Along shed row at Assiniboia Downs, their peers refer to them as bug boys and/or girls. They're apprentice jockeys and they're at the bottom of the pecking order.
To gain a foothold at the track, they often have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for horses that no one else wants to ride. If they don't win, the rides get fewer and fewer.
There is, however, a light at the end of that tunnel; the great Willie Shoemaker was once himself a bug boy.
The title bug doesn't have anything to do with insects. Rather, at one time the Daily Racing Form used to print a "bug" (or asterisk) next to the weight assignments of these rookies of thoroughbred horse racing. The more asterisks, the less experience and winners an apprentice had.
The leading bug boy so far is Jamaican Chavion Chow. He picked up his first win on May 16, riding Shrike's Coin five furlongs ahead of Evrybodycutfootlos (Larren Delorme) and Mr. February (Alan Cuthbertson). Since then, Chow has added four more wins, and has earned his first stakes-race mount this weekend. He'll be on mean-looking gelding Rage Till Dawn in Saturday's $30,000 Free Press Stakes.
On Wednesday night, apprentice Alyssa Harder of Stephenfield was dancing on air after bringing home her first win in the 5 1/2 furlong sixth race aboard a chestnut mare named Sun Streaked. Along the way she beat out some pretty impressive competition in Top Rockette with Renaldo Cumberbatch on board and Dance Vision, ridden by three-time Downs leading jockey Cuthbertson.
"I had a lot of horse all the way," said Harder. "It was pretty easy. She took me there, the whole way. I had worked her in the morning, and she felt like she would do it. This feels really good. Kind of a relief."
Christopher Fung, also a Jamaican, shed his maiden May 27 when he rode Flying Helmsman to victory over 5 1/2 furlongs. Like Harder, Fung did it in style, out-duelling Silent Victory (Cuthbertson), and then held off second-place finisher Tony's Lil Polly (Clint Magera), and Utmost (Carlos Marquez).
"It was amazing," said Fung. "I knew the horse that Alan (Cuthbertson) was riding, because I used to gallop her last year. She (Flying Helmsman) went right in front, so I took a quick look and there was Alan, so I said OK, I am going to sit with him. Anywhere he goes, I will be right there with him. Coming to the 3/8ths point, I see him make a move, and I say OK, I am making a move as well, and I managed to win the race."
Chow maintains that like anything else, hard work, determination and networking are major tools to getting rides when you are an unknown.
"I came here in early March, worked hard and galloped a lot of horses, like 18 a day. What the trainers like to see, though, is for you to go into the barns, meet with them."
Chow feels good about Saturday. "I have been galloping him (Rage Till Dawn) all spring. The trainer (Tanya Lindsay) says I get along well with the horse, so I might as well stay on him."
Fung, who has had only four rides this year, is struggling to get action. "Ever since I've been here, I've been working very hard and it's paying off so far," he said, adding he has no agent so he must represent himself. "I've had four mounts with one win and a second, so I'm doing good."
Getting rides hasn't been Harder's problem. To date she's had 25, compared to Chow's 19 and Fung's four. Until Wednesday night, she had managed three seconds and three thirds, so she was due for a win.
"I had a few starts last year," she said May 10. "Maybe 24 or something like that, and it went well. I hit the board a lot, but this is my first full year of racing."
Chow said that many of the veteran jockeys help out. "Gary Baze is very good. He will give you points on where to work out and where you are missing something. However, once that gate opens, everyone is on their own."
After Wednesday's trip to the winner's circle, it would appear that Harder is on her way up the ladder, but Fung is still fighting an uphill battle. "I love the game so much," said Fung, "Everything I do, or did (in my life), basically had to do with riding. All I have to do is continue to work hard and believe in God, and He will make things possible."
Post time Friday and Saturday is 7 p.m.