By T. D. Thornton
When Penn National shut down for a one-month planned break Sept. 23, Tyler Conner, the track's third-leading rider this year in both wins and earnings, wasn't sure what he'd do to keep his income flowing.
Yet the 30-year-old jockey, who is soft-spoken but highly driven, managed to build enough out-of-town business to the point where he has just completed a demanding six-day run of riding at six different tracks in the Northeast and Canada.
His whirlwind tour included more than 1,800 miles of driving, nearly all of which he accomplished solo Oct. 11-16 while amassing a 2-4-2 mark from 14 mounts at Parx, Laurel, Delaware, Aqueduct, Woodbine and Presque Isle.
“Anyone have a helicopter I can borrow?” Conner had humorously asked on Twitter during the midway point of his journey.
And no, on the seventh day Conner did not rest. TDN spoke to him via phone Oct. 17 while he was driving 110 miles from his home on a small farm near Penn National to ride at Parx, where the six-day streak had first begun Oct. 11.
Conner said the extensive travel was worth it, although maybe more in terms of getting his name out there and getting noticed rather than money.
“I was a little worried the last couple of weeks before we shut down, because I didn't have a plan. I didn't really know what business would be like with the break. Winning when you have to ship in from out of town is always tough,” Conner said.
And what fueled him on his rigorous commutes beyond aspirations of bettering himself?
“Good music and podcasts,” Conner said. “And I definitely drank too much Mountain Dew to keep me awake and focused. For most of the week it was rainy, kind of gloomy. So it wasn't the best driving, but nothing crazy happened. That's always helpful.”
“But it's been pretty good,” Conner continued. “I've been really, really busy. Busier than I've been all year, honestly. And the horses are running well, so that helps. [The week on the road] paid for the trip, and a little more.”
The day after Penn went on hiatus, Conner had four mounts on the GI Pennsylvania Derby card at Parx, where his best finish was third aboard Mish (Field Commission) in the $300,000 Parx Dirt Mile S.
That mount was for trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr., who also sent Conner to ride in Oklahoma the next night, Sept. 24, aboard Honor D Lady (Honor Code), who won the GIII Remington Park Oaks at 7-1 odds.
“Winning the Oaks was huge,” Conner said. “That really helped, being off for the month.”
Conner returned home and rode at various mid-Atlantic tracks over the next two weeks. His calendar then came together better than he expected it would in the second week of October.
He began the six-tracks-in-six-days tour with 220 miles of round-trip driving Oct. 11 and a third-place finish in a Parx starter-allowance with a $26,000 purse.
The next day, Oct. 12, the 240-mile round trip to Laurel netted Conner a second and a win, with the victory coming in a $60,940 allowance/optional claimer.
On Friday the 13th, Conner trekked 170 miles round-trip to Delaware, riding fifth with one mount, then second with another in a starter-allowance with a $30,000 purse.
“Parx, Laurel, Delaware, I just go back and forth for those as day trips,” Conner said as if racking up 630 collective miles on three consecutive days constituted normal workday commuting.
On Saturday, Oct. 14, Conner drove 180 miles to Aqueduct to ride Salvaje (Kantharos) in the $125,000 Floral Park S. The field scratched down to four as an off-the-turfer, and he managed third with his 6-1 shot behind a 3-10 winner.
“I drove to Woodbine from there. It was about nine hours, and I got to Woodbine around midnight,” Conner said of the 500-mile trek that included an international border crossing. “Then I just slept in until 10 in the morning and got some rest.”
Those two Woodbine mounts (one in a stakes) again came courtesy of trainer Joseph.
Conner explained that after he won the GII Penn Mile for a different trainer in 2022, Joseph had contacted him with praise for his riding, and had offered to give him business if he switched his tack to Gulfstream, where Joseph is based.
Conner tried it for a weekend in June 2022 and won a race, but respectfully declined the offer to move to Florida full-time because he thought it would be too tough to get additional mounts on that highly competitive circuit beyond those that Joseph offered.
“Saffie has helped me a lot,” Conner said. “He's been so good to me, and given me an opportunity to ride a lot of nice horses. I tell people all the time I'll go anywhere he wants me to go, just to have those opportunities. Now he sends me where it fits for him and when I'm available. It's been good riding for new people at new tracks and to get recognized a little bit outside of the usual.”
At Woodbine Oct. 15, Conner was second aboard the 15-1 Mystic Lake (Mo Town) in the $125,000 Glorious Song S., and he ran fourth with his 18-1 shot in a maiden allowance.
Woodbine to Presque Isle meant another border crossing and 180 more miles. Out of six mounts for six different trainers on the Oct. 16 card there, Conner won a $30,000 maiden allowance and finished second in a maiden-claimer.
On the 310-mile drive back home in the dark, Conner said he got help splitting time behind the wheel from a Penn-based buddy who had also been up at Presque Isle to race.
“I'm actually enjoying the traveling right now,” Conner said. “I would hopefully like to keep riding at other bigger tracks and ride in more big races. I'm working on getting to Kentucky. But I'm just kind of waiting on an answer from an agent right now, and depending on what he wants to do, I'll go from there.”
Conner was born into a racing family. His father, John Conner, is a former trainer who now owns horses and is an in-demand farrier. His mom, Sandra Conner, rode regularly from 1989 up until Tyler was born in 1993. His stepmom, Erin McClellan, currently trains at Penn.
Yet Conner said he didn't gravitate to becoming a jockey until after he had quit high school and earned his GED while working as a groom. Prior to that, ever since he was about age five, his passion had been motocross.
“That's all I did growing up, was ride motorcycles. I still do, on occasion,” Conner said. “I guess I figured I'd try riding horses out of necessity. I kept getting hurt on the motorcycles, and I had to find a job that would pay better than grooming, so I started riding. I had never been on a horse before that.”
Conner laughed politely at the suggestion that not too many jockeys find their calling in race-riding because they think it's a less dangerous option than what they had been doing.
“I know anything can happen, but riding horses is definitely safer at this point. The chances of injury are a lot lower, it seems like,” Conner said.
Wednesday, Oct. 18, was technically Conner's first day off in a week. But that just meant he wouldn't have mounts booked in afternoon or evening races.
“Oh, yeah, I'll still go to work at Penn for morning training, for sure,” Conner said.