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Jockey Perry Ouzts on the cusp of 7,000 career wins; could reach milestone today at Belterra Park

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

Jockey Perry Ouzts is about to reach a milestone, possibly today, that few in his sport have ever accomplished.

Perry Ouzts got his first win in April of 1973 aboard Rablue for W.J. Danner. Ouzts and Danner would team up for many victories over the next 10 years and beyond (provided photos).

With three wins on Thursday’s card at Belterra Park in Cincinnati, Ouzts sits just one trip to the winner’s circle away from 7,000 for his career.

Only eight others in North American thoroughbred racing have accomplished that feat.

Ouzts, who lives in Hebron with his wife Toni, has won most of those races at River Downs (now Belterra Park), Beulah Park, a now-closed track that was located in Grove City, Ohio, and Latonia/Turfway Park.

“I try not to think too much about the numbers,” Ouzts said on an early Saturday morning in the track kitchen at Belterra Park, as he took a break from working horses.

Yes, at 64 years old, and more than 45 years after he booted home his first winner, Ouzts still works out horses five days a week and rides several mounts on every live card at Belterra and Turfway Park.

Perry Wayne Ouzts was born in Lepanto (Poinsett County), Arkansas and grew up riding horses in nearby Rivervale. By the time he was a teenager, he was riding the Midwest thoroughbred circuit and made his first trip to the winner’s circle in April 1973 aboard a horse called Rablu at Beulah Park.

His career took off quickly, thanks in large part to his connection to legendary local trainer W.J. Danner.

“He started me out, gave me my first few mounts, Ouzts said, “I rode for him for a long time. About the first 10 years I rode, I was pretty much first call for him.”

John Engelhardt, who has worked in a number of roles at River Downs and Belterra Park, first saw Ouzts in the mid 70s as a college kid at the University of Dayton coming to River Downs to bet races.

“I grew up going to the races at Saratoga and I realized the best way to cash a ticket down here was to find  W.J. Danner and Ouzts,” Engelhardt said. “They won a phenomenal amount of riding titles and back then this was a pretty tough jockey colony.”

A black and white photo of Ouzts from the 1970s (provided photo).

That colony included, Patricia “P.J.” Cooksey, who retired as the all-time leading female rider before she was surpassed by Julie Krone, and a kid from Walton named Steve Cauthen.

“He used to ride a horse for my mom and dad called Angel’s Fever and I liked the hell out of him,” Cauthen said. “He had just started a couple of years before I started and him and Bernie Saylor were the top dogs. He rode for Danner, who had a big stable and he was one of the guys that I knew I had to beat if I wanted to win because he was always riding live horses.”

Ouzts remembers Cauthen from that time and says it didn’t take long to see he was something special.

“About the middle of the summer, I kind of caught on to it,” Ouzts said. “He was one of those guys like (Bill) Shoemaker or Pat Day. He had that something special that he didn’t have to do much, but horses really ran for him. They didn’t seem to do nothing really exciting on a horse, they would just run for them.”

Ouzts, who earned the nickname “Scoot ‘n Boot” for his ability to break from the gate quickly, said he has always needed a different tactic.

“I’m like Angel Cordero and (Laffit) Pincay, they just lap, tap and knocked on ‘em; beat ‘em into submission,” he said. “That’s the way they rode and that’s the way I am. I’ve never had too many that I just hung on and they just carried me around there.”

Hy Carol, a legendary gray mare that dominated the local racing circuit for a few years in the 70s, was one that did – literally.

“She was probably my all-time favorite,” Ouzts said. “I won 25 races on her, 16 of them handicaps, so that was pretty much my favorite, all time.”

Ouzts after a mud ride (provided photo)

Perhaps none was more memorable than the race Ouzts rode aboard the gray mare when he had a broken collarbone.

“I can’t believe to this day, that trainer put me on her,” Ouzts said. “I couldn’t do nothing, all I could do is hold on, and I told him that.”

The reason it was so important for Ouzts to ride Hy Carol is that nobody else ever won a race aboard her. There were a few times, when Ouzts was injured, that another jockey rode her, but they never hit the winner’s circle.

Ouzts recalls the trainer telling him, “All you’ve got to do is hang on. We’ll get you to the gate, the gate man will handle you and they’ll pull you up after the race is over, just don’t fall off leaving the gate.”

“She just galloped around there and won,” Ouzts said. “She was just a really, really talented horse.”

