By Julie Sarno
While the career nearest to Joe Steiner's heart has been taken from him, he is making do with the next best thing.
An injury forced Steiner to retire as a jockey, but he now works horses as lead work rider for trainer Bob Baffert.
Steiner, who lives in Solana Beach, grew up near Longacres Park, Wash. His grandfather and uncle were jockeys. His parents, Joe and Sally, run the track kitchen at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash. After Steiner's grandfather retired from riding he became a trainer. As a boy, Steiner helped him clean stalls and groom horses.
"I knew from the time I was 5 years old that I wanted to be a jockey," Steiner said.
When he was a boy, Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Longden visited his grandfather.
"He and my grandfather were good friends. Mr. Longden said to me, 'As soon as you learn how to ride, come see me.'"
Steiner started working for Longden, then a trainer, at age 15 at Santa Anita. He stayed in a tack room in Longden's barn.
He rode his first race at 17 in 1981 at Del Mar and notched his first career victory at Del Mar aboard a runner named Hillside Ruler. By 1982, Steiner was the second-leading apprentice in the nation in purse money.
His riding career took him back to the Pacific Northwest and then to Kentucky. Steiner returned to Southern California in 1999 to be a part of the jockey colony.
During his 24-year career as a jockey on 10.010 mounts, Steiner rode 967 winners, 1,001 seconds and 1,078 third-place finishes. He rode many top horses, including Midshipman, winner of the 2008 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and last year's champion 2-year-old colt. He also worked Pioneerof the Nile, second-place finisher in this year's Kentucky Derby.
After several racing accidents and more than 30 broken bones, Steiner suffered an injury in a spill at Santa Anita in 2005 that ended his riding career. He officially retired as a jockey in 2006.
Other recent champions he has galloped and worked include Midnight Lute, voted champion sprinter as a 4-year-old and winner of the 2007 and 2008 Breeders' Cup Sprint; and two-time champion Indian Blessing, winner of the 2007 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
"I had a herniated disc and bone spurs in my neck area and I needed a plate and six screws before it was fused together," Steiner said.
He took two years off from the racetrack, pursuing other career interests. Time improved the nerve damage and eventually the siren song of the racetrack called him back. He missed the people, the routine and especially the horses. Last summer he began working for Baffert.
"Joe has experience and he knows what kind of horse he has under him," said Baffert, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing last week in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
"He lets me know how sharp and ready a horse is," Baffert said. "He has a good feel for the horses. He really helped me with Silver Charm (who won the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes)."
Steiner said he has great respect for Baffert and enjoys working in his barn.
"Even if I was just getting on a pony (any horse other than a racehorse), I'm doing what I love to do," Steiner said. "I'm working for someone I like and respect and getting on good horses."