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Real-life jockeys

Mikey James stood outside the door marked Jockey Quarters at Keeneland before the first race Thursday. He has been a professional jockey for all of a month, has three wins to his credit, all at Turfway. His boots were shiny. His pants were white, but the custom cover on his helmet was borrowed and bore another man's name.

His first race at Keeneland was about a half-hour away and he was going to have to borrow a saddle. Still, a small throng of teenagers were asking for his autograph and he was obliging.

Behind the throng, a small, unassuming man squeezed past, acknowledged by a single track watcher. The two talked briefly and then the smaller man moved quickly on.

It was Jean Cruguet, the man who was on Seattle Slew in 1977 when they both became immortal as he won the Triple Crown.

There was no shortage of jockey gods at Keeneland Thursday. Lafitte Pincay Jr. was here. Pat Day and Jorge Velasquez. Men who know how to make horses get to the finish line first. They can will them across when their hands and legs cannot force the issue. And they know how to hang on when the horses are the ones doing the willing.

But they don't ride anymore.

James is the kid who takes their place. So is Matthew Straight. Like James, he's 22, and since July, he's gotten 17 wins out of 200 races.

Ask anybody. That's not bad.

Both are fresh out of Chris McCarron's North American Racing Academy, a two-year, college-accredited, bona fide jockey school where, in the class of 2008, eight students were taught equine anatomy, how to ride, fall off, maneuver, out-maneuver, groom, hot-walk, eat right, get agents and keep jobs.

Something stuck. James and Straight are now working jockeys, rookie "bug boys" in the jockey-room parlance. Which means they get long-shot horses (James' first race was a 99-to-1 shot) and are sometimes subbed in as jockeys at the last minute.

They get a bit of weight leniency because of their rookie status, but not all is sweetness and light: After they "win their maiden" (their first race), they get a baking soda and egg bath, an initiation rite.

But they're honest-to-goodness jockeys. Just like jockey legend and mentor McCarron said they could be if they tried hard enough.

Both are working this month with, and against, jockeys on their way to legendary status. Like Edgar Prado, Robby Albarado and Kent Desormeaux.

"To be in the same jockey rooms with those guys," says McCarron, "and to see how top professionals behave is priceless. It's part of the sport. That camaraderie. We're in a dangerous sport and we compete against each other, but we are in races against each other every day. Matt and Mikey will learn from watching them."

Straight was raised near the Saratoga Race Course and dreamed of doing this all his life. James had never touched a horse before he got to McCarron's school at the Kentucky Horse Park.

"Both of them demonstrated skills right off the bat," says McCarron, obviously pleased with James and Straight. "It's good evidence that they paid close attention, especially to what we've been teaching about the demands on their bodies and as to their frame of mind."

Straight started working in July at Churchill Downs, then on to Ellis Park and Turfway. The surprise of his working life has been "how hard it is to get on good horses every day and get a decent shot at winning."

He says he's spending a lot of time working "on how to see myself play the role of a jockey." He says he wants to make sure he's doing it right and that it looks like he's doing it right. He imagines it took him at least 100 to 150 races "to start comprehending what was happening."

That was when the world started to go slower for him on the track. That's when he could start to see what was occurring in front of him and to the side of him and what holes were opening up and how fast he could work his hands.

"I'm starting to breathe a little better out there," he says.

James is "still figuring it out," he says. The surprise has been how fit he realizes jockeys need to be. "I'm in the best shape of my life, and it's still not good enough. The first week, I was so sore I could barely walk."

And this guy is a native Californian, a skateboarder, snowboarder, swimmer and runner.

The kid who didn't know horses is now a man who believes that horses are not simply something to be goaded to finish lines.

"They're complicated. They have minds of their own. Certain horses will run for certain people. You have to work on that."

He has been tossed by a few now, but he has learned a jockey secret very early in his career.

"If a day is not going my way," says James, "I go to the stables. The horses cheer me up."