Across the Board G.R. Carter is the Favorite

Author: C.L. Harmon
Category: Cowboys
Date Published: March 3, 2020

With a boy­ish charm and sub­tle humor com­ing across the cell waves, our con­ver­sa­tion began with, “well that’s what peo­ple call me,” when I asked if I could call him G.R. I could imag­ine that being said with a slight inner chuck­le. His polite­ness and gen­tle ver­bal demeanor quick­ly gave me an under­stand­ing of how he has become the great­est jock­ey in quar­ter horse rac­ing his­to­ry. Any ani­mal lover knows that ani­mals can sense who we are, size us up if you will. It was appar­ent already that every horse he rode dur­ing his career must have felt the same humil­i­ty and gen­tle nature I felt in his words. As a result, every one of those pow­er­ful crea­tures gave it their all for him each time they bolt­ed from the start­ing gate.

Carter is one of those rare indi­vid­u­als who seem to be guid­ed through life with a spe­cif­ic des­tiny. His stature, upbring­ing, and inter­ests all seemed to be lead­ing to a des­ti­na­tion that he had not even con­sid­ered while grow­ing up in Pawhuska.

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

“Grow­ing up, my heroes were cowboys…steer rop­ers, calf ropers…and that led me to junior rodeos.” His father George, a horse­man and tal­ent­ed steer rop­er on the rodeo cir­cuit, his great-uncle Bar­ton Carter was the cham­pi­onship rop­er of the world in 1925 and his grand­fa­ther Alva “Red” Carter did trick rid­ing in silent movies and raised hors­es for Hol­ly­wood. This was the stock from whence the future jock­ey was born. But it would not be a career as race­horse jock­ey for which he ini­tial­ly aspired. While still a teen, Carter want­ed to study ani­mal sci­ences. His first encounter with a race­horse came in 1982 the sum­mer after 8th grade at the fair­grounds at Osage Downs. He “gal­loped” hors­es for the train­ers who trained the hors­es before they were sent away to tracks elsewhere.

By Gam­brusky at en.wikipedia

“I had no idea at that time where horse rac­ing would end up tak­ing me,” Carter said. And it took him to the pages of horse racing 

his­to­ry over the next three decades. Although he would go on to par­tic­i­pate in ama­teur races dur­ing his ear­ly years of high school, he still planned on attend­ing OSU and even­tu­al­ly enter­ing their vet­eri­nar­i­an pro­gram. That all changed by his senior year. He had begun com­pet­ing and win­ning mon­ey and knew that being a jock­ey was the track in life he need­ed to ride.

“I like to tell peo­ple that I went to col­lege at Blue Rib­bon Downs,” he quipped fol­lowed by a bois­ter­ous chuck­le. He had been doing well on the rac­ing cir­cuit in high school hav­ing had his license to ride offi­cial races since he was 16 years old. Although it was not the big-time cir­cuit that he would even­tu­al­ly enter, he had already found a lev­el of suc­cess in doing what he loved. Upon grad­u­a­tion, he moved to the big leagues with a fer­vent tenac­i­ty that would lead him to com­pete on aver­age over 1,000 races per year for the next 30 years. That’s over 30,000 offi­cial races. This doesn’t include gal­lop­ing to help the train­ers, brush races or train­ing races, Carter said.

Horse Rac­ing 101

Just how does one get to com­pete in so many races? Sure­ly there are sev­er­al jock­eys and not all of them can be cho­sen to ride. Carter explained that image is very impor­tant, but he believes his key to hav­ing so many oppor­tu­ni­ties was his will­ing­ness to work with the train­ers. Carter didn’t just show up at race time. Instead, he would go to the track in the morn­ings and work with the train­ers. This is not some­thing jock­eys get paid for but opt to do to help the train­ers. He added that the own­ers lis­ten to the train­ers and build­ing rela­tion­ships with these train­ers afford­ed him more oppor­tu­ni­ties to race. Of course, win­ning races also pro­vid­ed more oppor­tu­ni­ties as well. As Carter said, “win­ning snow­balls into more suc­cess and image is everything”.

By Gam­brusky at en.wikipedia

“I fol­lowed the basic strat­e­gy of work with every­thing. Hard work will get you to a lot of places. And I was known for being a hard work­er in the morn­ings help­ing the train­ers. I also had an ath­let­ic back­ground. All of this equat­ed into my suc­cess,” Carter said. He was a wrestler in high school, even win­ning State as a senior. He was also a gym­nast pur­su­ing that dis­ci­pline from grade school until his ear­ly teens. He believes that these activ­i­ties, along with par­tic­i­pat­ing in junior rodeo pre­pared him with the skills he would need as a jock­ey. Although he does attribute these activ­i­ties to his suc­cess, he admits that being on the fastest horse plays a huge role in win­ning. But being on the fastest horse is not a guar­an­tee to win because the jock­ey can always screw it up. He added that get­ting to ride the fastest horse was a result of work­ing with the train­ers and being afford­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to choose what he believed to be the best horse in the race. 

