Sitting tall in the saddle

Nikeela Black in the saddle at Les Bois Park. Photo Courtesy Nikeela Renae Black

Javier Castellano, Russell Baze and Mike Smith are great jockeys, but could they tell you the ramifications of Griswold et. al. vs. Connecticut? That's highly unlikely. But jockey Nikeela Renae Black can, just as easily as she can nurse a short-winded sprinter on the lead and save enough to cross the wire in front.

At 37 percent, Black has the highest winning percentage in the country among all jockeys with at least 100 mounts this year. That she's outpacing Russell Baze (33 %), the perennial leader in that category, is pretty remarkable. That she's doing it while also actively practicing law is somewhere beyond remarkable.

Black grew up in Washington State and showed horses from a young age. When just 16 she made the decision she wanted to become a jockey and spent the next three years galloping horses at her local tracks. In 2004, she rode in her first race at age 19.

"I rode fair meets in Washington and Oregon," she said. "I just rode summers and paid for my education through race riding."

She got an undergraduate degree from Eastern Washington University in psychology, but her career aspiration was to be a jockey. At the same time, she wanted something else to fall back on if the racetrack didn't work out for her or for when she was ready to retire. That led to a job at a law firm, which led to law school at the University of Idaho. All the while, she kept riding.

"There's nothing like the physical and adrenaline rush of winning a race but I am also very much an intellectual and love to learn every day," she said.

She was ready to commit herself full time to riding, but her best friend from law school said she knew of a law firm that might hire her and suggested Black at least look into a job opening there.

"The interview lasted like 10 minutes," she recalled. "They said when do you want to start, what do you want to get paid and how much do you want to work?"

Trying to be both a lawyer and a jockey might sound crazy but Black decided to give it a go. She passed the bar in 2012 and went to work for the Arkoosh Law Offices in Boise, Idaho. It was perfect timing and a perfect place for her to be employed because the local track, Les Bois Park, re-opened the year before after being shut down for two years starting in 2009.

In early April, when the horses start to arrive on the grounds, she gets to the track every morning but Sunday at 6 o'clock to gallop horses. At 10:30, she finishes up at the track, showers, changes and heads to the firm's offices.

It gets trickier during racing season, which is from early May through early August. She gallops horses in the morning, works at the law office in the afternoon and then heads to the track for the twilights cards. Les Bois normally races two days a week and she has to be there by 4 pm. She says many of her work days last 14 hours when including both jobs.

"It really is a perfect balance for me," she said. "I get to be around horses, which keeps me happy. I get grumpy during the winter when I can't ride every day. But every day at the office is something new, too. I get to learn things and problem solve."

Occasionally Black will ride somewhere else. Her best mount, a horse named Floating Feather, won four straight at Les Bois, including a $30,000 stakes race, and Black said the gelding may run in the Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs and might even have a start at Del Mar this year.

But with her law work she has to stay close to Boise and Les Bois is the only racetrack that fits her hectic schedule.

There, she came into her own at the meet that finished up last Saturday. She had 42 winners in thoroughbred races, doubling the total of second-leading rider J. Luis Torres. (She also had a number of winners in Quarter Horse races).

Her bosses at the law firm don't mind that she sometimes is an absentee lawyer.

"Are they understanding? To say yes would be an understatement," she said. "I couldn't have better bosses."

Black is winning in the minor leagues. With the introduction of Instant Racing Machines, purses have improved at Les Bois but there are still plenty of $3,000 races on every card. But plenty of top jockeys have started out at places like this and have moved on after dominating a meet. Hall of Famer Gary Stevens began his career at the same Les Bois Park.

If not a lawyer, Black might have moved on by now to try the next level, maybe at a place like Golden Gate Fields or Emerald Downs. If she did well there, who knows, maybe Santa Anita and Del Mar would be next. But she's not going anywhere.

"I have never really committed to race riding enough to see how far I could go," she said. "And I hope that someday I don't regret that decision."

Maybe she will. Maybe she won't. For now, she's found a mix that satisfies her competitive nature and her intellectual curiosity. Fourteen hour days or not, it keeps her happy.