The steward in Kentucky at  time was Bernie Hettel. I had been riding at Northampton and this was in 1993, an outfit was going to Paducah, Kentucky, Bluegrass Downs. I called the stewards, and they said, ‘Vernon, you can ride at Turfway, you can ride at Keeneland and Churchill and you can ride at Ellis Park, but Paducah is not ready for you.’ That’s how bad I was. That was in 1994, and six months later, I ended up in jail. From 1991 to 1998, it was a total nightmare for me. It was due to my drug and alcohol abuse. Even though I was clean and sober, I still had to prove a lot to a lot of people before they let me back on the track.”

That respite from the races provided him with the opportunity and temperance to transform his life, gradual steps led to progress and victories both on and off the track, but he wasn’t the only one he had to convince, confidence from state racing commissions in his sobriety was an entirely different matter. 

”Then Kentucky didn’t believe me that I was clean and sober, and they made me do a program that was six-months, and then in turn, I didn’t ride until almost 1998,” said Bush “It was a very bad run from 1996 to 1998. I didn’t ride at all in 1997. I started riding again in the summer and fall of 1998.”

Battling Back 

His return would find him in Grove City, Ohio, at Beulah Park, where he would make his ascent up the ladder, climbing the rungs steadily, and Bush would find success with a chestnut 5-year-old gelded son of Stalwart, out of the Honey Jay broodmare Little Honey, owned and trained by William Napier, capturing back-to-back stakes, the Brent’s Prince Handicap at Beulah Park on April 25, 1999 and then again on May 30, 1999 at Thistledown as the favorite and high weight carrying 123 pounds, winning The Buckeye Handicap by three-quarters of a length, and in both races he turned back the challenge of Knight Villain. The victories were symbolic of a comeback that began to resonate within the close-knit Thoroughbred community as Bush worked diligently to remain sober and at the top of his game as a rider. 

“I was the leading rider at Beulah Park, and that’s when I started riding Honey’s Eclipse,” said Bush. “The first time I rode him, I won a stakes at Beulah Park.”

Pounds of Prevention 

However, addiction wouldn’t be the only issue that Bush would have to contend with as he aged, the struggle to keep his metabolism under control and keep pounds off his frame was another test he would endure to make his return successful. 

“For people to still have confidence in me, after all of the stupid things I had pulled and done, it was just so awesome, and then my weight started getting to me,” said Bush. “I started battling my weight, and then I started battling depression. There would be gaps of a couple of months here and there, where I wouldn’t ride. In 2001, I was on and off, battling depression and weight. I would get heavy and wouldn’t be able to get the weight off. I would get depressed, and it was just an uphill battle. In 2002, I made a comeback. From 2002 to 2007, I was unbeatable in New England.”

Bush’s return to the winner’s circle in stakes races was replete with challenges, but when he did arrive at his destination, it was with a power that resonated throughout the Thoroughbred racing world. Concessions would have to be made on his part, finding the discipline that he had once possessed, and it yielded favorable results. 

”In January of 2002, I weighed 170 pounds,” said Bush. “I was just galloping horses at Suffolk, battling depression and alcohol addiction, and one morning, something upset me, another rider said something to me. So, I went and found a woman by the name of Lisa Welsch, who was an agent at Suffolk Downs. She at one time was married to Mike Welsch, who writes for the Racing Form. Her father was a trainer Frank Dullea, a good trainer in Boston. I went up to her, I said, if I can get my weight off, will you take my book. And she agreed to it. I had to swear I wasn’t going to drink, and I quit drinking.”

A Dietitian’s Dream 

Nutrition and weight management would also be prominent factors in Bush’s return, and they became a part of his daily routine, adding to a host of variables that were now part of the equation, reconditioning his mindset while facing the challenge of sobriety. 

“We ended up going on this diet,” said Bush. “It was called the Miami Heart Diet. She did it with me, and her parents even did it with me. She would make me a breakfast in the morning, I’d then go hang out with her. We’d do lunch, and her parents would cook dinner off this diet. And the diet really consisted of, three days straight on, and four days where you were allowed to eat what you want. I started in January and weighed 170, and I rode my first race on Feb. 28.”

Those modifications to his lifestyle helped transform the rider, who only years earlier had lost his way, but his decision to turn his life around, by staying focused and directing his energies toward a more positive way of thinking, brought about success, the kind that comes from acceptance and learning to like one’s-self.

