By Jessica Martini
Jenn Miller began her professional riding career in the dressage arena, but was instantly hooked when introduced to Thoroughbred racing two years ago. The 31-year-old Massachusetts native is currently plying her trade as an apprentice rider up and down the Midlantic circuit.
“When I was 10 years old, our neighbors gave us a horse and my mother wanted to make sure that I had some riding lessons before we just had a horse in our backyard,” Miller recalled. “The closest barn with reasonable prices that would also let me work off some of the lesson cost, happened to be a dressage barn. So I started there and gained an appreciation for it and then I went with it.”
A Grand Prix dressage rider, Miller decided to head to Florida a few years ago with the plan to train other riders.
“I was actually heading to Florida one winter to start my own dressage training business,” she explained. “A friend of mine was a small racehorse trainer from New Jersey, David Nunn. He had come down with a handful of horses and he needed a groom/hotwalker/pony rider. So I thought great, I can earn extra money in the morning at the track and then go to spend the afternoon giving lessons on dressage horses.”
That’s when Miller’s riding career took a major detour.
“A few weeks in, he threw me on a racehorse and said, ‘Here, go gallop around the track and don’t worry, this horse will come right back to the pony when he’s done.’ And that’s exactly what he did. He galloped one lap around the track and pulled himself up at the pony. That was when I was hooked on the sport. Then he had a baby that he let me do the gate work with and that’s when I really got hooked on wanting to ride racehorses.”
Miller began galloping horses for Joe Sharp and his wife, former jockey Rosie Napravnik, in February 2016. After riding a handful of races against amateur riders, she made her professional debut at Keeneland last October, finishing sixth aboard the Sharp-trained Trust in Diane. She won her first race two months later at Parx.
So far in 2017, the seven-pound bug has 17 wins from 141 mounts, riding at tracks from Laurel and Pimlico, to Penn National, Parx, Charles Town and Monmouth Park. She opened this year’s Pimlico meeting with a rail-skimming ride aboard the debuting juvenile Dance or Stroll (Stroll) and scored aboard I Dream of Lois (Uncle Mo) with what the filly’s owner called “a heads up wire-to-wire win.”
While it’s still early days in her riding career, Miller did pick out one particularly sweet victory. She was a front-running eight-length winner in the fourth race at Parx last Tuesday aboard the Nunn-trained 7-year-old Steel Sky (Even the Score).
“I had a win at Parx last week on that very same horse that was the first one that I ever galloped and got me hooked on racing in general,” Miller smiled. “That was pretty special. It was like everything coming full circle.”
As she continues to gain exposure and experience at the track, Miller still gets the occasional reminders from Napravnik, who won a pair of Breeders’ Cup races and a Kentucky Oaks during her riding career.
“I learned a lot from Rosie,” Miller said. “And she still doesn’t hesitate to send me a text if I ride a bad race and say, ‘Jenn you’re messing up. Do this next time.'”
While dressage and racing may seem worlds apart, Miller does see a crossover between the two disciplines, for both horse and rider.
“Dressage horses don’t look it, but they can actually be very strong in the mouth,” Miller explained. “When you’re my size, you’re not just pulling back on them and holding them up that way. You have to learn how to finesse them a little. And that applies to racehorses, too. If they want to run off, if you can finesse them a little with your hands, a lot of them will relax that way instead of burning themselves out in the beginning. And then a lot of the horsemanship is similar in the sense of balance and staying with the horse, I think that crosses all disciplines.”
Miller continued, “Dressage is about making a horse more athletic and more supple and general training and that can definitely be used on racehorses, especially horses who don’t ever want to do a lead change. If you can get them to loosen up a little bit and then throw the change at them, you can catch them off guard and teach them how to do it more efficiently.”
In the past two weeks, Miller, who is represented by agent Ronnie Gerardo, has ridden at tracks from Maryland to New Jersey.
“I am based in Maryland and the convenient thing about this area is I can ride in Maryland Friday, Saturday and Sunday, go to Delaware Monday, Wednesday and Thursday,” she commented. “And I can do Penn and Charles Town any night pretty much from either of those tracks. I can pick one up at Parx or Monmouth, but they overlap a little with Maryland so that is a little tougher.”
Asked about her goals in the sport, Miller admitted she is taking a day-by-day approach.
“I would really just like to see how far I could get,” she said. “I think everything is broken down into little steps and the next step is get my 40 wins and be a five-pound bug. The next step after that is transitioning from bug into making it as a journeyman. Obviously, I would love to ride stakes races–everyone dreams of riding the big races. So we’ll see. One step at a time and we’ll see where the journey takes me.”