STANTON, Del. — Who wouldn’t want to be here, on a morning like this? Twenty-four geese, in three dark V’s of eight, soar across a sheet of white-orange light as the sun rises over Delaware Park and begins to burn away the chill of the coming fall, and their honks are the only sound mingling with the drumbeat of hooves on dirt. A dozen jockeys and riders are working horses on the track on a recent Monday, and Jeremy Rose is one of them, coaxing a chestnut colt into a full gallop.
He can’t stay away from this place, even though the time may have come for him to keep his distance. The track, the sport that he once stood atop, is good for his soul, but he knows now that it belongs in a stage of his life that he probably ought to leave in the past.
Fifteen years ago, Rose was one of the most famous jockeys in America, riding the most famous horse in America, the pair teaming to deliver two of the most spectacular performances in the history of the Triple Crown. In 2005, with his already-strong career still in ascendancy, Rose rode Afleet Alex to victory in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes — the first race highlighted by Afleet Alex’s remarkable recovery after he clipped heels with another horse and nearly crumpled to the ground, the second marked by the manner in which he and Rose toyed with the rest of the field. Each of them, steed and man, was a terrific story: Afleet Alex’s owners, based in Philadelphia, donated the horse’s winnings to Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a charity that supported pediatric cancer research, and Rose, a native of Bellefonte, Pa., was a former high school wrestling standout who happened to become an elite jockey.
But as the Preakness approaches this Saturday — the COVID pandemic realigned this year’s Triple Crown schedule — Rose is moving away from racing as much as he can. He wants to, and he has to. An incident in which he was suspended for whipping a horse threw him into depression. He became addicted to opioids and alcohol. He is 41, still recovering, and as of now, he says, after more than 13,000 starts, more than 2,600 firsts, and nearly $80 million in earnings, he is retired from racing.
Once a week, he drives 150 miles from Lewistown, Pa. — where he lives with his wife, Brittany, and stepdaughter, Harper, and owns a pizza shop — to Delaware Park, just to work horses for a couple of trainer friends, just for the slight buzz that being on horseback, remembering the thrill of competition, gives him. That’s all. It’s not a race, but it’s something. It’s enough.
“I remember one of the best wrestlers I knew in high school said: ‘Wrestling gave me a lot, but I’m not happy about it,’ " he says as he sits at a table in the grandstand, one tractor trundling along the track, dragging a rake behind it. “Racing gave me a lot, but where it took me … I don’t know.”
‘He was a freak of nature’
He knew they would win the Preakness. The 2005 Kentucky Derby had comprised 20 horses on a wet track, and amid the jostling and bumping and stops and go’s of a crowded, sloppy race, Afleet Alex had finished third, one length behind winner Giacomo. But Pimlico was Rose’s track, one he was particularly familiar with, and he knew that if he got to the right spot at the right time, if he hugged the rail, everything would open up for him and Afleet Alex, and at the top of the stretch, everything did. Scrappy T, ridden by Ramon Dominguez, was in the lead, but Afleet Alex was coming, and then …
Dominguez switched his whip from his right hand to his left, then raised the whip to strike Scrappy T. Rose yelled, “No!” Scrappy T cut to the left in front of Afleet Alex. The horses' heels touched, and Afleet Alex’s front legs buckled.
“Alex’s head was just gone — no more head,” Rose says. “And all of a sudden, he popped up, and he popped up perfect. We were still in rhythm. That day, Alex saved a lot of racing. If he goes down, there’s a bunch that go down behind him. There’s no way they could have missed us. It wasn’t going to be pretty.”
Instead, it was astonishing. Rose and Afleet Alex won by 4¾ lengths. When Giacomo jockey Mike Smith then described the Belmont as the rubber match between his horse and Rose’s, Rose took it as an insult. From ninth place at the first turn in the 11-horse race, Rose waited as long as he could before asking Afleet Alex for more, and the two of them blazed to a dominant seven-length win.
“My whole idea, and I never told anybody this,” he says, “was that I was going to watch for Giacomo and tear his heart out in this race. We turned for home, and I cut Alex loose, and [Smith] said his horse started displacing. I said, ‘That was the freight train coming behind you.’ He ran right by his ass. I wanted to show that there was no comparison. He was a freak of nature, that horse.”
The man who rode him became a star, too. Bellefonte held a “Jeremy Rose Day." Autograph seekers showed up at his family’s farm at 7 in the morning, forcing his mother, Cindy Robinson, to dash downstairs in her robe to shoo them away. He got more high-profile, high-quality rides, including Big Brown at Saratoga, eight months before the horse won the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
“He’s our only child,” Robinson, a sales representative with Purina and a familiar figure on the racing circuit, says over the phone. "He’s been the light of our life, and God knows, he’s been blessed with a talent. When he first started out, the best we thought he’d be was he’d make some money when he was a buck rider because he was so small. Who would have ever thought that it would come to be what it was?
“It was fun times. It got a little crazy for a while, but he had his moment.”
