James E. Avant is probably the most internet savvy of all jockeys. Regularily posting messages on our board, he encourages everyone to participate and is always providing kind advice to the youngsters who want to get into the sport.
Born on Dec.7th, 1963 and being Louisiana-bred makes him a colleague of Randy Romero, Delahoussaye, Desormeaux, Guidry, Melancon, Bourque and Shane Sellers amongst others. James is 5ft 2" and tacks at 110 lbs.
James entered the sport "lateish" at the age of 18. Since then he has booted home 2,500+ winners, notching up 7 riding titles at Delta Downs and 5 at Evangeline Downs.
At Evangeline, he shares the notable record with Curt Bourque of having ridden 6 winners on the same card, in 1988 & 1995.
James recovered from a major accident that he had when an articulated lorry ran him over when he was riding his Harley Davidson. His injuries were horrific and took him a while to overcome. Nevertheless, James made a full-scale come back in the summer of 2003 and was soon boooting home the winners.
The following is a direct account by James of how he got into racing, self-analysis of his riding style, tips on how to ride, comments about his favourite horses, his beloved motorbike, etc. Thanks James for providing your very valuable & personal insight.
"How I got into racing"
"I got into racing quite by accident. In 1982, I was attending North Western State University on a rodeo scholarship, when I met trainer, David Cummings (pictured with family right), who had a farm in Bossier City, Louisiana.
Actually, I had known him for quite some time but had no idea he was a trainer. He came up to me one night and asked me if I would like a job breaking yearlings for him.
I told him that I needed to think about it because I didn't need it to interfere with my school studies. And with that, he invited me for a tour of his farm the following weekend. Well, I went up with some buddies of mine and he showed us the place.
He even let me gallop a few pony horses around the track. (Now I must add, I had never even seen an excercise saddle, much less sit on one)! Well, a fire must have been lit.
The following weekend, I again met him for a trip to the race track. My first ever. Louisiana Downs. And to make a long story short, 3 wks later, at the end of the semester, I quit school and went to work for him.
I've never worked for anyone besides him except for when I got my jocks license and now, I work for myself.
I rode my first race for him. Won my first 4 races for him! And even till this day, if I have a problem and I need to talk to someone about it, I call Dave!
He's my friend. As is his entire family! I've known those two boys with the caps on since they could barely walk. And now they're both electrical engineers. I'm almost as proud of them as mom and dad are! Dave has the hat on and mom, Linda, stands beside him. My celebration for winning this race is due to the fact I haven't won (or really rode) a race for David in probably 15yrs! We were all happy that day. He even took me to dinner that night! "
Mother finds out !
"Oh, it wasn't until a month later that my mom discovered I had failed to re-enroll for the next semester! She thought I was away at some rodeos! Boy was she MAD!
I had made my sister lie for me! Then she began to feel so bad about it, sister called mom and told her I had quit school. Well, not really quit, just didn't come back.
Anyway, I was thinking that I was gonna get to gallop horses and that was gonna be it! Boy what a surprise when I found out I had to clean stalls, groom horses, build fences, dig ditches, blah, blah, blah,........blah, blah, blah! You name it, I did it!
BUT, my friend never went back on his word to teach me to gallop. And that's what I wanted. Since my first trip to the track, meeting the jockeys, the horses, the excitement, the awe, the glamour, the adrenaline, the everything about it!, I was hooked! And I still am. 21 years later. It's in my life, it's in my soul, it's in my blood and most importantly,....it's in my heart!
Being a jockey is who I am. It's what I am. And I would not trade it for anything."
The busy apprentice days
" I ventured up to the upper mid-west several years back and what happened to all my pictures I'll never know! I found this picture the other day, and I'm like, GEEZ,.....I look like a kid! Actually, I was! Just surprised me to see myself looking that young on a horse...ja, ja, ja ! I had a lot of fun in Chicago! "
We had four tracks to ride at: Sportsman's Park, Hawthorne Park, Balmoral Park (no longer a race track) and Arlington Park. For many months of the year, two tracks would be running at the same time -- one during the day and one at night, 7 days a week ! Talk about some tired little jockeys!
That was the "good ole days", I've settled down since then."
"The only time I wasn't riding full time was for about a year in 1996. That was due to a knee injury after a horse fell with me at Evangeline. It resulted in a complete knee construction -- tendons included ! I had to spend 15 months on rebuilding my knee. Other than that, I've had a good career.
