Susie McBrayer had her jacket wrapped tightly around her against the spring cold as she walked the stable area Friday morning. A native of Southern California who arrived in Shakopee by way of Phoenix, McBrayer is still trying to acclimate herself to these new chilly surroundings.
“I wear a jacket with a hood so I suppose people think I’m crazy,” she said. “You people who live here probably think this is nice, but I’m freezing.”
McBrayer is a rider agent who arrived from Turf Paradise with Juan Ochoa, for whom she has hustled book the last seven years, ever since they hooked up during his bug year.
They are in new surroundings this spring, where many riders are clearly established, in tight with barns for the last several years, so McBrayer knew it might be a tough start.
“Sometimes you get to a new meet and nobody knows you,” she said. “Juan could be the best rider in the world and it wouldn’t make much difference if nobody knows him. Most of these people have their riders, so it’s tough to break in.”
Nonetheless, McBrayer is a track savvy woman who grew up in the Southern California Racing circuit, on the backsides of Santa Anita Park, Hollywood Park and Del Mar, where her father, C.H. McBrayer trained for 50 years.
“I used to get up early and go to the track a lot with my dad,” she said. “I’d help around the barn, do whatever I could, raked, held horses as I got older. I started training some of my own. I also owned a few.”
C.H. was influenced as a youngster, too, growing up around horses but left Ethan, S.D., as a young man to join the Navy. He wound up in California after his stint in the service and opened a television business near Hollywood Park. He had ridden a horse to school as a youngster… the rest is easy to envision.
And Susie grew up in the environment of racing.
“I’ve been around the track all my life,” she added.
McBrayer broke into the agent game in 2004, keeping book for Canadian rider Emille Ramsammy. “He came to Santa Anita and I had him for just one winter. Then he went back to Woodbine,” she said. “But without him I probably never would have started doing this. He taught me the ropes.”
McBrayer and Ochoa hooked up in 2006 at Santa Anita when he had the bug and spent much of the next few seasons and meets in Northern and Southern California and New Mexico. They were at Turf Paradise for the first time last winter, which led to their first trip to Minnesota after they began hearing trainers talking about the welcoming conditions and improved purses at Canterbury Park.
The presence of stables belonging to Dan McFarlane in particular as well as Miguel Angel Silva assured Ochoa and McBrayer of collecting some paychecks in Minnesota.
It was another Phoenix-based trainer, Don Schnell, who provided Ochoa with his first win of the Canterbury meet, however. Ochoa was aboard Tempe, the winner of Friday night’s third race.
Ochoa, like McBrayer, grew up around the racetrack. He is a native of Los Angeles. His parents both worked for Jerry Fanning at Santa Anita. As a boy, Ochoa wanted nothing more than to become a rider.
“I went to college for a year but when all you’ve wanted is to be a jockey… it only gets worse the older you get.”
In regard to the decision to come north, so far, so good.
“I like it,” Ochoa said. “They treat you well here. They act like they want you. It makes it feel like home.”
Ochoa considers Canterbury Park a “very friendly place. Everything about the place,” he said.
Neither rider nor agent had ever been to Minnesota before but have settled in comfortably in their new locale… “I like the people here. They’re friendly,” Ochoa said. “The city is nice, very clean, so are the barns, the backside… everything.”
What is already very clear to Ochoa and McBrayer is that Canterbury Park exists for and is all about racing, nothing more.
“We need more people (like the Sampsons),” McBrayer said, “and they’re just not out there. People like (the Sampsons) will keep racing alive, keep it going because they love it.”
It is quite clear that although McBrayer and Ochoa like the Minnesota racing scene, they are not smitten beyond reason, to the point of, say, putting down roots.
“Minnesota? No. I wouldn’t be able to handle the winters here,” she said.
Special Attraction on Hand for Monday’s Holiday Racing
The Human Cannonball is coming to Canterbury Park as part of the track’s Memorial Day Celebration. David “The Bullet” Smith, Jr., who appeared on America’s Got Talent, will be shot out of a cannon as part of the festivities. Paul Allen found out a little more about the act on Friday afternoon. Check out the video:
This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.