Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Making papa proud

Cunningham followed in father's footsteps, but now making a name for himself in the irons

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No fear. And a proud dad was there to see it.

When Go Go Lolo turned for home on Wednesday night in the Winnipeg Sun Stakes, she saw daylight and that was it. The race was over.

Trapped on the rail for most of the race, jockey Travis Cunningham deftly guided the six-year-old mare between horses on the final turn and smoothly swung outside for the drive. All at top speed. Poetry in motion.

Confidence. Cunningham had it. His mount felt it. And that was all she needed. Go Go Lolo powered up to multiple stakes-winning filly Portales after passing the eighth pole and turned on the jets to win by 43/4 lengths.

"She likes daylight," said Cunningham.

She also likes her jockey.

Thoroughbreds are sensitive animals. They sense what their handlers are feeling and respond in kind, which also happens to be one of the primary reasons so many people fall in love with horses.

Cunningham is new to the local jocks' room this year. He is not new to horses. The 26-year-old from Albion, Idaho grew up on a ranch with his father, Von, and learned how to ride on a couple of roping horses his father bought for him. He rode his first horse at the age of six and started galloping horses at the age of 15 at SunRay Park in Farmington, New Mexico.

"He was going to quit school," said Von, a former stakes-winning jockey and trainer. "And he couldn't gallop horses worth a damn. I didn't want him going out there and looking like a muck sack, so I went down there with him. I figured he would last two weeks. I took him out with the pony and stayed out there to pick him up, just in case the horses got away on him. A few weeks later he said, 'Dad, I've got this'. And that was it."

Dad passed on what he knew from his own jockey career that included 595 wins from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, and Travis was also ably assisted by Sunland Park jockey agent Raye Ann Holland. He also got a few early lessons at Sunland Park from Chip Woolley, trainer of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird.

"Chip galloped his own horses," said Travis. "He took me to the gate for the first time and showed me how to take a hold, how to get out of there. The horse flipped and threw me off the first time I tried. But I got right back on and it worked out."

Travis rode his first race in 2006 and went on to win 75 races and $1,190,975 in an apprentice year that also included a victory in the $200,000 New Mexico Cup Classic aboard Rocky Gulch. He continued his riding career at Remington Park, Sunland Park and Will Rogers Downs, winning over 300 races before venturing north to Assiniboia Downs this spring.

A rider, rancher and trainer while his son was growing up, Von flew in from Washington to see his son in action on Wednesday evening. He'd been watching him ride every day online and finally decided to make the trip.

"We're very close," said Travis, who talks daily with his father on the phone, with Von offering pointers about riding strategy and style. His suggestions are obviously working.


"Someone once told me a horse can run three-eighths of a mile," said Von, "and you can use that on the front end or the back end. You win a lot more races on the back end."

Additional advice from Von included getting to the rail on the turn, taking a 99 (hold) and waiting until the stretch to make your move. Not complicated, and similar to Travis' upbringing.

"Steak, potatoes and baked beans," said Von, who summed up raising Travis on his own. "That's what we ate. I couldn't cook. The first time I made macaroni and cheese I forgot to drain the water off and... I told him to take home-ec in school so he could learn how to cook."

The latter skill may come in handy very shortly, as Travis and his fiancée, Cristi, are expecting a son on Oct. 27. You get the feeling their union will be a lasting one, as will Travis' relationship with the Downs. Currently fifth in the standings with a record of 12-24-17 from 116 mounts, he is also fifth in purse earnings with $158,686, and he's starting to catch on locally.

"It's more dog-eat-dog at Sunland and Remington," said Travis. "People are more laid back here. They've treated me really good. Baby needs new shoes."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 25, 2014 C5

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