Presently, I'm not riding due to a motorcycle accident. But there's not a day that goes by without thinking of my next win. Or for that matter, my next mount! Hopefully, if all goes well, I'll be back again by mid-summer. And I can hardly wait! "
"Although I've been to a few different tracks to ride, Louisiana is home for me. I ride at Delta Downs, Evangeline Downs, La. Downs and the Fair Grounds.
Now, I know that Delta and Evangeline are not the most extravegant tracks in the world, but the races are tough and the riders are even tougher! Louisiana has produced some of the best riders in the world! Randy Romero, Craig Perret, Eddie Delahousse, Kent Desormeaux, Shane Sellers and Robby Albarado just to name a few! .......oh, and let's not forget,....uhh,.....James Avant!
Anyway, moving right along, I've been leading rider 7 times at Delta, (more times than anyone) "Come on me! " and, more races won and 5 times at Evangeline. And when I wasn't leading rider, I've always been lucky enough to be at least 2nd or 3rd.
For me to say anything other than I've been truly blessed, would be quite the understatement! So, now that the hard part is over, let's move along with some more pics."
"I'm 5'2 and normally tack around 110-112 lbs....depending on the time of year ! My stripped weight is 105.
My riding weight is normally 110 or 111 due to the fact that I really don't like riding my small saddle unless it's a stake race or something big.
I suppose that I could get down to ride at 108 or 109. But what's 1or 2lbs for a horse that can run anyway....(my opinion anyway) But all trainers don't see it that way! Anyway, I'd rather be strong than not over-weight!
Normally in winter, while drinking more hot chocolate and coffee, I usually get up to 111 or 112. I'm pretty lucky as far as that goes! I'm naturally small and have never had weight problems.
But on the other hand, I have some very dear friends of mine for whom weight is a constant battle. Every day! And I really feel for them.
Besides, when dieting and hitting the hotbox becomes a constant routine, sometimes it can make a normally pretty cool guy, kinda grouchy.
Riding and Riding Style
"Well, I guess I've always had that style of riding -- straight back. It just feel the most comfortable to me. And so does the 'riding high' style! I know Nick,.........I seem to be a little high on some of my horses!
The only thing I really ever hear about it is from jocks in the room that may make a comment of something like, "how can you ride so high sometimes and still beat me to the wire?"
Well, like I tell them, (and I truly believe this), It don't matter how you look on a horse, as long as your horse is comfortable, and you are too!
I know some jocks who only worry about how they look on the horse.
I also have a huge tendency to use my whip on the shoulder before being forced to go to the rear end -- unless it's a horse that I feel is just playing around or just half way trying to be a contender!
Then I'll get into him with commitment, just to let him know that I'm serious about this 'try your hardest' thing!
I normally win around 125 to 150 races a year. And that's not too bad considering I have about 6 weeks off between meets -- divided almost equally between 3 different meets)."
Using the Whip
"And before I forget (again)! I had mentioned to Nick that I have a tendency to use my stick on the horses front shoulder before I go to the back end. And let me explain why I said that.
I believe, and this is strictly "my own opinion", that sometimes when you hit a horse on the rump, especially when a jockey just 'pounds' on it really hard, some horses will have a tendency to 'tuck' in its butt in order to avoid getting a spanking! I have found that fillies and mares to this more often than colts or geldings!
I think it may have to do with the fact that by nature, fillies and mares (girls), are more tender than colts or geldings (boys)! Just like in real life --and no offence to any of you hard working, 'tougher than nails' girls! - this is just a fact of life. Oh, and when a horse 'tucks' his rear in, it prohibits them from making full strides, as far as it possibly can, whilst running. (Hope that didn't confuse ya to much)! "
Riding on the track
"Another really hard horse to ride! This mare lugged in so bad!! And for those who are not aware of what that is, it's when a horse wants to go to the inside. Down to the rail.
This can become quite scary if there happens to be other horses between you and the rail! Lugging in (getting in) can be caused by a few factors. Normally, it's because the horse may have some leg problems in one of the front legs.
If the horse gets in, the problem is usually in the right front leg. By trying to take pressure off the sore leg, the horse will try and use the 'good' leg more. Thus, by using the good leg more, it will tend to run in that direction.
Right leg sore, horse runs left. (Lugs in). Left leg sore, horse runs right. (Lugs out). But that's not always the problem! Some horses lug in or out because while they were being broken-in to run, they were always galloped on the rail, or on the outside of the track. Therefore, they simply run where they have been trained to run!
