Nichelle Milner begins her fifth year running the show as Hastings Racecourse begins its 130th season Saturday.
Who would want a job like this? Nichelle Milner, that’s who.
Being race secretary is a solitary, thankless pursuit, but short of riding again as a jockey, the race secretary at Hastings Racecourse wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“It’s a job I’d never want,” longtime Hastings Racecourse race-caller and B.C. Hall of Fame inductee Dan Jukich said. “The five guys you make happy today, the next day they want to cut your throat. They want their horses in and it doesn’t happen all the time. It’s a tough job.”
Deciding which horses run and when is one of the myriad of responsibilities Milner, California-born and Oregon-raised, has as she begins her fifth season at Hastings.
“For every person I make happy I make 10 upset,” Milner said as finishing touches were put on the track for Saturday’s opening of its 130th thoroughbred season.
Milner’s parents had racehorses and when she was eight they got her a Shetland pony named Cocoa.
“She dumped me every time I rode her, I don’t think I stayed on that pony for the first three months,” Milner said. “My mom said, ‘If you can learn to ride this, you can learn to ride anything.’ ”
The bug had bitten.
So later that year when Milner’s parents brought her to the backstretch at Santa Ana Park in California’s Orange County, she walked up to a well-known local horse trainer and told him she was going to be a jockey.
“He patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Well isn’t that cute?’ ”
It was more than enough encouragement.
Fast-forward to high school graduation in 1988, 5-foot Milner, a riding whip in one hand and her helmet in the other, approached record-holding Triple Crown winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
“I had really, really thought how I was going to talk to him when I walked up to him at Santa Anita, I had it fully rehearsed, you know, ‘Do you have a spot for me?’
“Instead, all that came out of my mouth was, ‘I’m going to ride for you.’ ”
The trainer cocked an eyebrow and sent her to his son and his stable at Hollywood Park.
Her family had moved to Oregon and Milner won her first race, on her parents’ horse, Ken Kelley (his name is tattooed on her leg), at Portland Meadows in 1989 … and then broke her jaw and had several teeth knocked out the next morning when a horse hit her with the back of his head.
Jockey’s aren’t paid if they don’t ride and she wanted to race that afternoon, but doctors said no. Still, she returned the next week, far sooner than most would to a desk job, jaw wired, a cold breeze setting off the exposed nerves where her teeth used to be.
A broken back followed that season. Then a broken nose, thanks to a flying horseshoe. And a hematoma after being kicked.
Other injuries and then, a broken neck in 1992.
“We never allow ourselves to heal properly and that’s pretty much why (her neck broke),” she said, citing previous spills. Her arm, now almost fully recovered, was paralyzed.
It was time to walk away, she couldn’t bear to even watch a race on TV for eight years.
“If racing is in your blood, it’s crippling if you can’t be involved,” she said. “Obviously, for me, physically crippling, but emotionally crippling. I couldn’t be around it.”
Eight years, then out of the blue she got a call, Portland Meadows was looking for a paymaster, was she interested? Not on your life, she told them. Never.
Half-an-hour later she called back and asked what time she should show up in the morning. That led, 11 years later, to Hastings. May 3 marks the fourth anniversary of Milner’s first day on the job in Vancouver.
It’s a lot of weight for one pair of shoulders and today the hair hanging off those shoulders is blond. Last year she had jet-black hair, a light shade of purple before that and brunette with red highlights the year she arrived in Vancouver.
“Every season I like to come up with something different,” she said.
Milner is 48. If her hair by now is naturally grey, it’s understandable.
“Stressful is an understatement,” she said. “But I get goosebumps just thinking about live racing starting back up.
“No. 1, if I could do anything I wanted, I’d be race-riding still. This is a close second.”
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