Borrowing a friend’s old jockey saddle, Jackie Acksel, a middle-aged mother of two, swung onto the back of the luckless racehorse and folded into traffic heading toward the starting gate at Delaware Park.
Ignoring the gentle ribbing of stewards yelling, “Don’t fall off!” the one-time jockey set her legs into an unnaturally cramped angle caused by leather that were too short, and piloted Smalltownman to the scene of his comeback.
It was August 2011 and just a month earlier, Smalltownman had put in a poor performance at Parx Racetrack in Pennsylvania. And as she watched from the sidelines as the 17.2 athlete failed to hit the board, Acksel knew he was better than what she was seeing that day; she decided to take matters into her own strong hands.
Sire: Sultry Song
Dam: Sistine Light
Foal date: March 19, 2006
Earnings: $258,722 The longtime exercise rider and former jockey, age 45 at the time, convinced Smalltownman’s connections to let her, a retiree of 15 years, return to the saddle and try piloting Smalltownman to victory.
A plan that at first blush must have seemed far-fetched soon gained ground as she argued her point: She knew the horse better than anybody; and when she exercised him on the track she got a great response. Convincing the connections at Nycoon Racing that after spending many hours in the animal’s company, grooming him, lavishing treats and attention on him, that she knew how he ticked.
Four weeks later, she was on her way.
When the gate flew open that August day, the pair got off to a solid start, but at the end, with her physical strength flagging, her legs wobbly and painful in the cramped position, the two only managed a respectable second place.
Still, it was a comeback. And from that point on, they went on to win approximately $200,000 together before he was claimed away in March 2013.
“I’ve won a lot of races in my life on horses that got claimed later. It never bothered me. But that day, the day Smalltown got claimed, I walked back to the jocks room, and I was crying,” she says. “He got claimed four times after we had him, and I always worried about whether he’d be OK.”
Feeling like she’d abandoned the animal who earned so much for her family and his owners, she doggedly pursued every new owner and made the same offer: if Smalltownman didn’t work out, for whatever reason, she’d buy him back.
Finally, last month, she got the call she’d been hoping for. His last owner agreed to sell him back for half of what he’d paid to buy him, and although he wasn’t actually worth that much, she willingly paid it.
“I went to see him at his barn so we could make arrangements for transportation, and as soon as I walked in he started hollering at me like he used to,” she says. “He started kissing me, and he remembered me, and everything I taught him, like how to bow.”
“Getting him back was the best thing,” Acksel says, noting that this horse had put food on their table, and gave her the courage to climb back in the jockey’s saddle. A feat that has earned him a permanent place in her family.