Your life is about to change but you don’t yet know it. It will change in ways you never imagined, one step at a time, leading you from Jordan, Minnesota, to Pierre, S.D., to Southern California, Phoenix, AZ., and back home to the racetrack 15 minutes down the road.
Meet Marcus Swiontek, a native Minnesotan who had never seen a horse race until he was 14 years old, didn’t know a thing about horses, had never touched one much less ridden one. Smarty Jones changed life for him right then and there, in front of the television set at home in Jordan nine years ago.
He began asking questions about the sport, delving into it, watching races whenever he could.
His parents were dumbstruck when he first presented the idea that he’d like to become a jockey.
“It wasn’t that they didn’t support me,” he said. “They just didn’t know anything about it.”
Neither Jim nor Wendy Swiontek was a horse person. Their concern was quite natural as parents, but gradually the reality of their son’s decision began to take hold.
He began taking riding lessons on Arabians in Jordan, began going to races at Canterbury Park.
“I didn’t know anything about Canterbury growing up,” he said. But he was learning, soaking up as much information as he could.
He sent out countless e-mails to names associated with Minnesota racing, trying to find whatever work he could – in barns or on farms.
“Most people weren’t interested,” he said. Vic Hanson was. “Come on out,” he said. “I need help.”
Marcus arrived in mid-January that year, in Pierre, S.D. Hanson put him to work, brushing, grooming, handling the tack. “He put me on one or two of the better behaved horses in the arena,” said Marcus.
Life was beginning to change – for the better, in Marcus’s view. He worked the barns at Canterbury and wherever else he could find work.
He headed to Los Alamitos and hooked up with Keith Craigmyle, galloping primarily, wearing the yellow mesh vest required of a novice exercise rider. “After about two months, the outrider told me to take it off,” Swiontek said. “Half of the people there didn’t know what it was anyway.”
He wound up at Turf Paradise in December, 2011, and got his riding license, rode a few winners and headed to Shakopee last summer when the Phoenix meet concluded. He won a couple of races locally and then headed back to Phoenix.
He had not been in Arizona before arriving there the first time to ride, and didn’t give the locale much thought.
“But it grows on you every time you go back,” he said.
Enough so that he intends to ride there again when the Canterbury meet winds up in September.
Carrying the apprentice allowance, Swiontek went to Winnipeg to ride when the meet at Turf Paradise concluded in May and was there until three weeks ago, when lack of opportunity and income forced him to move his tack with 25 wins still left on his bug.
“I wasn’t making it,” he said.
Thus, home to Jordan, to the home in which he grew up, just 15 minutes from Canterbury Park.
He was wearing a University of Minnesota t-shirt with Golden Gophers on it Thursday night as he talked about his decision to become a rider.
“I’m a (Minnesota) football and basketball fan,” he said. “Probably more basketball because they do better in that sport.”
Marcus played golf throughout high school and baseball, in the summer months, although he dabbled in basketball and football as well. He is 5-foot-9 and controls his weight easily. “When I had to lose four pounds originally I felt weak,” he said. “But I’m fine now. No problems at all.”
About that time, Nate Quinonez, the colors man, walked into the silks room and struck up a conversation about a recent golf outing with Marcus, and how each had fared.
Marcus feels right at home, because he is home and trying to scare up business at him home track.
At one time aerospace was his future. “I’ve always been interested in flying,” he explained. There are horses who can fly, a bystander interjected.
“I’ve been on a couple,” he said.
He would welcome more, as many as he can get.
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.