Engelhardt, now the executive director of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners and a consultant for Belterra Park, started working at River Downs in 1983.

“I got to observe him as a fan, then started working here, and ever since then I followed his career because it was part of my job to put stories out,” Engelhardt said. “It was just amazing, the many thresholds that Perry continually seemed to hit. Every time he would hit another one, particularly when he moved ahead of another rider leading to the top 10, you could tell he really embraced it.”

The numbers now are just staggering.

In addition to all those wins, Ouzts has run second 6,604 times and third 6,260 times. He has ridden 50,600 horses that have collected more than $45.7 million in purse money – and that doesn’t count all of the horses he has worked out in the mornings.

Ouzts through the years. In this photo he is in pursuit of win #4,000. He has added 3,000 more trips to the winners circle since this photo was taken (provided photo).

Engelhardt says for a long time Ouzts was the hardest guy to interview because he just went about his business.

“It was fun watching him achieve all of these accomplishments and after each one, he already knew what the next one was,” Engelhardt said. “He would say, ‘to get to 5,000 wins,’ or ‘to pass Earlie Fires.’”

Passing Fires, who has 6,470 career wins, was especially memorable for Ouzts because they are cousins and grew up riding together in Rivervale.

Shortly before that milestone Engelhardt recalls asking Ouzts what his next goal was and Ouzts said, “I just want to be the leading rider in Rivervale, Arkansas.”

At the time there was a sign in Rivervale that read something to the effect of “home of the ninth-leading thoroughbred rider all-time, Earlie Fires.”

Engelhardt recalls that after Ouzts won, he got off the horse and said, “Well, looks like they’re going to have to change that sign in Rivervale now.”

Another memorable moment for Ouzts was winning his first River Downs Cradle Stakes in 2007, for trainer Kenny McPeek, aboard Old Man Buck. At the time, the Cradle Stakes was one of the top-tier races for two-year-old colts in the country.

“That was one of my most exciting ones, I guess,” Ouzts said. “It was $200,000 and the first time I had ever won it. I got beat by a nose one time, but that was the closest I had ever come.”

Once again, Ouzts was not in the best of health when riding one of the best mounts of his career.

“I had a broken arm the year before and I had like three surgeries on it, so I got to Turfway Park and went back to the doctor for a check-up and they told me I needed another operation,” Ouzts said. “He said the bone hadn’t healed and I broke both plates that’s holding my arm together and he don’t even know how I was still riding, the pain has got to be unbelievable. The pain would start in the arm and just shoot out your elbow, so I just hit them left-handed a lot and I do that anyway, so it wasn’t really that bad.”

After his victory in the Cradle Stakes, McPeek called and told Ouzts he needed him to come down and ride Old Man Buck in the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity. The race was a $500,000 Grade 1 at Keeneland and a major prep for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“I told him I had to have an operation to get this arm fixed,” Ouzts said. “I’ve been riding a couple of months with it and they told me it needs to be repaired.”

He said, “Well just hold off for a little bit, wait until this race is over and then have it done.”

Ouzts aboard Old Man Buck in the 2007 $200,000 Miller High Life Cradle Stakes, the richest win of his career (provided photo).

Despite the pain, Ouzts went to Keeneland and rode Old Man Buck to a third-place finish at odds of almost 25-1, beaten a neck for second.

At that point, McPeek asked Ouzts to postpone the surgery again because he would lobby for him to ride Old Man Buck in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“I said, OK I can put it off for another month,” Ouzts said. “A couple days before the Breeders’ Cup he come up to me and said them owners want a big-name rider. I fought tooth-and nail for you, but it’s either that or they were going to get somebody else to train him.”

Ouzts knew it was a long shot and told McPeek he understood that it was a business decision, but he appreciated the effort on his behalf.

Old Man Buck ran a well-beaten sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 17-1 under Rafael Bejarano, a jockey who a few years earlier cut his teeth at Turfway Park long after Ouzts had established himself as one of the circuit’s leading riders.

Ouzts and McPeek remain close to this day.

“I started riding for Kenny when he first started training here in the 80s and I have kept riding for him all these years,” Ouzts said. “Whenever he brings a horse into this part of the country he always rides me on them. He’s one of the guys that are really loyal and he wanted me on that Breeders’ Cup horse because I knew the horse.”

Loyalty is high on the list of things that matter to Ouzts.

