By Margaret Ransom
For apprentice jockey Kody Kellenberger, this year’s Fair Grounds meeting is a bit of a case of finally finishing what he started.
Eight months ago, during the waning weeks of the 2019-2020 meet, the now 24-year-old was forced to abruptly end his fairly prosperous first season at the New Orleans oval early after one of his mounts stumbled badly after the wire, launching him onto the track and breaking his collarbone.
The injury also came at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the young rider, who had only started as a professional four months earlier, got his first taste of what is known as a relatively common jockey injury in the most of uncommon times.
“I was only out for about a month, but the meet was over for me,” Kellenberger said. “It was also the beginning of a really weird year for me overall for sure, what with the COVID pandemic and everything.”
Now Kellenberger is back at Fair Grounds after a successful stint at Louisiana Downs to the north, as well as a brief stop at Keeneland where he helped prepare a Breeders’ Cup winner. His eyes are firmly set on a big prize — cracking the top 10 in the rider standings and gaining momentum to establish a long-term career and reputation as a top jockey.
This year he will be represented by top agent Richard Price, who has managed the books for top names like Corey Lanerie, Miguel Mena, and Sophie Doyle. He’s also been working dozens of horses every morning.
An unlikely career
Kellenberger is a native of upstate New York, famously known for the summer racing season at Saratoga, but he wasn’t a horse racing insider. In fact, growing up he had little interaction with horses and knew nobody in the industry. But by his mid-teens, he had ventured into the world of reining horses and quickly realized his passion for them and decided to pursue a career that revolved around working with them. He was naturally small and light and hadn’t ever considered becoming a jockey mostly because he didn’t know any jockeys or people involved with horse racing.
“I knew I was interested in pursuing some kind of a career with horses,” Kellenberger said. “For a while I thought I’d do just that (reining horses), but my trainer and my dad thought I should look into a career as a jockey, so I did. And two weeks after I graduated high school I moved to Lexington to go to the (North American Racing Academy). I was only there a year, but I learned a lot and got a job from there on a farm breaking babies for (trainer) Kenny McPeek.”
Kellenberger also bounced around galloping at various tracks like Keeneland and Belterra and others in the Ohio Valley/Kentucky area before turning up in New York in mid-2019, where he started to exercise horses for trainer Mike Maker. Maker’s assistant is Nolan Ramsey, the grandson of Eclipse Award-wining owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey and also one of Kellenberger’s close friends. It was this connection that would help launch Kellenberger’s career as a jockey.
“Nolan (Ramsey) and Mike (Maker) agreed to help me get my license,” Kellenberger explained. “There was this amateur race at Parx and (Maker) had a horse for it (Hurricane Jake) so (Maker) wrote a letter to the stewards on my behalf so I could ride him. And I won.”
That victory on Sept. 22, 2019, began what would be a whirlwind yet somewhat bizarre year for Kellenberger. In addition to his first mount at Parx, he rode one race at Belmont Park before heading West for a handful of weeks at Turf Paradise.
“I always wanted to go out West and give it a shot,” Kellenberger said. “I figured Turf Paradise was a good spot to start and I knew a lot of good jockeys started there, so I gave it a try. And while I was there I did learn a lot.”
But by the end of 2019 he was in Louisiana and giving the tougher winter circuit stop of Fair Grounds a whirl. He started his actual “bug” on his birthday, Jan. 20, a day after winning his fifth career race and four more wins would follow before his collarbone injury, which happened literally as the country shut down due to the pandemic.
He returned to the saddle in mid-May at Churchill Downs for about a month, picked up a single mount at Thistledown and then packed his tack again and headed south for Louisiana Downs where he had a decent amount of success, winning 24 of 172 mounts which resulted in a 14% win rate. He was also in the money at a 40% clip.
His career record heading into the Fair Grounds opening-day card stands at an impressive 327-35-38-40 for earnings of $482,841, exceptional numbers for an apprentice who had one injury and who was challenged by track cancellations due to the pandemic.
