Royal Mo works out at Pimlico ahead of Preakness. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)
Taylor Leatherman wants to ride a Triple Crown winner one day. Her best mount has been a horse that will not run one Triple Crown leg. And still her few days' experience with a would-be Preakness contender last week could be among the most significant of her young racing career.
Thanks to a family connection and an accommodating younger sister, the 17-year-old from Union Bridge found herself as the exercise rider for the John Shirreffs-trained Royal Mo upon the colt's arrival at Pimlico Race Course. She now wishes she'd had more time with him: Royal Mo suffered a career-ending right front leg injury Sunday during a workout with jockey Gary Stevens.
"It was an amazing opportunity that I may never get again," she said Wednesday morning at Pimlico. "But it was awesome to ride a horse like that, even for the short time. I was really thankful for that."
After Royal Mo just barely missed the Kentucky Derby field, Shirreffs shipped him to Baltimore on May 9. Needing an exercise rider, he asked around. A mutual friend put him in touch with Faith Leatherman, who owns and operates Winding Creek Farm, a Union Bridge thoroughbred facility, and had two capable teenage daughters, Taylor and Brooke.
"We always try to be fair with each other. We don't want to hurt anybody's feelings," Taylor, the older sister, said last week. "She kind of was like, 'Well, I don't think I want that much pressure,' so I ended up being the one to get to gallop him."
She fell hard for Royal Mo. He was the most talented horse she'd ever ridden, and yet he behaved "like a big puppy." Her first few times aboard Royal Mo, she was nervous, and he seemed to sense her apprehension. Taylor said it was as if he instinctively resolved to help her: "OK, I'll take it easy on you."
The work she did, Shirreffs said, was "perfect."
"For somebody who hasn't had an opportunity to ride him very much and come in at this late stage, and with a horse as far along as he is," he said last week, before the injury, "she did a super job."
Shirreffs also helped, and more than Taylor or Faith expected. What he taught Taylor about the different ways to hold reins, she's already taken to every morning ride. The difference it's made in her riding, she said, is "huge."
It should all come in handy soon enough. Taylor, who along with Brooke is home-schooled, said she wants to start her "bug" — her first year of riding races at a sanctioned racetrack — once she feels ready, which won't be too long now.
A spot in the Preakness might be years away, but Taylor's never far from her dreams. Royal Mo, recovering from successful surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, won't be at Pimlico on Saturday, but the Leathermans will. Faith, a trainer, has a couple of horses she plans to enter in lower-profile races.
"We're not in any of the big stakes this weekend," she said Wednesday. Then she smiled. "Someday. Someday."