Stacey Zavala is a retired rider who used to ride in CA and Parx Racing and still works at Parx, as an ex-rider. Here is her story:
FOTH: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
SZ: I was born in Montebello, CA and grew up in Southern CA, near Santa Anita Racetrack.
FOTH: What sort of girl were you growing up?
SZ: I was pretty shy when I was young, which is a far cry from how I am now. I never had a lot of friends until I was later on in my teenage years. Since I was an only child my mother had me in every activity you can think of. When I found gymnastics at the age of 8, that it for me. I competed until the age of 16, along the way becoming state champion of my level (congrads on that-chris) with hopes of the Olympics in sight. When I was sidelined with my injury, I started to think about other things I had been wanting to do but were put on the back burner because of my rigorous gym schedule. I got into acting and did some musicals, a couple of commercials and found myself getting accustomed to the Hollywood lifestyle, so to speak. But even after everything, I never forgot my dream of being a jockey I had since I was 11 years old and my mom took me to the track for the first time. I remember being in high school and my school was so close to Santa Anita I could hear them calling the races. I would wish I could be there instead of sitting in my boring classroom.
FOTH: So then I assume you had a love for horses early on in life?
SZ: I did. I mean my mother would take me to the local stables, you know the ones where you could rent the horses by the hour. I lived for that. It was the highlight of my week. Even then I would jack the stirrups up as high as I could and pretend I was the next Julie Krone. People thought I was nuts.
FOTH: So what would you say you were like as a teenager?
SZ: I wish my mom was alive to answer this one. She’d probably have some stories, I’m sure. I don’t know. I mean I guess I was a bit of a “wild child” to say the least, but not in a bad way, if that’s possible. I never got into trouble or anything like that, but I can definitely say those were by far the most exciting years of my life. Growing up around the Los Angeles area, I was able to experience a lot of things that most teenagers don’t. I was the teenager (as are most) that could never stay home. I always had to be out and about doing something. Hanging out somewhere I probably shouldn’t have been. Then when I got pregnant with my oldest son (now 21) at the age of 19, my life changed. So we go from one chapter to the next.
FOTH: So how did you end up coming to the East Coast?
SZ: Well pretty much plain and simple, I met someone and he decided to leave California to ride in Kentucky. I decided to go with him. We traveled around many places over the next 10 years or so, but Pennsylvania was always one of my favorites, so that is where I decided to stay.
FOTH: Did you ever get to ride in Kentucky?
SZ: No, I never rode in Kentucky. We lived there way before I started riding, but I would have definitely loved to. It is an amazingly beautiful place.
FOTH: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to become a jockey, and did you have any idea on what you had to do to make it happen?
SZ: I was 11 years old when I knew I wanted to be a jockey. I knew it was going to be hard if not impossible because I didn't know anyone involved with horses. After I graduated high school, I took a job as a hot walker for Darryl Vienna and then later Jack Van Berg. I guess you could say the rest is history.
FOTH: So what was your first job on the racetrack?
SZ: It was a hot walker for Darrell Vienna and after that; I worked for Jack Van Burg. However, I can’t complain as those were some great trainers I had a chance to work for.
FOTH: So exactly, how did you end up at Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing)?
SZ: A guy named Ryan brought me here.
FOTH: So while you were riding at Parx Racing, do you think you were treated pretty fairly?
SZ: I don’t know if there’s a really a yes or no answer to that. Some trainers were very good to me and gave me some shots on some decent horses and others I would go on and get on horses for them every day, and they never gave me a shot, so it goes both ways. However, that’s not just me, every jock goes through that.
FOTH: Did you suffer any injuries while you were riding, and what was the worst one?
SZ: I had one significant injury, but it happened during morning training when a horse I was working broke down. I broke 7 ribs and punctured my lung.
FOTH: Ouch. How long did that keep you out?
SZ: I was in the hospital for 2 weeks and didn’t get back on a horse for several months. I actually didn’t really have any plans to ever gallop horses again, so I went to work for Trainer Chuck Simon as a hot walker/groom, but then the itch got me, and I started getting back on some horses for Chuck.
FOTH: So did you end up riding at some of the other area tracks like Laurel/Pimlicio, Penn National, Monmouth Park, Delaware Park, etc?
SZ: I would ride at Penn National quite a bit and Delaware Park from time to time.
FOTH: Did you have a favorite horse you ever rode?
SZ: Oh god yes. I rode him a few times in Arizona. His name is “Twomillthrill.” He was afraid of his own shadow in the mornings, but in the afternoon, he turned into a beast. Would run anywhere you wanted to: inside, outside, in between, and when you said “let’s go,” he knew. He was so push button. If I had to pick one from here at Parx, it would probably be “Lottery Luck” or “Pat Speedy” who gave me my first win.
FOTH: So what was it like galloping the horse back to the winner’s circle, and did the jockey’s get you good after the race?
SZ: It was probably the best feeling in the world after the birth of my children lol. They got my pretty good with cold water and baby powder and probably some other things I can’t remember.
FOTH: How did you deal with the cold when you were riding?
SZ: So being that I am from California, I don’t handle the cold that well, but honestly, when I would walk out for a race I had more important things on my mind than the cold, so as long as my hands could handle the cold and my face was covered, it didn’t bother me very much.
FOTH: Do you miss the West Coast very much?
SZ: Yes, I miss it a lot. So much that I contemplated going back a couple times in the last couple of years. But I do love it here and since I might be making a comeback, it’s best I stay here.
FOTH: Oh that is great. I’ll get to that in a minute, but what led to you retiring?
SZ: Well, I wasn’t really making a living riding. It had gotten to the point where I was galloping to make a living and riding here and there. So when I was injured in the morning accident that I mentioned earlier, I decided I had enough.
FOTH: So after you retired, I mean the first few months, did you miss riding much, or did you know you made the right decision?
SZ: I miss it to this day. Some days more than others. There are days that I kind of feel like I failed myself because it was always my dream. But I know I made the right decision not just for myself, but for my family.
FOTH: Now tell me about this possible comeback you spoke of earlier.
SZ: Well, I’ve had quite a few people ask me if I might go back to riding, so it’s kind of made me question it myself. It depends on if I can get my weight down and get back into shape. Only time and motivation will tell. (I hope you do Stacey-chris)
FOTH: If a young girl came up to you and said she wanted to become a jockey, what advice would you give to her?
SZ: Go for it! Live your dream.
FOTH: Stacey, thumbs up for doing this interview. I am glad I am finally getting an interview with you to post for my website as I know it is long overdue, and it’s all my fault. Any last words to wrap this up?
SZ: I just want to thank you very much for the interview. It was fun to do and for some more fun, maybe I’ll walk around outside on the streets and sidewalks barefoot around here for say an hour or so this summer. We will then take a photo of you kissing the bottoms of both my feet after I am done walking barefoot with you doing a thumbs up in the photo. We will ,absolutely post that on your Facebook page, footboy, for taking so long to interview me, he he!!! Let’s make this happen this summer ok!!! All kidding aside I want to say good luck to all those female jockeys out there. Be safe!