The hors­es weren’t’ the only fac­tor in win­ning. Obvi­ous­ly, a jock­ey must have a par­tic­u­lar body type to be a con­tender just as in any sport. Carter admit­ted, that it wasn’t uncom­mon for a jock­ey “to eat him­self out of a job”. Carter didn’t have to bat­tle his weight dur­ing the rac­ing sea­son as just stay­ing busy and rid­ing kept the weight off, but he would gain a few extra pounds in the win­ter months. He would begin to diet in ear­ly spring to reach the ide­al weight of 122 pounds. Jock­eys can weigh a few more pounds and still qual­i­fy, but those rider’s weights are announced before the race so bet­ters know that those hors­es have a few extra pounds to car­ry than oth­er hors­es and so the odds of win­ning go down.

“I have been a horse­man my whole life. I was raised around them and will love them my whole life,” Carter said. But hors­es are ani­mals and at some point, a jock­ey is going to get hurt, he explained. The most com­mon injury is a bro­ken col­lar bone. When a horse goes down, the jock­ey is thrust for­ward and will most like­ly land on their shoul­der dur­ing the unin­ten­tion­al dis­mount. Carter is no excep­tion. He is a mem­ber of the bro­ken col­lar­bone club and has chipped his wrist bone, as well. How­ev­er, he has few­er injuries than most who have raced less time. He attrib­ut­es this to his train­ing in gym­nas­tics and how it taught him to take a fall with the least amount of pos­si­bil­i­ty for injury. The nation­al union for jock­eys known as the Jockey’s Guild has been keep­ing records and sta­tis­tics since its incep­tion in 1940. Carter said that on aver­age two jock­eys are killed each year, accord­ing to the Guild’s records. Every­one he tells this sta­tis­tic to is always shocked because most peo­ple don’t equate horse rac­ing as a dan­ger­ous sport.

By Gam­brusky at en.wikipedia

The fear jock­eys have after an injury can often be a career-end­ing fear. Carter explained that he has known jock­eys who will begin to ride with a timid cau­tion after return­ing from an injury and they are not the same as before. He said in order to be good and win, a jock­ey can’t be scared. Carter feels that he was able to race for 35 years because he was nev­er seri­ous­ly injured and away from the track for an extend­ed peri­od of time. Some of the jock­eys with seri­ous leg breaks can be away for months due to the sever­i­ty of their injuries. He added that some jock­eys will even quit after an acci­dent because they become wor­ried about what an injury or their pos­si­ble death would do to their families.

Win, Place or Show

Carter pri­mar­i­ly raced the cir­cuits in Okla­homa, Texas, New Mex­i­co and Cal­i­for­nia. These are where the qual­i­ty “big mon­ey” quar­ter horse races are in the US, Carter said. Speak­ing of big mon­ey, Carter won the All-Amer­i­can Futu­ri­ty, the Ken­tucky Der­by equiv­a­lent for Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse race­hors­es, in 1998 and in 2008. Each of those vic­to­ries was award­ed $1.5 mil­lion. The win­ning jock­ey pock­ets ten per­cent of those win­nings. Carter explained that win­ning this is the dream of all quar­ter horse jock­eys and once he won it, he felt as though he had achieved what he set out to do. He even remem­bers the horse’s name, Fallinginlovea­gain. 

“After win­ning that race in 1998, I felt that if my career end­ed the next day, I had accom­plished every­thing I want­ed to in rac­ing,” Carter said. How­ev­er, his career did not end. He would go on to com­plete a career with 3,906 quar­ter horse race wins with total win­nings of $80 mil­lion to become the top earn­er in AQHA (Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse Asso­ci­a­tion) his­to­ry. Over a pro­fes­sion­al career span­ning 30 years, he would walk away with ten per­cent of those win­nings. The next clos­est earn­er was at $48 mil­lion at the time of his retire­ment. In addi­tion, he won the AQHA Cham­pi­on Jock­ey Award ten times, twice that of any oth­er jockey.

He retired at the end of 2018, but he end­ed on a high note. Carter jock­eyed his last race on Decem­ber 16 of that year and fin­ished with a $2 mil­lion win. It was a “sto­ry book end­ing” he said. Carter spends his time now at his home in Okla­homa City with his wife Shae­na, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the senior rodeos and tak­ing care of his horses. 

“It’s pret­ty cool that I got to spend my adult life around hors­es and to have the excite­ment of rac­ing and the thrill of win­ning on a dai­ly basis. I feel pret­ty lucky to have been able to do that and make a good liv­ing at it. I am tru­ly blessed,” Carter said.

Inter­est­ing Fact: Quar­ter hors­es reach top speeds of 55–57 mph.

C.L. Harmon

C.L. Harmon

C.L. is an award-winning journalist who spent many years in the newspaper and freelance fields. In addition to holding reporting and editing positions throughout his career, he also owned and operated a newspaper for several years. He was born, raised, and continues to reside in Oklahoma.


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