Solana Beach jockey thrilled to be back ‘on track’

By Julie Sarno


Jockey Joe Steiner has a long history with the Del Mar Race Track. From the Pacific Northwest, Steiner rode his first race in 1981 at Del Mar. The jockey owns a condo in Solana Beach. He calls the seaside town his home, even though riding at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park takes him to the Los Angeles area for much of the year.

Born in Renton, Wash., Steiner is part of a racing family. He grew up near Longacres, a race track which is now defunct. His parents, Joe and Sally, run the track kitchen at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash. Steiner is one of four children. His brother, Jack, is in the import-export business. His sister, Kelli, gallops for trainer Vann Belvoir and sister, Karrie, is a dental hygienist in Seattle.

Steiner’s grandfather was a jockey. After he retired, he became a trainer. As a boy, Steiner helped him, cleaning stalls and grooming horses.

“I knew from the time I was 5 years old that I wanted to be a jockey,” said Steiner. Hall of Fame jockey John Longden often visited. “He and my grandfather were good friends. Mr. Longden said to me, ‘As soon as you learn how to ride, come see me.’”

At 15, Steiner began working for Longden, then a trainer, at Santa Anita. He finished high school at the insistence of Mrs. Longden. Steiner rode his first winner in 1981 at Del Mar on a horse named Hillside Ruler. His riding career took him back to the Pacific Northwest and then to Kentucky. Steiner returned to the Southern California circuit in 1999. He suffered a serious injury in a 2005 spill at Santa Anita. After his injury, Steiner worked for the Jockeys’ guild, then in real estate. Then for two years, he worked horses for top trainer Bob Baffert. Steiner did not ride in a race again until this spring.

Steiner recalled his return as a jockey: “I was on a 35-1 shot at Santa Anita and I got beat by a head. I rode for Joe Herrick. It was like I was watching a movie. It had been six years since I had ridden a race. I had ridden for Joe in the past. He believed in me.”

Steiner’s first win upon his return as a jockey occurred on May 28 at Hollywood Park. Steiner was aboard Slane Castle, a 3-year-old filly trained and co-owned by Bob Leonard. Steiner had ridden for Leonard over the years. Most notably, Steiner rode Saratoga Passage to victory in the 1987 Norfolk Stakes (Grade 1) at Santa Anita.

“Slane Castle went off at 71-1 and paid $143,” recalled Steiner. “Track announcer Vic Stauffer was ready, ‘It’s Joe Steiner’s first win in six years, three months and two days.’”

Steiner won his first race of Del Mar’s 2011 meet on Aug. 13 aboard Spartan Jet. Spartan Jet is also trained by Herrick. Steiner has ridden 10,050 races in his career, won 969 races, second in 1,006 and third in 1,080.

Why did Steiner work so hard to make a comeback as a jockey?

“The bottom line is, I was empty inside when I wasn’t around the horses and away from the track,” said Steiner. “Working horses brought me back to life — my enthusiasm and passion for it.”

As for being a jockey, Steiner is enjoying it more than ever. “I appreciate every minute now. I feel that I can be more of an asset to a horse during a race. I’m stronger than I was before physically and mentally.”

The jockey colony at Del Mar features top jockeys. The competition for mounts is fierce. Steiner has no agent. Now that Steiner has returned to being a jockey, he approaches it like a business venture. He sets up his morning schedule in advance and works horses for different trainers. Then, Steiner hopes to be named as the jockey on the horse when it races.

“When I work a horse for someone, they have more confidence in me,” said Steiner, who acknowledges he practices the old Avis Rental Car slogan — he tries harder. He will show up to work a horse in the morning whereas a big name rider might not.

“Developing a young horse is the most rewarding thing there is – working with them and teaching them,” said the jockey, whose youthful appearance and energy make him seem much younger than his 47 years. Divorced, Steiner has a daughter named Cole who lives in Kentucky with her mother.

Fitness is a priority with Steiner, who works out and keeps a careful eye on his nutrition. In terms of weight control and nutrition, Steiner credits Hall of Fame retired jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr., with helping him. Steiner says he starts the day with a Power Bar and water. After working horses in the morning, often he makes an omelet, consisting of two egg whites and a whole egg, some spinach and some sunflower seeds, cooked in oil, not butter. Another Power Bar is a snack in the afternoon. Avoiding dairy and carbs are key to his nutrition regime. Steiner’s dinner often includes fish and vegetables.