That's not their fault! Fault for that goes to either the gallop boys/girls who broke the horse or to the jockey who would always work the horse on the fence! My way of handling that was to work it on the fence one time and the next time, off the fence.
Many times, I've worked young horses in the middle of the track. It just lets them know, that being on the rail is not the only way to get to the wire. Anyway, a lot of times,.........someone is already on the fence! "
You can tell this mare is lugging in by the way I have her head turned out in an attempt to keep her from hitting the fence with me! I wanta go right, and she wants to go left! It may appear as if I'm pulling straight back with my right hand but actually, I'm pulling out to the right, trying to get leverage on her mouth. (Control the head, you control the horse)! most times! "
Riding on grass vs dirt
"I've always liked riding the grass. It's softer, quieter , (no 'thundering of the hooves like in dirt races) and grass don't hurt the face like dirt does!
Yes, dirt at 35-40mph,....does hurt! Especially if it's frozen! I only ventured over to Texas for only one season. (which is where these photos were taken. I had fun and won a lot of races. And me and those cowboy trainers and Mexican grooms got along just fine! "
"I knew all about being a cowboy and even knew the 'lingo'! This is how I would sound speaking to a trainer that I would be riding a horse for later during the day and of course in that long West Texas drawl of a cowboy accent.
"How ya'll folks getting along this moaning!? Show looking like a mighty fine day for horse racing now don't it!? I reckon we just might as well go on and win us one today huh, Boss!?And don't get me wrong! All of this, I was completely sincere about.
Whether it be at Keenland, at more' high', 'uppity class' track, and a trainer would look at ya funny for refering to him as "boss"! (Like some hillbilly that's never been to town) Well, that's when you must adapt to your surrounding! Like they say, "while in Rome, do as the Romans"!
Sometimes though when I'm talking to an owner that wants to be all proper and use words that are 10 miles long in front of the grooms. Other people that may not know the meaning of some of the 'way out of context' language. I'll sometimes try to start a conversation with him on the latest plight of the Palestineans or yesterday's crash of the Japanese Yen!
You should see some of them! They are like,...."HUH"!? Then I say, "well hey, we'll talk some more later, I gotta get on this horse real quick"! The whole time I'm thinking, as I walk away, "I hope you feel just as stupid as you just made that groom feel ! "
My 2,000th win !
"And of course, this was one of my proudest moments. Actually, it looks as if I'm celebrating the 2k mark, but the reality is, I had no idea ! I was simply celebrating my 4th win of the night ! It was only when I got back to the winners circle that jockeys started coming out of the room!
I'm like, what chall doing? And then management came down with that big old sign and a trophy. I still didn't catch on! I really and truly had no idea I was even close. I had never thought about it. I never have kept up with numbers like that.
Doesn't really matter to me. Just let me ride, and I'll try to win as many as possible! Like all jockeys! I figure, when I'm done riding, then I'll count races! Thinking about trying to win one more, or two more, or "oh, 5 more to go", that can sometimes add stress. And jockeys have enough of that already. Anyway, if it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen!"
Oh, and that little girl beside me sticking her tongue out -- that's my daughter Candice. She was 8 then. She gets mad at me every time I show this picture to her! I'm like, don't get mad at me, I'm not the one that stuck my tongue out"! She's a trip!
The girl holding the other end of the sign is my oldest daughter, Brandi. She keeps me and Candice in line and we really couldn't do it without her.
Oh, and that girl jock on the end, that's Jerri Nichols. Her picture sometimes comes up on the home page here."
The Winner's Circle
"And one other thing. You'll notice that in each picture, I have my left hand on the horses neck! Well that's not just a 'pose' for the picture. From my very first win, till my last one. It's something that I've always done. And like I said, it's not for my benefit, It's strictly done in order to show my winning horse, the respect it deserves! Sort of like a touch of gratitude!
I often go back, from time to time, and look at old win pictures. And this "bio-pictorial" endeavor has most definitely given me ample time to reminisce once again. And that makes me happy. Normally when a jock wins a race, the owner will give the jock and the trainer a copy of the picture.
And my outlook on these pictures that I have collected; (that have literally frozen in time parts of my life). The money may come, and the money may go,....but my win pictures will always allow me to remember who I was and what I am ! A jockey! And that.........makes me very happy! "
James can be contacted via e-mail on javantak at cox dot net