By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
May 17, 2014
It was the last leg of a practice run at Pimlico, and as jockey Andrea Seefeldt Knight came to the end of a spirited gallop, she pulled her colt up short.
It was a sunny April day. She felt readier than ever for the Lady Legends of the Cure race, which benefits breast cancer research, on Preakness weekend. And she found herself bursting into tears.
Her friend and mentor, the celebrated trainer Richard W. "Dickie" Small, had died two days earlier, and it was just hitting her that she'd never see him again.
Knight, 51, isn't the only one missing Small this 139th Preakness weekend. With his king-sized personality, familiar bow tie and fedora, and nearly $39 million in career earnings, he was long a fixture on the Maryland circuit.
But Small, who died of cancer April 4 at age 68, had a special reputation as a backer of female talent in a testosterone-driven sport, and with Pimlico using this weekend to celebrate women and racing, his absence seems even more poignant.
On Friday, Knight won the Lady Legends race, which stars retired female jockeys in a nod to those who blazed a trail.
"This has always been a male-dominated sport, from owners all the way down to hot walkers, but if there was ever a girl that came by who wanted a shot, he gave it to them," said Forest Boyce, a fast-rising female rider. "It has been a tough spring without Dickie. We lost a legend."
Small was born in Baltimore in 1945, the son of trainer Doug Small and the nephew of Sidney Watters Jr., a member of the Racing Hall of Fame.
After graduating from Gilman, he served in Vietnam as a Special Forces soldier. Some called his military background a key to his efficient administration of Barn L at Pimlico, the shop he inherited from his father.
When it came to horses, though, Small was part old-school, part eccentric. If a filly needed training in winter, he'd run it in the snow. When he learned the quirky-yet-powerful Broad Brush liked riding in vans, he took the colt for rides on the Beltway before races.
"There was nothing cookie-cutter about Dickie's work," said Maryland breeder Tom Bowman, a longtime friend. "He was half John Wayne, half horse whisperer."
Friends say he never set out to be a champion of women. Small just came to the conclusion that many women had a gift for channeling a horse's energy.
"He believed [women] ride horses as kids because they love them, so [when they're older] they don't fight with them as much," Knight recalled. "He felt girls got along better with horses than the men and got better 'run' out of them."
At a time when few owners even considered female riders, he put the theory into action. In the late 1980s, a trusted friend told him about Knight (her last name was then Seefeldt), a jockey of little renown who had nerve, the friend said.
Small hired her, had her take the horses on unusually long gallops, and influenced owners to get her into the saddle when male jockeys weren't available.
When she raced, Knight said, "his approach was different. He'd let me go ahead and ride the horse, use my natural instincts rather than [giving] a lot of instructions that might be hard to follow. Let them race the way they wanted to race. His instructions were basically, 'See what happens.' "
Seefeldt won 120 races for Small over five years, finishing first a jaw-dropping 20 percent of the time. She became the first female winner of the Pennsylvania Derby and just the third to race in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
"He didn't start my career, but he jump-started it," said Knight, who won 604 races and nearly $8 million in purses before retiring as a competitive rider in 1994.
Small hired a shy but determined Rosie Napravnik, then 16, as an exercise rider at Pimlico in 2004, and unbeknown to the future phenom, set about schooling her as a jockey in the sort of mindfully chosen steps he might lay out in training a thoroughbred.
He started her out with foals in April, having her walk, then jog, then gallop them as they learned and got stronger together. As he and his protege walked horses, he spun yarns about jockeys he liked, others he didn't.
After several months, he said, "I think it's time for you to start [competitive] riding," she recalled. "I was like, 'I am?' I couldn't believe he'd become as gung-ho as I was."
When she was 17, in June 2005, he finagled to get her onto Ringofdiamonds, a mount at Pimlico. She won and never looked back. Now 26, she's one of the best and most celebrated jockeys in North America and a winner of more than $63 million in purses.
With Boyce, Small used tough love. When she started as a rider at Pimlico, she said, she hadn't quite outgrown her youthful partying ways.
Every time she showed up late, he'd berate her in front of the whole barn. If the effects of a late night lingered, he'd put her on the roughest horses that day.
"He absolutely tortured me, and I'm sure he was chuckling inside," said Boyce, who has gone on to win 47 races and more than $11 million in purses in a five-year career. "He knew how to get his point across."
Small, a man who trained at least one stakes winner in all but one of his 40 years in the business, never claimed credit for his proteges' successes, Bowman said, though he quietly reveled in them.
That included the moment last year when the twice-divorced Small, who had no children, was in the hospital for treatment and Napravnik won a major race.
"I was with him, and I turned around and he had tears in his eyes," Bowman said. "He couldn't have been more proud of that girl if she was his own daughter."
Pimlico dubbed Friday the "Ultimate Girls' Day Out," using the common parlance for women at the track. The day featured the 90th running of the Black-Eyed Susan race for fillies, a lineup of vendors owned and operated by women, and speakers from the Susan G. Komen cancer foundation.
Infield vendor fees also went to Suited to Succeed, a local nonprofit that backs low-income women entering business, and for the first time, Saturday's main race features a female jockey (Napravnik), a female trainer (Linda Rice) and a filly (Ria Antonia).
Napravnik, third on the North American leader board in earnings for 2014, feels she has a "good shot" at upending Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome aboard Bayern, an outcome that would make her the first female rider to win the Preakness.
But for the first time since 1974, the man who got her started won't be there.
She and other legends will mourn Small today, but not in a maudlin way. That, Knight said, would diminish what he believed in most.
"Will I be thinking of Dickie?" she asked. "Probably not. My hands are going to be full just trying to stay on the racehorse. I can't think of him without crying, and my goodness, he'd never want that."
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