Cheering for Racer One as he rounds the track at Roy Stewart Stadium is one of the oldest and most exciting traditions for Murray State students.
Yet, never has a jockey been a Murray native – until this year.
Senior Brooklyn Hjerpe did not even know she was the first rider from Murray until after she secured the position. It is a dream she has had for several years now.
“When I was a little girl we used to come up here and I’d watch Racer One go around,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be Racer One one day.”
She also brings something else unique to the table. While most riders are required to get to know horses provided by the University, Hjerpe actually saddles up on her own horse.
Diego – Racer One to Murray State fans – is a horse she adopted seven years ago. At the age of two, he survived Hurricane Katrina.
She was not originally going to ride her own horse if she got the position.
Gary Atkerson, a lecturer at Murray State, oversees the care and handling of Racer One. He said riders typically use a horse provided by the University.
However, exceptions are made if the jockey does not feel comfortable atop those horses. That was the case this year, and the seven-year relationship Hjerpe developed with Diego allowed her to bring him in.
First, though, Hjerpe had to beat out six or seven other candidates. She had to go through riding tryouts and an interview session.
“It’s really important to being able to stop the horse and control the horse,” she said. “I just got on different horses and ran them and brought them back down.”
A week later she found out she would be the one to suit up at home games. She now spends countless hours training her horse throughout the week.
“We like to try to ride the horse about five days a week,” Hjerpe said. “Some days if he’s acting silly, you have to adjust what you want to do according to how he’s acting. For the most part we trot him a lot and get him to build up his muscles.”
Training involves more than keeping the horse in good physical shape, though.
He also has to become mentally acclimated to the surrounding atmosphere.
“This takes a very special horse,” Atkerson said. “99.9 percent of horses would not be able to do this job.”
He said the smarter the horse is, the more aware he will be.
“We really need one dumber than a rock to do it,” Atkerson said. “Her horse is extremely intelligent. That’s one of the problems he’s having, is he’s thinking too much.”
To help calm Racer One down, his team has to simulate as much of gameday as possible. They wave flags around him and the band plays live to get him used to the beating of the drums as he rounds the track.
During his debut last week, Racer One showed a bit of uneasiness toward the crowd and band after touchdowns.
Hjerpe was able to control him and help him through it, though.
“Just smile and push him forward, that’s all you can do,” she said. “He trusts me pretty well, so usually if I can encourage him to go on, he will.”
Atkerson said the horse can tell if the jockey has control, and that affects everything.
“If the rider can maintain control of the horse and has confidence in the horse, then the horse feels that and goes on and does his job,” he said.
Hjerpe said it takes almost all day to get him ready. She will ride Racer One early in the day, then stretch and groom him.
After she goes home to get ready, they bring the horse to the stadium about two hours before game time.
The rest of the team walks Racer One around the track while Hjerpe meets the fans.
Atkerson said the program has changed drastically since the first time he had the job 20 years ago.
“It’s a show now,” he said. “Before it was simple. We just bring the horse over here, saddle up, score a touchdown and run around.”
Now, he said, there are activities going on all around for which his team has to adjust.
Atkerson said most people do not realize how unique and difficult their task is.
He has known Hjerpe since she was a freshman, and he said that has helped everything.
“It’s been easy to work with her, and she’s a very talented horse person that we’re very fortunate to have,” he said. “I couldn’t do this job without this young lady. She is the star, and we’re just support players. She makes it work.”
Story by Ryan Richardson, Sports Editor