A Breeders’ Cup opportunity
After Louisiana Downs closed and while deciding where to make his next move, Kellenberger received a call from an old friend with an opportunity he felt he couldn’t turn down. Mike Maker was sending Pilgrim Stakes (G3) winner Fire At Will to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G2) and the conditioner needed a rider he trusted to exercise the Declaration of War colt for a couple of days.
Sometimes there’s a stigma for jockeys who gallop, the industry dictating that most are either an exercise rider or a jockey but not both, though for this opportunity Kellenberger pushed it aside. After all, champion jockeys like Frankie Dettori frequently gallop their mounts heading into big races and he knew Maker would only send a legitimate contender, so participating in the colt’s preparation was an attractive option.
“I had actually planned to leave Lexington a few days before, but when I got the call from Nolan (Ramsey) asking me if I wanted to gallop a Breeders’ Cup horse for a couple of days I changed my plans,” Kellenberger explained. “And the first time I galloped Fire At Will I thought, ‘wow this horse is all class, he just does everything right.’”
Three Diamonds Farm’s Fire At Will surprised almost everyone with his 30-1 upset by three lengths under jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. on Future Stars Friday. Everyone, that is, except his connections and Kellenberger.
“I felt he was ready to go,” Kellenberger said. “But I was surprised nobody was noticing him. I mean, there were like 100-plus photographers out there every day and I don’t think most of them got his picture. He went in as an underdog even though he’d won his last two races (the Pilgrim and the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga) which was a surprise to me.
“I was definitely more surprised by his odds than I was his win.”
Back To work looking to fulfill a dream
Kellenberger has been back at Fair Grounds for a couple of weeks, working a lot of horses in the morning and building his business. Many of his mounts are from stables that have already used him and who he won for at Louisiana Downs, but he’s also been making headway and getting on some horses for trainers from the North who have strings in the Big Easy for the winter. And though his apprentice allowance is set to expire at the end of January, he and his agent are working to extend it until at least the end of the meet since he spent a couple months sidelined by injury and complicated COVID-19 testing procedures required to ride, plus frequently delayed results.
“I think because of time issues I’m out of the running for Eclipse Award (for apprentice jockey) consideration, which is fine,” Kellenberger said. “It was a really strange year last year and I won’t have a full year this year unfortunately. But I think overall I set realistic and attainable goals for myself and I take most things stride for stride. And I’d really like to finish this meet in the top ten in the standing and continue on with my career as a jockey for as long as my body allows me to.”
Currently Kellenberger can comfortably tack 111 pounds, which he feels is the lowest he can go and stay as physically strong as he is. He is set to ride, before scratches, five horses on the first three days of the meet and four on the fourth, some for some of the larger and more well-known operations, so business is certainly booming.
And though he once considered himself a better off-the-pace, closing-type rider Kellenberger has developed a knack and ability to get the most out of a horse on the front end, something that has served his time so far as an apprentice well. Overall Kellenberger says he’s working on becoming a strong all-around jockey, though he’s particularly proud of a few skills.
“I think I can get a horse out of the gate well,” Kellenberger said. “I’m actually pretty proud that horses break well for me. It’s definitely something I learned and worked hard on.”
A rider’s responsibility
One of the things Kellenberger is proud to say he’s most passionate about are the horses. He currently owns an OTTB named Elegant Expression or “Ellie”, a 10-year-old mare he adopted when she was three and who he now pays full board for. Though he’s been on the road for more than a year, Ellie is looked out for and regularly visited by his mother, who relocated to Kentucky herself from New York with Kellenberger’s father a few years ago.
“She lives the life,” Kellenberger explained. “I wanted to learn about the thoroughbred breed so I adopted her. And I will take care of her as long as she needs me to.”
And because of his relationship with Ellie and his budding career as a jockey Kellenberger believes that thoroughbred aftercare and awareness for OTTBs is an important issue that everyone involved in the game should take seriously.
“(Aftercare) is extremely important,” Kellenberger said. “I mean, we can’t do anything without the horses. I always thank the horses I ride and acknowledge them because I would not be doing this if it wasn’t for them or if I didn’t love the horses. I plan to always give back to them as a rider and someday, when I’m not riding races anymore and long after my career is over, I will continue to give back to the horses because it’s the right thing to do.
“We owe them at least that much.”