He has had the same agent, Jamie Fowler, for more than 30 years.

“He’s the best there is and we both have the same views on things,” Fowler said. “We want to ride the best horses that we can but we try to stay loyal to trainers that are loyal to us. People like Larry Smith, who he has been riding for since 1986, William Connelly, and Susan Anderson are huge supporters and they deserve a lot of credit.”

Fowler started out as a jockey, but he is nearly six feet tall and soon realized if he was going to continue to work in the sport he loved, it would have to be in another role.

“I got lucky,” Fowler said of his partnership with Ouzts. “If Perry had decided in the 70s or 80s to go to New York or California, he would have been successful, but he loves this area and doesn’t like to travel even to Cleveland or Chicago.”

Ouzts does not like to travel to ride, but will occasionally take an out-of-town mount. Here he is shown breaking from the gate with Hard Strike for Kenny McPeek at Keeneland in 2007. Photo: John C. Engelhardt

That aversion to travel led to one of Fowler’s most memorable Perry Ouzts stories.

“We had a client who had about 30 horses and one horse won five or six races  in a row,” Fowler said. “She was a real nice filly”

With that kind of success, the client wanted to take the horse out of town for a bigger purse and wanted Ouzts to ride her. With so many horses in the stable, they didn’t want to jeopardize the relationship, but Ouzts did not want to go.

“Perry came up with idea to say he needed to get $3,500 to go out of town, because that’s what it costs him, thinking he wouldn’t want to pay,” Fowler said. “The guy reached in his pocket and pulled out 35, $100 dollar bills. I told Perry, don’t forget, I get half of cash stakes.”

With his list of career accomplishments, it would seem Ouzts is a shoe-in for the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, but despite a grass-roots effort in recent years, he has received little consideration.

He was the subject of a documentary, Ironman Perry Ouzts, which won the 2015 Media Eclipse Award. The circuit on which he has achieved his success, however, and his low, by comparison, career purse earnings (John Velasquez has almost $400 million) and win percentage continue to work against him.

Engelhardt said racing on a circuit where horses don’t hold their form as long and, on their best day, are not always fit makes Ouzts’s accomplishments even more impressive.

“Let’s not forget, a lot of these guys got to the Hall of Fame driving Cadillacs,” Engelhardt says. “Perry got there driving a stick-shift Volkswagen with a bad right tire, so he had to work so much harder to get the wins and he’s not on the big stage so people don’t notice it”

Ouzts agrees, but says if he never makes it to the Hall of Fame, he’s fine with that.

Ouzts on a recent Saturday preparing to work horses at Belterra Park. At 64, and on the cusp of 7,000 career wins, Ouzts continues to ride full cards and work horses in the morning five days a week (photo by Mark Hansel).

“The Hall of Fame doesn’t realize that to win 7,000 races on the quality of horses that I’ve rode is a whole lot harder than say Pat Day when he won 8,000 races,” Ouzts said. “Pretty near every horse I ever rode, I had to make them win.”

Not to mention that Ouzts is in a class by himself when it comes to career earnings on this circuit, while many of his competitors are racing just to make ends meet and will use some questionable tactics at times, increasing the challenge.

Day, Donna Barton and Chris McCarron are among the legendary jockeys that have said Ouzts belongs in the Hall of Fame.

“I don’t really care if I don’t get in the Hall of Fame,” Ouzts said. “It’s not something I strive for or will be disappointed if I don’t. Look at David Gall, he’s won almost 7,500 races and he’s never made it.

Ouzts says he knows moving to a larger circuit when he had the opportunity might have increased his chances for recognition, but it’s not something he ever really considered.

“I like to win more than anything, more than making the money, it’s just winning,” Ouzts said. “I get the biggest kick out of it. You’d think after 45 years that would wear off, but it don’t. I get that same thrill every time I cross that finish line, every time, cheap race, big race, don’t matter.”

He already has his next goal in mind which is passing Gall, who has 7,396 career wins, and moving into fifth place all time, which he figures will take another four years.

He would be 68.

While Ouzts has a new career goal to motivate him, he said the main reason he hasn’t thought about retiring is that he is still in demand.

“It amazes me every day when I see the overnight and I’m on six or seven horses and still winning,” Ouzts said. “Not just here and there, I’m like 31 in front of the next guy in the jockey standings and you just don’t hear about that from 64-year-old jockeys. I’ve managed to stretch this thing out way past its shelf life.”

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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