It did not last. The ’08 Derby was marred when one of the horses, Eight Belles, had to be put down on the track. A month later, during the third race at Delaware Park on a Monday, with Congress holding hearings on thoroughbred safety, Rose struck his mount, a five-year-old mare named Appeal to the City, in the eye. The blow caused the eye to hemorrhage.
Delaware Park’s stewards suspended Rose for six months. After a 3½-hour appeals hearing, the Delaware Racing Commission reduced his suspension to 90 days. But now Rose was the poster child for animal cruelty, for a sport that, to activists and much of the public, didn’t give a damn about its treatment of its true athletes.
“PETA looked for a scapegoat,” he says, “and it was me.”
He received death threats. Security guards trailed him whenever he drove into or walked around Delaware Park. The initial suspension, he and his mother believed, was unduly harsh because the stewards wanted to make an example of him. Was he too aggressive with his whip? Sure, he’d acknowledge that. But he did not and would not try to hurt any horse, and now he had gone from hero to villain and couldn’t reconcile how or why.
“He was on a freaking pedestal when the whipping thing happened,” Robinson says. "That’s when things started spiraling. That took a chunk out of him. I could see it in his personality. All of a sudden, he wasn’t the happy-go-lucky, this-is-fun guy. When he rode the first time after the suspension, he was like, ‘Mom, is the crowd going to boo me?’ But they cheered when they saw him, and that helped the situation. But it was bad. It was really bad.
“Jeremy likes to be liked. Jeremy’s fun, but Jeremy’s self-confidence when people start ripping him apart ...”
The life he used to have
He won some major races, atop Bullsbay in the 2009 Whitney Handicap and Havre De Grace in the 2010 Cotillion Stakes, and averaged 150-200 victories a year, but the joy of riding had been drained from him. It was just a job now, one that he couldn’t give up. Jockeys ride through unimaginable injuries, and Rose rode through his share: concussions, broken bones in his back, a broken collarbone. He’d head to a doctor’s office near Delaware Park, get a prescription for some painkillers, and keep climbing in the saddle.
Soon enough, he was buying street oxycontin. The FDA recommends that an opioid-tolerant patient take no more than 80 milligrams per day. Rose says he was taking 300. He knew all the corners and coves in Delaware where he could buy the best stuff. “It was bad enough,” he says, “that drug dealers were telling me, ‘You might want to ease up a little bit.’ ”
He bounced in and out of rehab, finally weaning off the oxy in 2013 only to resume socially drinking. “I started figuring that one of the biggest problems I had with withdrawal wasn’t pain or the diarrhea or s--- like that,” he says. “It was that I couldn’t sleep.” So socially escalated to daily. He’d work horses in the morning, race in the afternoon, then go home and start. Vodka, straight. Grey Goose, usually. The top-shelf brands took the edge off his morning hangover. In 2015, he won just 17 of his 187 starts.
He married Brittany in September 2018, and often, when he was away, riding, she’d call to check up on him, and the phone would ring and ring as he slept off a bender. He went back to rehab and has been sober since last year, when he rebounded a bit, finishing first or second in 56 of his 115 starts.
“As I tease him all the time,” Robinson says, “he needs to get back in the game and go to the Derby again. Now, we know how to go and not be in awe. We can enjoy it.”
But Rose doesn’t interpret those pleas as teasing, and in his mind, he has too much to lose now. It has been only 18 months since his last drink, and racing doesn’t have the same allure and pull that it once did. He worries about the sport’s future. There are only so many tracks that will survive the economic fallout of the pandemic, only so many trainers who will have the few horses capable of winning the most prestigious events.
Two weeks ago, the New Jersey Racing Commission passed a rule prohibiting jockeys from using a whip “except for reasons of safety.” How many of them will be able to break that habit cold turkey? How many owners and bettors are going to abandon the track when they start seeing their horses lose by a nose because the riders couldn’t pull their sticks? At least he can walk away on his own terms.
“To this day,” he says, "I sit there and have my mom tell me, ‘You can still get there.’ Realistically, I don’t think it’s feasible anymore. Never say never, but I’m 41. Weight’s not going to roll off me like it used to. Mom keeps wanting me to do this diet and this and that, but my cousin looked up my optimal weight, and it’s 125. I’m 130 right now. This is where I’m supposed to be.
“And the other thing is the safety issue. I have a wife and a kid. Do I want to take that chance of being in a wheelchair for them now? When I was riding, and I was doing all the stupid s---, like going through holes I shouldn’t, it was just me. The outcome, it was just me living with it. After I got through all this, do I also want to take the chance I’ll start drinking again, drugging again? Do I want to put myself in that situation? Do I want to play with fire again, knowing I probably can’t get to that level?”
A few bystanders had stood near the wire to watch the workouts, but now Rose, seated with his arms stretched out against the grandstand table, is the only one around. It’s nearly 9:45 a.m., an afternoon of races yet ahead. “It’s hard when you’ve been to that level and you’re not going to get back to it,” he says, but it’s not so hard that it keeps him from doing what he does next. He gets up on his feet, walks to his car, and drives 150 miles home, to the life he now needs most.