”The first horse I rode was a horse for Kevin Clark and he won,” said Bush. “It was the first horse I had ridden in six months. Then the next day, I rode another one and he won. So, the first two in my comeback, I won. I ended up the third leading rider at that winter meet (at Suffolk Downs). We went to Rockingham, and I ended up being third leading rider, after missing the first two months of the meet. Then we went to Rockingham, and I think I was the leading rider the first two weeks, and then I left and went to Monmouth Park. I didn’t do that well at Monmouth, but I made a lot of connections. I started riding for Billy Perry again, and that fall, at The Meadowlands, I think I ended up third leading rider, and I was jockey of the week a couple of times.”

Bush brought home the longest shot in the field in the 2002 Matt Scudder Stakes at The Meadowlands for trainer Chris Pitrone, a three-year-old son of Caller I.D. 

“I ended up winning the stake on Gold I.D., and then came back to Suffolk and just dominated,” said Bush. “From 2002 to 2007, I was winning over a million and a half in purses, doing very well, and that’s when I started coming to Florida in the wintertime, and was still doing over a million two and a million three in purses, and was just enjoying life.”

His ascension and trajectory toward being one of the nation’s leading riders, found him enjoying success in rarefied air as he worked diligently, enjoying the respect of his peers. 

”I don’t know what year it was, I think it was in 2003 or 2004,” said Bush. “I remember I went to New York to ride a horse in a stake at Belmont. I was sitting in the jocks room, I think it was 2003, and I was looking at the race in the program, and they had the horses’ stats and the jockey stats, and then they had the stats for the stakes wins for the year and the mounts you had. I was looking at it with Jerry Bailey, and he said, ‘You have the best percentage in the country for stakes wins.’”

Derby Dreams 

The transformation for Bush into a more reserved and tranquil way of life, was more than challenging for the athlete, who had lived in the fast lane for a substantial period of his career. And although he had made a number of changes, he was still grappling with inner discord. However, even through those challenges, he still found himself riding for some of the most prominent names in the sport. It was through those connections that he found himself in the best position of his career to possibly have a horse entered in the field for Thoroughbred racing’s most renowned race on the First Saturday in May. 

“It took me a long time (to transition into the quiet life),” said Bush. “In fact, in 2007, I was riding first call for Mary Lou Whitney, down here in Tampa. I was riding some really nice horses. And she had a horse, I only got to ride him twice. Singapore Swing. I broke his maiden by 15 at a gallop in a maiden special weight race. And they ran him in the Sam Davis Stakes. After we broke his maiden, Mary Lou Whitney flew in by helicopter. After the race, we all went out to dinner, and started talking about, we’re going to go to the Sam Davis, and if all goes well in the Sam Davis, we’re going to go to the Tampa Bay Derby to the Bluegrass Stakes and then to the Kentucky Derby. She had this horse’s schedule mapped out to the Kentucky Derby.“

The story book tale didn’t turn out the way the connections had hoped, with the vagaries of life steering fate in a different direction. 

” When I rode him in the Sam Davis, we were laying third, fourth the whole way, and at the three-eighths pole, a horse called Any Given Saturday, went to the front, and I was right-off-of him, and still had a ton of horse. And the chart doesn’t show it, but I almost drew up head-and-head to him. All of a sudden, my horse took a funny step, and just went straight back. What he ended up doing was fracturing his sesamoid. That was my Derby Horse, Singapore Swing. I was riding some really nice horses for them at Saratoga and Belmont. Whatever they put me on, they would just win.”

A departure from what had been routine, falling back into old habits, deleterious in nature, and shifting his tack between multiple destinations, became commonplace for the rider who had won six races in one day twice, and five races on a card 18 times, and has recorded 3,241 wins during his career. 

“In 2007, my agent Lisa Welsch was also my girlfriend, and we had a disagreement, and went our separate ways,” said Bush. “We had a real bad fight, and I wanted to get away. I left Tampa, and I walked away from Mary Lou Whitney. When I do stupid things, I do stupid things to the hilt. I ended up going back to River Downs and riding there for the next couple years, back and forth between Ohio, Massachusetts, and Florida.

Sunshine and Sobriety 

” I did that until they (Beulah Park) closed in 2014, riding in Ohio and Massachusetts and Florida. It took me a while. It was around 2010, 2011, which is when I started to try to control my demons with alcohol. When I was riding in Boston or Florida, I wouldn’t drink. When I stopped riding for a while, it would start over again. It’s just an uphill battle.”

