Czech immigrant focuses on horses in pursuit of happiness

by: COURTESY OF ARLYN MALDONADO - Growing up in the Czech Republic, Eliska Kubinova spent time around horses, and then her mother came up with the idea of being a jockey.Eliska Kubinova is living the American Dream, which, for her, means riding racehorses for a living.

Being a jockey was “not my plan,” but the 25-year-old from the Czech Republic is a good one. Kubinova captured the riding title at Portland Meadows, which capped its 49-day live racing season on Sunday, Jan. 26.

She led all jockeys in victories (55) and earnings (about $270,000).

“I like winning the most,” she says.

Kubinova notes that her male competitors “take it hard if a girl beats them.”

That also was the case in 2013 at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash., where she claimed 55 wins and $500,000 in earnings and placed third in the jockey standings.

About 16 percent of licensed jockeys in America are women. It wasn’t Kubinova’s intent to be one of them.

Kubinova had been involved with horses since age 5, when she started participating in “Voltige” — a combination of gymnastics and acrobatics on horseback.

“My mom came up with the idea of jockey school,” she says.

Her training for that began at age 10. She raced a little (15 events) in Europe and then came to the United States about five years ago as an exchange student at Syracuse University. While in upstate New York and, after moving to Bellevue, Wash., in another exchange program, she also worked as a nanny. But she didn’t like babysitting.

She was kicking around at Emerald Downs during the 2011 season, begging trainers to let her exercise and ride horses. She finally got a break after meeting trainer Doris Harwood, a former jockey who saw her potential.

Kubinova’s first win in the states came at Emerald Downs in September 2011 on a 26-1 long shot.

In the Czech Republic, she had raced exclusively on grass and at greater distances than in the U.S. But she adapted easily to track conditions here, where most tracks are dirt.

The highlight of her career remains a 2012 come-from-behind victory at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., riding Valeria, a horse owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, who also owned Zenyatta, the 2010 U.S. horse of the year.

Kubinova was allowed to wear the Zenyatta colors during her race. The trainer told her the 5-year-old mare might be a little slow early because she gets nervous. “I just tried to calm her down and make a run,” Kubinova says. “Once I found room, I was confident.”

At 5-3 and 110 pounds, Kubinova is typical jockey size and aware of the dangers of traveling up to 40 mph in heavy traffic.

“I try to not think about it or worry about it,” she says.

She has taken falls, but feels lucky. “I’ve never broke a bone in my body; I’ve only had a tiny crack in my back,” she says.

Veteran Portland Meadows jockey Deb Hoonan also knows the risks and recently had shoulder surgery. She and Kubinova have developed a close friendship, and Hoonan has helped to mentor the younger jockey.

by: COURTESY OF ARLYN MALDONADO - Eliska Kubinova leads her horse down the stretch to the finish line on a muddy day during the recently ended Portland Meadows season.“It seems like Deb has been around forever,” Kubinova says. “She tells me if I am doing something wrong, and I can ask her anything.”

Kubinova understands all the details of the complex racing forms, and looks closely at her competitors’ records to make a plan for each race.

“But once the gate opens, anything can happen,” she says. “I watch everybody. Sometimes, the horse ahead of you is the one that you didn’t expect. Then you have to change your strategy.

“And the track changes depending on the weather. If it’s sloppy, we get through it. We all have the same conditions.”

Different horses like different conditions. “If you are comfortable and confident, then the horse will feel that way, too,” Kubinova says.

She finds it difficult to carve out time for hobbies. “I end up focusing everything on racing horses,” she says. She does enjoy snowboarding, although it has been a year since she’s been on the slopes.

When time allows, she reads a book or goes to the movies. She also has taken yoga classes and jogs to stay fit for racing. Kubinova developed dance skills (including acrobatic rock ‘n’ roll) at an early age and maintains an interest in dance.

by: COURTESY OF ARLYN MALDONADO - Eliska Kubinova, 25, wound up in the winners circle at Portland Meadows 55 times this season, more often than any other jockey.She has been engaged to fellow Portland Meadows rider Jorge Rosales for three years.

“I guess he fell in love the first time he saw me,” she says. “Then he chased me. He came home with a ring and asked me.”

A wedding date has not been set. Rosales is from Mexico and has raced at Santa Anita and Emerald Downs.

“He’s more patient than me in everything,” she says.

She’ll return to Emerald Downs when it opens a 75-day season in April. Kubinova is realistic about her goals. “I’ll ride as long as I am healthy and can do it,” she says. “I want to learn as much as I can and do as well as I can.”

Other possible goals: returning to college and owning a small business.

Kubinova likes living in the United States, and having a fifth wheel trailer helps the challenge of moving from track to track.

“There are a lot of possibilities here,” she says. “You can do what you want.”

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