Jockey Kym Espy, who is one of the most successful riders — male or female — in the history of Billings horse racing, will be back trying to conquer the competition at MetraPark’s Yellowstone Downs this closing weekend.
After that, she’ll be left to ponder her racing future.
You won’t see any odds posted on the tote board, but there is the possibility that this could be her final appearance on her home track.
“You never say never, but it could be,” the 46-year-old Espy said with a smile while sitting in the jockeys’ room last weekend. “I’m not going to say at this time. The morning line is not in yet.”
Espy, who has ridden here off and on since 1986 and is a four-time leading rider at the track, is still near the top of her game, riding thoroughbred Wonder’s Sensation to an overpowering victory last Sunday.
But she missed a big chunk of the meet in Lethbridge, Alberta, this spring after suffering a ruptured tendon in her left thumb during a mishap while galloping a horse and had to undergo surgery.
“I’m getting to the point where nagging little injuries don’t go away like they do when you’re 25,” Espy said.
That’s why she said she is going to reevaluate her 27-year career in the spring — see where she’s at mentally and physically — and go from there.
“I like my job ... and I’m good at my job,” Espy said. “And it’s getting to the time in my life when it would be hard to start a new career. I’m not going to go to school and become a doctor or a lawyer at this point in the game.
“I’ve had a lot of success doing this — and that’s gratifying.”
However, Jim, her husband of nearly 17 years, “worries intensely about my safety, of course,” she added.
They made a deal three or four years ago that she wouldn’t ride any more quarter horses.
“The last few serious injuries were all on quarter horses,” Espy noted.
While she has displayed remarkable resiliency in bouncing back from knee, shoulder and hip injuries in recent years, “It’s always an issue,” she said of getting hurt. “And it can happen so quickly on something you feel so safe on, you know. But if you worry about it, then it’s not working for you.”
Whenever Espy does decide to hang up her silks, she will be remembered as a first-class rider: skilled, smart, aggressive, always the competitor and one of Billings’ all-time sporting heroes.
Espy, who grew up around horses in southern Idaho, got her racing license in 1984. She rode in the fair meets in Idaho and at Les Bois Park in Boise before coming to Billings to ride under contract for owner Doug Dewitt.
According to industry record-keeper Equibase, Espy’s career statistics for thoroughbred racing includes 3,981 starts, 463 wins, 543 seconds, 516 thirds and $1,406,838 in purses won, while occasionally riding at some of the nation’s biggest tracks.
As staggering as those numbers are, they don’t include all the wins Espy has had on quarter horses, paints and at the smaller, unrecognized tracks, especially in the west.
“I actually counted (win) pictures a couple of years ago — a lot of pictures you never get — and there were well over 800,” Espy said. “It’s over 1,000 (career wins), which is something.”
Even as Espy is contemplating her future, she was recently recognized nationally by the Thoroughbred Times as the jockey with the highest percentage of victories in stakes races per mounts in 2010.
While riding in Montana and western Canada, Espy had 13 stakes wins from just 185 total mounts for a chart-topping 7.03 winning percentage.
“That was over Garrett Gomez and all the really supreme thoroughbred riders,” Espy said. “I only wish I made half as much money as they did.”
Heading into the final two days of racing in Billings, Espy has chalked up four wins, seven seconds and two thirds in only 24 races over the previous three weekends.
This is the first time she’s ridden here on a regular basis since 2008.
“This meet has actually been a struggle because a lot of the trainers I rode for for years are not here. They’ve passed on or they’ve retired,” she said. “It was like starting over in a new place. There’s a few (trainers) that I know, but lots and lots of new faces.”
In looking back, Espy said she is proud of the fact she’s “made a living” at every track she’s raced at. She said that the acclaim she received for her success in stakes races in 2010 was “one of my biggest honors.”
And while she also noted that “being a woman in this field has not been easy,” Espy’s tenacity and success has helped other female jockeys gain acceptance at the racetrack.
“When I started that wasn’t entirely true,” she said. “You really had to convince the people. I was fortunate to get with a lot of good owners and trainers that gave me a chance.”
Espy is now a racing grandmother, with eight grandchildren under the age of nine.
They enjoy their time at the track and posing for win pictures, but think grandma’s chosen profession is “a little weird,” Espy said with a laugh.
“None of the grandkids are real horse lovers,” she said. “They come to the races and they think it’s kind of cool, but then they think it’s a little bit weird, too.”
While this indeed could be her last weekend in the saddle in Billings, don’t look for Espy to treat these races any differently.
“You know what, you ride it like it was your last weekend, whether it is or not,” she said. “And it’s always better to go out on top, so you do everything you can to make it a good weekend.”