Jun 6 8:45 PM

A view of the Triple Crown from behind the paddock

Exercise rider Kelvin Pahal takes Wicked Strong for a morning workout at Churchill Downs.
Morry Gash / AP

ELMONT, N.Y. — Every morning at 5:30, Kelvin Pahal arrives at work. Rain or shine, hot or cold, he travels the five minutes from his home in Queens Village to the backstretch of Belmont Park, where for the next five hours he rides horses, preparing them to race.

The life of an exercise rider can be fairly routine, but this year has been anything but for Pahal. He rides Wicked Strong — at 6-1, the second choice in this year’s Belmont Stakes —who will try on Saturday to stop California Chrome from becoming the first winner of the Triple Crown in 36 years.

Largely invisible to the public, exercise riders are essential to thoroughbred racing. Jockeys seldom ride the horses outside of races — that would be akin to a Formula 1 driver picking up work as a cab driver. Pahal was a jockey once, in his native Trinidad, before the challenges of keeping his weight down made him give it up.

“I used to race ride in Trinidad and the Caribbean islands,” he said last weekend, shortly after finishing work for the day. “Dieting and taking Lasix were too much for me.”

Lasix, a brand name of the medication furosemide, is common on the backstretch. Nearly all horses are given furosemide ahead of races to lessen the pressure on blood vessels in their lungs and help prevent pulmonary bleeding. In humans, furosemide helps to control high blood pressure, and its diuretic effects can lead those who take it to take to shed water weight.

Exercise riders aren’t subject to the same stringent weight restrictions as jockeys, and for the past dozen years, Pahal has made his living riding horses for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. Pahal came to the United States at age 25, and after a short stint in another barn, he’s worked for Jerkens ever since.

“He saw me galloping a horse,” recounted Pahal, “and he told me to come over and start freelancing for him. Then he asked me if I needed a job, so I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”

Since then, he’s become a central figure in Jerkens’ training operation, riding many of the  “big horses,” as the stable stars are known at the track; two of them, Corinthian and Artie Schiller, won Breeders’ Cup races, the highest level in the sport.

Sometimes you just break down, you know?” Pahal said. “You feel the happiness, the work you do with them, when they win a race like that.”

Despite suffering broken collarbones and contusions, the result of falls from horses, Pahal says that he’s never afraid on horseback. At age 40, he hasn’t begun to consider what he’ll do when he can’t ride any longer.

His biggest concern now is preparing Wicked Strong for the Belmont.

“I want to beat California Chrome,” he said. “The way our horse is going, he’s going to run a big race.”

But even if Wicked Strong loses, Pahal will be back at the barn on Sunday morning and glad, he said, to be there.

 “I love riding horses. I’ll do this for a long time.”  


Animals, Labor

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter