by Katherine O. Rizzo
When Brooke Nemec’s mother Robbin signed the then 5-year-old up for summer riding lessons at Cool Meadows Farm in Jarrettsville, neither mother nor daughter knew exactly what would unfold. “I’ve always liked horses and one day Brooke asked to take lessons so we signed her up for summer camp and she just never stopped,” said Robbin, who took a lesson here and there in her youth. “On that second day ever riding, she came walking out of the tack room with all the tack piled up and declared she wanted to do it all herself,” Robbin added, describing how quickly Brooke learned the parts of the tack and how much she wanted to learn more about the sport.
This do-it-yourself girl took what began as a weekly lesson and quickly developed riding into a passion and a career goal.
After only a few years of riding lessons, Brooke joined the Easy Riders 4-H Club where she primarily competed in jumpers. Her first lease horse was named Marco Polo, whom she leased from Pleasant Knoll. “The great thing about riding is that you don’t have to own a horse or have lots of money. You can just go to a barn and sign up for lessons or find a horse to lease. If you really want to do it, you just need to figure out how,” explained Brooke, who continues to lease horses instead of owning her own.
Two summers ago, trainer Sean Dugan asked Brooke to ride a flat race on a pony named Tahoe’s Chief Red Cloud – and Brooke was hooked! She quickly found ways to start racing in the field master’s chases. “Oh my gosh! The adrenaline of all those horses packed together and jumping, it’s overwhelming,” exclaimed Brooke. She continued to gain experience in 2008 aboard Tahoe. “I don’t think I won a race that year, but it was by far the most fun I have ever had,” she said.
“[Steeplechasing] scares me to death. I enjoy watching it but it makes me shake,” admitted Robbin who went on to say that the most rewarding part is when Brooke finishes safely.
The last two years have seemed like a blur for Brooke, who now hunts with Elkridge-Harford Hunt whenever she has time and is also a D3 with the Elkridge-Harford Pony Club. The junior at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Baltimore even gave up playing lacrosse to pursue greater riding challenges and goals.
With Pony Club, Brooke went to Nationals, held at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, VA, this past year for tetrathalon to represent the Maryland Region. There, Brooke finished third in a large division, something her mom is very proud of her for. “In tetrathalon, they have to get a certain amount of points for each part [swimming, running, shooting and riding] and Brooke trained very hard,” explained Robbin.
She also competes her current lease horse, a flea-bitten grey Anglo Arab mare named Dreamonium Sweetie, in eventing, dressage, hunters, jumpers and western speed events, as well as steeplechasing of course.
Brooke raced Sweetie, whome she has leased from Kim Polski for the past three years, in three races in 2009. Unfortunately, at both the Green Spring Valley Point-to-Point and the North American Point-to-Point Championships, Brooke had to pull Sweetie up. “She just got a bit too frisky for me,” Brooke explained. But these small setbacks did not phase Brooke: “I’m just getting started but I’m hoping to work towards getting my license as a jockey after college.”
Brooke and Sweetie had a great run at the Maryland Junior Hunt Cup where the pair finished sixth overall in the Field Master’s Chase. The pair also won the award for the top placing non-Thoroughbred in the race.
“She’s got the bug and is super dedicated,” said NAPPA president Regina Welsh. Welsh, noting that Brooke volunteered every day at the Maryland Horse Expo NAPPA booth and feels that steeplechasing has gained a lifelong supporter of the sport in Brooke. “Her great work ethic as a student shows in her riding. She’s very hungry for [steeplechasing],” added Welsh.
A Leg Up
So how does one go about obtaining a jockey license and making a career in the steeplechase industry? Through the Jonathan Kiser Memorial Scholarship, Brooke spent the summer learning exactly what it takes. Brooke had the honor of a week working at Tom Voss’s Atlanta Hall Farm in Monkton. “They had me do everything. Hot walking, bathing, scrubbing tack, grooming, stall work and some riding,” she explained. “I had never seen the horse industry up close and in work before. I learned everything about steeplechasing that week,” she added.
The highlight of Brooke’s 2009 season was not winning races, but getting the chance to ride Voss’s retired champion steeplechaser John’s Call. “I didn’t have time to look up his race record when I was there, but I did when I got home and oh my gosh, I got to ride that horse! He’s won so many races and worth so much and I got to ride him!” said Brooke.
During the NAPPA steeplechase camp that Brooke was able to attend (free of charge, thanks to the Kiser scholarship), she was able to travel to many of the great East Coast tracks and steeplechase farms with six other young jockeys. “At Saratoga, Mr. Greg Ryan got us into the paddock to see how they tack up and get ready. There was a strict routine to stick to and they all got ready so fast,” she said. The group also got to watch a race from the placing tower and watched several horses train nearby the track.
Even after spending the summer in the presence of several steeplechasing greats (horses and people), Brooke puts her mom above them all. “I couldn’t be doing any of this without my mom. She still comes out to the barn five nights a week with me. She trailers me everywhere. She really encourages me to take my horse career to the next level. She’s probably more dedicated then I am,” laughed Brooke.
It is easy to hear in Brooke’s voice the excitement she feels about steeplechasing and the passion she has for the sport. “This is a very unique sport. It’s unpredictable and all I have to say is that everyone should get into it!” she advised.
With just a year and a half left of high school, Brooke is looking into colleges and looking into ways to jump-start her racing career. She recently began working for Joe and Blythe Davies in Monkton at their Sycamore Farm, a position set up by Welsh. There she does everything from mucking stalls to riding horses for the Davies.
“Brooke is a great girl. She’s not afraid to grab a pitch fork,” said Joe Davies, noting that she possesses two important qualities: a positive attitude and excellent work ethic, and that these qualities will allow her to succeed in what ever she wants to do.