Thoroughbred trainer Luis Dominguez planned to send 4-year-old Ma Coco back to the farm if her performance didn’t improve in last Saturday’s second race at Tampa Bay Downs.
Desperate for solutions after a 0-for-9 start to the filly’s career, with no in-the-money finishes, Dominguez and owner Wendy L. Brown agreed to give apprentice jockey Madeline Rowland a shot at riding Ma Coco in the $16,000, 6 ½-furlong maiden claiming event.
“No one else could ride her,” Dominguez said. “I told (Rowland) to stay back and when she was ready to go, to ask (Ma Coco) and she’d give her everything she had.”
Madeline Rowland shows Ma Coco how much she values the 4-year-old filly's effort in last Saturday's upset victory (courtesy SV Photography)
Eager to impress Ma Coco’s connections and gain additional business, the 18-year-old jockey soaked in her instructions. Entering the starting gate, she kept an open mind, aware Ma Coco might have ideas of her own.
“Whenever I get on a filly who has never run good with guys on her, I think of it as a restart for the horse,” Rowland said. “I didn’t even watch any of her replays. That didn’t mean anything to me, because I knew from the results I had to try something different and listen to the horse.
“I just kind of followed her lead (during the post parade), and I think she really liked that. She was so calm the whole time before the race. When she went into the gate she had her own plan, and whatever it was, that was going to be my plan.”
Soon after the start, it was evident Ma Coco had her mind on competing against her six opponents. As they continued to pick up ground on the leaders, Rowland shifted Ma Coco to the outside, reasoning that if the filly could see a clear path down the stretch, her instinct to strive for victory would take over.
Along the rail, rival Milenita sensed the challenge and dug in, but Ma Coco had all the momentum. The result was a neck victory for Ma Coco and Rowland, and a reward of $66.20 to the $2 bettors who backed them.
An elated Rowland tosses her whip to her valet before entering the winner's circle (courtesy SV Photography)
Dominguez and Brown were nearly overcome by emotion afterward. “She (Rowland) did everything just right,” Brown said. “It was out of sight. She’s a good girl. She is brave and she is smart. You could tell she had the confidence to follow the instructions, and the horse responded.”
In the rough-and-tumble environment of racing, where even the best jockeys can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in the eyes of disgruntled bettors, Rowland is turning skeptics into believers. She earned her first career victory on Dec. 10 in her Tampa Bay Downs debut aboard (then)-4-year-old gelding Sancocho and has added seven more winners, exceeding all expectations.
“Maddie,” as she is known to family and friends, dedicated her first victory to her father Paul Rowland, a well-known steeplechase-racing trainer who died of cancer when Maddie was 8.
“Every race I’ve ridden, before I leave the jockeys’ room, I talk to my dad,” Rowland revealed after the race, which was her ninth career start.
“He inspires me every day,” she said more recently. “Thinking about just making him proud. And of course he is going to be proud of me no matter what, but he is going to be so much more proud of it if I work for it.
“Nothing came easy to him. He loved the horses, and I think I got that from him. I would ride races for free. That’s how much I love it.”
Former jockey Eddie Joe Zambrana was taking a close look the day of her first victory. Now a jockey’s agent, he’d been asked beforehand to watch Rowland by Sancocho’s trainer, Juan Arriagada, in hopes Zambrana might be interested in representing her with owners and trainers.
“I could see she has talent. She has good hands on a horse and is a safe rider who knows how to put a horse in the right position,” said Zambrana, who was quick to take Rowland’s book. “She’s not afraid to find a hole and go through it, and she is really strong at the finish.
“She likes to talk with trainers, and they like her because she is a hard worker. Every apprentice jockey has things to learn, and she needs work on using the whip with both hands in a race. But she is smart. There is not much I have to tell her,” Zambrana said.
Rowland has become good friends with former Tampa Bay Downs star jockey Paula Bacon, now the agent for Pablo Morales
Because of their inexperience, apprentice jockeys receive an allowance in the assigned weight their horses must carry in a race, starting at 10 pounds off. Once they reach five victories, that is cut to 7 pounds, then to 5 pounds after an additional 35 victories.
Some trainers consider a break in the weights a huge advantage; others would rather use an experienced jockey carrying more weight who is quicker to adapt to changing circumstances during a race.
Arriagada, who has put Rowland on five of her eight winners, hopes other trainers will recognize the qualities he believes can make her a success and support her while she learns.
“She’s working with me almost every day, and she’s doing pretty good,” said Arriagada, the trainer of Grade III winner Estilo Talentoso. “She’ll help with three or four horses in the morning, do anything I ask.
“In this game, a lot of people see a young girl, and they don’t feel comfortable giving her those opportunities. But she is showing people little by little she can ride horses and do a good job. She listens, puts horses in the right spots and keeps them in the clear.
“The hard part now is to keep it up, keep working hard and stay herself,” Arriagada said.
Rowland – whose mother, Jodi Rowland, and 14-year-old brother Hayden live in Landenberg, Pa. – is a high school senior who takes online classes, often completing her assignments in her quarters in the Oldsmar jockeys’ room between races. She lives near the racetrack with her boyfriend, exercise rider Nicolas Arriagada (Juan’s son), and fellow jockey Skyler Spanabel.