However, despite the challenges and wholesale changes that were transforming his life, one that had seemed to be in a state of flux for more than three decades, Bush’s resiliency was something one could marvel at. It seemed as if the Sunshine State would remain an integral part of his life. But as with all professional athletes, injuries are commonplace, but they’re harder to contend with when you’re in your 50s. But that was the extra motivation Bush needed. 

“I went to Tampa,” said Bush. “I was just galloping. I rode a few here and there. I got hurt in January of 2015. I got hurt at Tampa. I had a partial tear in my rotator cuff, and then I didn’t ride until July. And at that point, I was really heavy, and I was just galloping horses at Presque Isle.”

An unforeseen Catalyst 

It was while he was in Erie, Pa., that someone provided him with an opportunity, one that would once again call for him to recondition his thought process and reach for that discipline that at times was elusive. 

“A man asked me if I could ride some horses for him,” said Bush. “I got myself down to 125 pounds. The first horse that I rode at Presque Isle won. I rode 26 races and won four or five at Presque Isle that year. By that time, I was ready to go back to Florida, and I was having a hard time with my weight. In 2016, I don’t think that I won a race. I was just content galloping and didn’t want to worry about my weight. In 2017, I made a comeback, and I think I won 12 races that year, just riding at home, and picking the horses that I wanted to ride. That year, I won races in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and in Illinois at Fairmount Park. I haven’t ridden a race since 2018. I want to lose about 10 pounds more, and I can get my jocks license. I want to get down to where I weigh 117 or 118. I’ll ride older horses, no fillies and no 2-year-olds.”

Thrice is Nice 

A sport replete with anomalies, Bush whose career has now spanned six decades and more than 45 years, had the distinction of a rare occurrence happen to him twice, while he was riding in New England, adding to a story that still has chapters to be written. 

”One day I was at Rockingham Park and I was sitting outside the jocks room, and I’m on a horse for Monarch Stable,” said Bush. “I don’t remember who the trainer was, and all of a sudden a bird took a dump on me. The clerk of scales Jim Gigilotti says to me, ‘I don’t care what odds this horse is, Vernon, I’m going to bet on him.’ I end up riding the race, and I finished third. The winner and the second horse had run into about three other horses in the race, and I got put up to win. How many times have you ever seen a horse finish third and get put up to win? It happened to me again at Northampton. Twice in my life, I’ve finished third in a race and have been put up to win.”

Success Stories 

Among the other stakes winners ridden by Bush include, Sultan’s Prince, Pyrite Personal, Accurate, Final Prophecy, African Princess, Seattle Surprise, Glory Be Good, Ms. Sadira, Concurrent, Goodbar, Dr. Desai, Karan Ann, Skiddoo U., Sunset Gun, Pressure Dancer, Dancer’s Poppy, Fuller’s Folly, Jody’s Way, Poor Aldo, Miss Lavish, Great Wealth, Pure Fire, Josiah W. and Yeager. 

Family First 

And although Thoroughbred racing has been a part of his life since he could formulate his first sentence, there is one thing that is immutable in his heart, the love that he has for his family. 

Bush’s son and grandson won’t be able to follow in his footsteps, as their physical stature won’t allow them, but the trait of athleticism has been passed on. 

”My son’s name is Vernon Michael Bush, and he’s a professional wrestler,” said Bush. “He’s up in Massachusetts. He had gotten hurt, winning a heavyweight championship belt in one division that he was wrestling for, and he had the opportunity to wrestle for another championship belt. His name in wrestling is Vern Vacallo. My daughter’s name is Kayla Hall. She’s married, and I have a 12-year-old grandson, Matthew. If you looked at him, you would never have realized that his grandfather is a jockey. He’s 12-years-old and weighs 215. He’s a big boy. He’s not fat. My son, he wrestles at 185 or 190. He’s a big fan favorite. They love him. He’s very muscular. He looks like that character that was in the movie Aquaman. People mistake him for the guy. Those are the main things in my life. “

Contributing Authors

Ben Baugh

Ben Baugh has been writing about Thoroughbred racing for more than 25 years. A past winner of the Raleigh Burroughs Award, his work has appeared...

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@jonathanstettin the win train keeps rolling down the tracks!

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