In a sport in which all the attention is typically focused on a horse, as well as its jockey, trainer and owner, Nick Bush is getting noticed.
An exercise rider since age 13, the now 30-year-old Bush has been credited for helping Always Dreaming before his victory in the Kentucky Derby and now getting him ready for the 142nd Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
There is also the fact that Bush is African-American in a professional dominated by Latinos and women.
“You probably can count the number [of African-American exercise riders],” Bush said today after finishing his morning workout with Always Dreaming. “There’s more black guys coming out of Louisiana. I never rode down there, but as you see in California and Florida, you don’t see many of us. There’s a handful.”
It’s not surprising that Bush is working in horse racing, given the fact that he comes from a family where many of the men were grooms, dating to his great-grandfather. Bush, who has four sisters, used to follow his father after school and on weekends to the farm Norman Bush worked at in Kentucky.
While the younger Bush has worked out a long list of quality horses, it wasn’t until he started working with Pletcher a decade ago that the difference was noticeable. Bush said Always Dreaming reminds him of a few other Pletcher horses, including now 6-year-old Liam’s Map, who won six of eight career states, including the 2015 Woodward Stakes.
“Always Dreaming is right up there with Liam’s Map, because he’s a Derby winner,” Bush said. “He’s done nothing wrong since we had him. He won the Florida Derby pretty easy, he won the Kentucky Derby pretty convincingly.
"It's in in the way they move, a lot of times it’s personality. Some days you can’t tell. A horse will throw you off, you won’t think the horse is that good and they run in the afternoon really well.”
While exercising a horse is a lot less stressful and potentially dangerous than actual racing, Bush suffered a serious injury last summer when Squire Creek pulled up suddenly and Bush landed hard, breaking two vertebrae. He was sidelined for four months and the horse was destroyed.
“It was very tough, especially when you get so close to them,” Bush said.
At 135 pounds, Bush is bigger than a lot of exercise riders. Bush, who gave up playing football before high school because he weighed only 115 pounds, realized quickly that he was too big to be a jockey.
“I wish kind of that I was able to ride races. I wish I could have the natural weight to do it,” he said. “Some of these guys they struggle with their weight, they’re not going to be 100 percent. You want all your strength going out there.”
Pletcher, who is seeking his first Preakness victory, said Bush has played his part in the success of Always Dreaming.
The Monday before the Kentucky Derby, Pletcher replaced Adele Bellinger, considered one of the top exercise riders in the country, with Bush because he is heavier and stronger. Bush’s ability to ride with draw reins, used to keep a horse’s head down in workouts, also played a factor.
“I’ve always liked working with draw reins,” Bush said. “Not everyone can get along with horses with draw reins on. It’s difficult. I’m a little heavier than Adele, who was galloping him before. I’ve got a little more strength to hold the horse. Me being able to ride with the draw reins, helps Todd and helps the situation.”
Said Pletcher, “It’s been critical. When we made the change at Churchill [Downs], we needed to get get [the horse] under control, needed to get him slowed down a little bit. Nick was able to do that.”
Pletcher also credited Bush with helping him get a better read on the horse’s workouts.
"Nick’s a pretty optimistic guy, generally the feedback has been phenomenal, a lot of superlatives in the way he is training,” Pletcher said,
Bush is happy with the role he has played in the success of Always Dreaming, but doesn’t overstate his importance.
“It’s all teamwork,” he said. “I know I’m replaceable. They could probably find somebody else tomorrow.”