“My grades are the best they’ve ever been,” said Rowland, who suspects a big reason may be because she is so happy to be following her chosen path.
Rowland gets her "game face" on outside the jockeys' room
Rowland has been around horses her entire life. Friends gave her a Miniature Horse when she was 2, and her mother recalls Maddie raising both arms and exclaiming “Up!”, a signal that she wanted to ride. “When I put her on, she pressed her heels into his ribs and said ‘Go!’ ” Jodi Rowland recalls.
Jodi, now a Registered Nurse Case Manager in a hospital, worked for a time as a groom for Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer Michael Dickinson. She and her late husband quickly came to realize Maddie didn’t just love horses; she shared their energy, lived vicariously through their happiness, appreciated their moods and desires.
“She always knew what she wanted and had the drive to go for it,” Jodi Rowland said. “I am so happy she is getting to live her dream and with who she has become.”
Her parents’ background enabled the youngster to learn the basics of riding and caring for horses the right way, always putting the animal first. “It wasn’t just that we put her on a horse and she went top speed,” her mother said. “With Madeline, it was always about horsemanship and learning to ride to the best of her ability.
“I was never concerned about her safety, because she was so quick to learn and responsible and hard-working in every aspect.”
When she was 15, Rowland approached family friend Elizabeth Merryman – a breeder, owner and former trainer who operates a stable of horses at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. – about receiving the ‘fine-tuning” she would need to prosper at the racetrack.
“She was very green, but hard-working and enthusiastic. And just tough as nails,” Merryman recalled. “She had the mindset that nothing was going to get in the way of her accomplishing her goals. She would do everything I asked, and I could see she was a quick learner.
“She literally did not know how to gallop when she came here, and she hit the ground a lot of times in the process. Her learning curve was not easy, believe me. But she was game and always came back for more. Everything from galloping, to getting along with different types of horses, to the basics of entering and leaving the starting gate. … I kept encouraging her, because she is naturally small, athletic and wanted it so much.”
Rowland rode the first eight races of her career last fall at Delaware, Laurel and Penn National, racetracks within easy driving distance of home. Her best finish was a second at Laurel on Nov. 4, five weeks before her victory on Sancocho.
Jodi Rowland didn’t hesitate to give Maddie her approval to come to Florida. This being her dream for so long, who was Mom to stand in the way?
“She is getting to do what she loves. She might be headstrong or stubborn, but she has always been a good girl,” Jodi Rowland said. “She’s had a strong, independent personality from the get-go. This is what she has worked for her whole life, and she hasn’t taken shortcuts to get where she is at. And I know ‘Nico’ (Arriagada) and Juan and (his wife) Alison are watching out for her.”
When Rowland rides a race, her mom and co-workers at the hospital gather around a television screen, cheering her on. They made a huge ruckus after her first victory, drawing attention from a supervisor. When the boss discovered the cause of the commotion, she joined in, screaming in delight over Rowland’s success.
Women jockeys may no longer be a novelty at North American racetracks, but there is no question Rowland is trying to succeed in a man’s world. If she thought she was tough coming in, she found out in a hurry she needed an extra layer of psychological armor to survive.
She has been criticized on social media, with one Facebook user saying she wouldn’t win any races unless the horse she was riding was 20 lengths better than the competition and every other jockey fell off. Those who know her believe she is resilient enough to take it, and even learn from it, one way or another.
Paula Bacon, a star jockey at Tampa Bay Downs in the mid-to-late 1990s and now the agent for Pablo Morales, says Rowland has a maturity and a steely exterior beyond her years. “I heard somebody on the backside giving her constructive criticism, and they were being pretty harsh about it. And she took it like a freakin’ champ,” Bacon said.
“She didn’t talk back, she agreed with what they were saying and she started asking questions, and they gave her some good advice. And the next day, she applied it in a race. I thought, if she can take a beating like that and come back stronger, she can make it.”
Funny thing about Rowland, though: In the glow of victory, her femininity is on display for the world to see. Her smile, so huge it makes her eyes crinkle, captivates all but the most cynical of race-goers, and she drapes herself across her horse’s withers and pats its neck in appreciation like a long-lost lover. Her winner’s-circle celebrations are like a scene out of the movie National Velvet, which Rowland has probably never seen but might be perfect for the remake.
“Even when she doesn’t win, you can watch her pull her horse up and come back and tell how much she loves them,” Bacon said. “She is full of smiles and joy, and you know they love her right back.”
Forecasting where this most unpredictable of sports might take her is best left, perhaps, to the so-called experts, who have little to lose either way. But at this stage of her life, Rowland is immersed in racing, giving it her whole heart.
Just like when she was a little girl, and Rascal, her Miniature Horse, kept dumping her.
“I’m not good enough yet. I want to get better,” she said. “Every race I ride, I watch the replay two or three times, figuring out what I need to do to improve. I watch Julie Krone’s races and try to mimic her on my Equicizer (mechanical horse), and I’ll think about what the jockeys here tell me and try to do it.”
Her career is just beginning, and Rowland is going to go through slumps. Every jockey does. That’s when they have to keep the faith, or bail.
Maddie Rowland believes.
“You have to give the horse your trust. When you doubt one, it’s like doubting yourself,” she said. “The ones I get on that are nervous, in my mind, I want to fix it to make them love their job. Because when a horse loves their job, they are going to give you 100 percent.”