Ex-jock stands by her ‘comeback’ horse

Smalltownman is an even-tempered OTTB who is cared for by his former jockey Jackie Acksel. Here Acksel's daughter Ashley enjoys a moment with the family's pet.

Smalltownman is an even-tempered OTTB who is cared for by his former jockey Jackie Acksel. Here, Acksel’s daughter Ashley enjoys a moment with the family’s pet.

Six years after a middle-aged jockey came out of retirement to pilot a luckless racehorse on a comeback career that seemed impossible— naysayers claimed neither horse nor rider had it in them anymore— Jackie Acksel and the statuesque Thoroughbred Smalltownman still light up the racetrack.

The pair, who won $200,000 together before the horse was claimed away, have been inseparable since Acksel tracked down and claimed him back in September of 2013.

“Smalltown just really touched my heart, and is now part of my family,” says Acksel, who works as a race trainer in New Jersey and Florida. And wherever her career might take her, there’s always an extra stall made ready for the strikingly pretty horse who long ago stole her affection.

“I tried putting him on a farm for about six months” while she traveled the racing circuit, “but it didn’t work out. I didn’t think he seemed happy, so I decided to take him with me so I can keep a better eye on him. We move around. He went to Delaware with me for the summer and now he’s at the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida.”

And with every stop he melts hearts and wins friends.

On the racetracks, admirers visit and play with the affectionate horse, and Acksel’s daughters and family friends ride him. Some have offered to buy him.

Sire: Sultry Song
Dam: Sistine Light
Foal date: March 19, 2006
Earnings: $258,722
And while he is not for sale, Acksel says she hopes to have the time and funds to show him one day. But in the meantime, she is teaching him to pony racehorses. “I’ve been training a horse named Unbridled Copy, and I rode Smalltown around the track to keep the horse company,” she says. “Smalltown thought he was going to race again and started to get aggressive, like he was going to run again. I had to tell him he’s not a racehorse anymore.”

But in their heyday, the two were something to see!

The once top-ranked female jockey from Brazil, who’d been retired for 16 years and worked as a trainer, surprised everyone when in 2011 she asked to ride a race on Smalltownman.

The longtime exercise rider who had befriended the horse was dismayed when she watched him lose badly at the Parx Racetrack one summer afternoon.

Jackie Acksel, after failing to convince Smalltownman to ride into the water, hops off to show him the way.

Jackie Acksel, after failing to convince Smalltownman to ride into the water, hops off to show him the way.

But after convincing Smalltown’s owners to give her a shot, and withstanding the jokes from stewards yelling, ‘Don’t fall off!’ Acksel and Smalltownman went on to win race after race in a storybook outcome she says should be immortalized in a movie or book.

“Smalltown’s story and mine is one of survival and hope,” says the native Brazilian who forged a special bond with the animal after weathering her own personal storms, including a dangerous pregnancy with her twin daughters. “When I was pregnant with my daughters, the doctors said I was too petite to carry twins. I spent the last two months in the hospital and today have two beautiful 19-year-old daughters.”

That experience taught her to believe in herself, despite the odds, and to appreciate the gifts in life.

While racing Smalltownman more successfully than any other jockey, she spent many hours coddling him, feeding him treats and teaching him tricks. And after he was claimed away, she reached out to each subsequent owner to offer to buy the horse back. (Please see earlier story here: http://offtrackthoroughbreds.com/2013/10/17/she-wins-200k-on-beloved-tbred-later-buys-him/).

Finally, in September 2013, Acksel got the call she’d been waiting for. She was welcomed to come buy the horse. And ever since then, the pair has been inseparable.

“I fell in love with him,” she says simply.

5 responses to “Ex-jock stands by her ‘comeback’ horse”

  1. Jackie Acksel

    I want to thank Smalltownman’s
    Ron Occhino and
    Chris ATHANASOPOULOS for helping buy our boy back ! What great owners and Smalltownman paid Ron back by fulfilling a life long dream ! A year later he galloped Smalltownman around the racetrack !
    And thanks for everyone for all the nice comments !

  2. Billye

    Love these kind of stories! What a wonderful lady, as horseman…yes we absolutely agree!! ????

  3. Maureen McKenzie

    Here’s a little video of my love story — brought Ray’s Storm home in September, 2013: https://www.dropbox.com/s/h5qawuf47xzg7yu/Ray%27s%20Storm%3AFinal%20Draft%20%281%29.mp4?dl=0

  4. Always Nell

    “I fell in love with him,” she says simply.

    Please raise your hand if you understand completely.

  5. colmel

    Thank you so very much, Susan, for following up on this story. It definitely should be made into a movie! I’m glad to hear that she his taking her sweet boy with her when she is training. One of the biggest money-earning horses in recent history, Perfect Drift, won $4,714,213 while racing. Since then, he’s become a pony at Churchill (Chrome’s pony in 2014 and Firing Line in 2015). It shows how wonderful OTTBs can be and Smalltownman’s great personality makes for a terrific ambassador.

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