Dan Kistler
Jockey Dan Kistler has been racing in Billings off and on for 35 years and he ranks as one of the oldest active jockeys in the nation this season at age 63. PAUL RUHTER/Gazette Staff

Jockey Dan Kistler, who celebrated his 63rd birthday on Friday, will not be galloping off into the sunset anytime soon.

Instead, he has his sights set on being in the saddle and directing quarter horses and thoroughbreds to victories at age 70.

"That would be great," Kistler said with a grin. "But we'll have to see what my body says."

At the moment, he is going strong and riding high at MetraPark's Yellowstone Downs, where he is scheduled to be aboard eight horses this afternoon during a 10-race card at the Billings track.

Post time is at 1:30 p.m. today and Monday.

"You might say that he's the Brett Favre of Yellowstone Downs," racing secretary Norm Amundson said of Kistler. "He's a remarkable athlete."

The 5-foot-4, 120-pounder from Worden also ranks as one of the oldest active jockeys in the nation this racing season.

He still possesses plenty of strength in his legs, sensitive hands on the reins and a good sense of timing out on the track, but his fellow riders sometimes refer to him as "Grandpa" and "The Old Man."

"I might have a few more aches and pains sometimes," said Kistler, who doesn't mind the teasing. "But I'm afraid they'd probably get worse if I quit."

According to a story in The New York Times archives, Frank Amonte Sr. established himself as the oldest jockey to win a thoroughbred race when he triumphed at Suffolk Downs in New York in August 2005, just 26 days shy of his 70th birthday.

There is a quarter horse rider in Oklahoma, Roy Brooks, who is still racing at age 68.

And while the actual number of active riders nationwide over the age of 60 is hard to verify, there aren't many.

Kistler, who was born Sept. 4, 1946 in Mitchell, S.D., rode his first race horse at age 13 in Miles City. He has been racing in Billings off and on for around 35 years, but has competed in several other states.

"It's a way to make a living," he said of the demanding and dangerous world of speed, saddles and silk. "I enjoy it, too. It helps me stay physically fit."

Horse owner Mike Grewell of Silesia can remember watching Kistler ride quarter horses in Kalispell in the early 1980s. He said he is still at the top of his game, out-performing jockeys half his age.

"He's riding as good as I've ever seen him ride right now," Grewell said. "He seems almost fearless."

Belfry's Leroy Coombs, 69, was just shy of his 65th birthday when he rode in his final race at Yellowstone Downs before hanging up his boots. He is now a trainer.

"You've got to admire him," Coombs said of Kistler. "He's 63 years old. He still gallops. He still works hard. That's pretty honorable."

Kistler, who rode in Miles City and at Arapahoe Park in Denver earlier this year, and his trainer wife, Lisa, have nine horses on the backside of Yellowstone Downs. Five of them will be in action this afternoon.

"This year, he's healthy," Lisa said of her husband's recent success on the Billings track. "He's probably one of the lightest riders. He doesn't fight his weight. He eats whatever he wants.

"He is also so active," she added. "He gets up at four in the morning and goes all day long."

Kistler is also very familiar with a lot of the quarter horses and thoroughbreds he rides, helping to break and train a majority of them.

"It's like a trust factor," Lisa said of her husband's relationship with their race horses.

That strong bond also is reflected in the fact he always seems to always finish in the money. He has ridden in 18 races over the first two weeks of the Billings meet, with four wins, three seconds and four thirds to his credit.

With four winners, Lisa is tied for top trainer honors with Sidney's Doug Johnson.

Kistler said he doesn't know how many races he has won over the years or how many races he has competed in during his career. He does have boxes full of win pictures at home dating back at least 20 years, Lisa noted.

Kistler won aboard a 2-year-old quarter horse, Jens Corona, in the second race last Sunday at Yellowstone Downs. He also had a 6-year-old thoroughbred, The Hoopster, in position to win in the 10th race before being caught at the finish of the one mile and 70 yards.

"He's in the twilight years of riding, I'm sure," Amundson said. "I don't know how much longer he'll want to go. But right now, to watch him when he was riding that thoroughbred race at a mile and 70 here (last) Sunday, he looked great.

"He looked like he was going to win that race," said Amundson. "He just got caught in the last few jumps, so he has to have his legs in pretty good shape to sustain a horse that well that long in a long race."

Willie Shoemaker was 54 when he became the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby in 1986.

Amundson said Kistler's longevity can certainly be attributed to his excellent physical condition.

"I'm sure most jockeys who have ridden very long have had enough accidents and spills that eventually they just decide no more," he said.

Kistler, who wasn't able to ride at Yellowstone Downs last year after undergoing shoulder surgery, hasn't reached that point yet.

However, he has taken some falls over the years.

"I've had a lot of wrecks," he said. "It's hard to say how many times I've broken something and didn't know about it."

That includes his neck.

"I didn't know about it until I sprained it on another day," Kistler said with his usual laugh. "The doctor told me about it."

With everything now in one piece, the Kistlers, who have been married for almost three years and together for 12, have discussed an exit strategy when it comes to Dan's racing.

"Basically he has said that when it gets to the point where he feels like he is hurting a horse by riding it, he'll quit," Lisa said.

For the moment, though, Grewell said he wouldn't hesitate in putting Kistler in the saddle of one of his horses.

"If I had one good enough," he added.

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