Stefanie Vetter is living her bucket list as a student jockey in Kentucky. At 52 she could be doing anything else outdoors — like mushing sled dogs, as she lived for more than 25 years in Anchorage, Alaska. Her moving from Alaska to Kentucky seems almost improbable.
Vetter had never been to a track — Alaska does not have horse racing — before loading up two teenagers and a pair of riding horses and heading to the lower 48. She had retired at 50 as a special agent for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Department of Homeland Security), a job for which she packed a gun, pulled illegal immigrants off commercial fishing boats and even arrested human traffickers from Russia.
What she’s doing on the back of a racehorse in Lexington, Kentucky, represents fulfillment of a childhood dream she’d abandoned long ago in her hometown of Garrison, N.D., population about 1,500. One day, newly retired, she searched Google for how to become a jockey. She came across the North American Racing Academy in Lexington.
Forget that most jockeys have retired by Vetter’s age. Or that the average age of Vetter’s classmates is 21 or 22 years old. Vetter sees only possibilities. And Kentucky racing rules do not state an age limit for aspiring jockeys.
“She would be treated like anybody else who came to seek a jockey license for the first time,” said Barbara Borden, chief steward for the Kentucky Racing Commission. “She might have more ability and more talent than some of the young guys: who knows. We’re not going to prejudge her because of her age or sex or anything.”
And there’s precedent: Kentucky’s oldest jockey, R.A. “Cowboy” Jones, was almost 72 years old when he rode his last race July 26, 2014, at Ellis Park. Perry Ouzts, perennially a leading rider in northern Kentucky and southern Ohio, is 63.
Vetter says she’ll deal with seeking a license when she’s ready. She’s in her final semester of the two-year course offered at the racing academy, which also trains barn workers and eventual managers for the horse industry. Vetter is known to her instructors and fellow students for her work ethic, her enthusiasm, and yes, her youthful qualities.
“Even after a year I say, ‘I’m actually here. I can’t believe this,’” Vetter said. There are times I ask myself, ‘Am I being foolish?’ My family says, ‘Don’t you quit. You keep doing this.’”
Vetter began her Lexington phase at the school in 2016 (she completed her first semester online while in Alaska). She began exercising the school’s Thoroughbreds in January 2017. Now she is learning to sharpen skills that include breezing a horse according to timed instructions. “You count in your head,” Vetter said. She keeps a “map” of the location of racetrack poles on her refrigerator to remind her. She breezed her first horse Aug. 31.
Vetter has another reason to keep going forward. She says she is a recovering alcoholic who hit bottom following retirement, tried several programs and finally found one that worked for her before she sold her house in Anchorage and headed to Kentucky. She said she has no fear of failure after what she’s been through.
“When I was hitting rock bottom I became very suicidal. I did try and obviously failed: I’m still alive,” Vetter said. “So after that I thought to myself, I’m supposed to be dead. Every day is a free day. I’m not supposed to have this so I’m going to ride these horses. I’m going to love this.”
Vetter holds a bachelor of arts degree in criminal justice and sociology but now she’s back among students who might be attending college for the first time. Students call her Mama Vetter; the school’s chief riding instructor, Dixie Hayes, is roughly the age of Vetter’s oldest daughter. But Vetter said she doesn’t feel out of place. Her experiences have been the same as any student in her class.
“I don’t think my frustrations are different from any other student’s,” said the 5-foot-4, 108-pound Vetter. “We’re all worried about screwing up, getting the instructions wrong … that kind of stuff.”
A calmer existence
Remi Bellocq, the racing academy’s executive director, said he thinks it admirable “that she wanted to do this at this point in her life, to tackle a physically demanding thing like this.” He said the more likely possibility for Vetter than a race-riding career is to find work as perhaps an assistant trainer, due to her age and the fact she wants to stay in Lexington. But they all hope a trainer will give her the opportunity to ride some races.
Vetter sees her future as exciting; perhaps some would view her past as tipping the thrill scale higher. JuneauEmpire.com posted an Associated Press story in 2001 identifying Vetter as a federal immigration agent who helped expose a “cultural dancing” fraud. Seven Russian women aged 16 to 30 brought to Alaska to demonstrate folk dancing were forced to dance nude for money at a strip club. Agents arrested an Alaskan and caught his Russian accomplice at the Anchorage airport as he tried to leave the country. Vetter told JuneauEmpire.com that the women had been “placed in involuntary servitude.”
Vetter, after finishing with her riding chores one recent morning, recalled another memory from her law enforcement career. She and other agents boarded a commercial fishing vessel in Alaskan waters to search for a suspect they thought was onboard. They didn’t find that person but did discover 90 illegal aliens. They removed them from the boat.
Now she’s happy to be living a calmer existence in jockey school.
‘She is so driven’
North American Racing Academy operates at The Thoroughbred Center on Paris Pike under the Blue Grass Community and Technical College umbrella. The college awards a certificate with 20 to 30 credit hours or an associate degree with 60 college credits. Students may transfer those credits to a four-year college if they choose not to enter the horse industry as a “work-ready” apprentice barn worker or jockey hopeful.
Retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron founded the school in 2006 and retired from the academy about three years ago. Bellocq, who competed for many years in races exclusively for amateur jockeys, said he places graduating students with racing stables participating on a national level, like those of Todd Pletcher and Christophe Clement.
Students have come to the racing academy from as far away as India, Norway and Canada, according to The Blood-Horse, a trade publication.
The school has seen remarkable success, with jockey graduates winning more than 3,000 races and their mounts earning some $35 million. Horse management graduates have found jobs at racetracks and on horse farms as exercise riders, assistant trainers, and barn managers.
Not all students want to learn to ride racehorses, but for those who do the school has 12 Thoroughbreds. Prospective riders compete for 12 slots during a one-day boot camp in December before they can begin riding in January. Boot camp requirements include: ability to run 1 mile in less than 10 minutes, do 50 situps, a minimum of 25 pushups, and ride for a prescribed time with their rear ends raised out of the saddle on the mechanical Equicizer horse.
Vetter’s fitness never was in question: her biceps would be the envy of any professional athlete. She is said to be in better condition than her fellow students.
“When she gets her mind made up, she is so driven,” said her father, Donn Vetter, in a phone call from Garrison. If he could say one thing to his daughter, he said, it would be, “go for it. And that’s exactly what she’s doing. Don’t give up, just keep going.”