Easton jockey wins 2,500th race
On Saturday, March 31, Easton native Michael Ziegler captured his 2,500th career win at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Nebraska. Pretty good for someone who did not want to be a jockey.
“I never grew up with the dream,” Ziegler admits.
The Minnesotan’s first memory of horse racing took place when he was 11 years old as Ziegler watched Seattle Slew win the 1977 Kentucky Derby. However, the future jockey explains his career path in horse racing didn’t develop until much later.
“I thought it was interesting and cool, but there wasn’t any horse racing going on that I knew of in southern Minnesota at the time, so I didn’t think much of it,” Ziegler says.
The equine enthusiast finally got a first hand look at the sport in 1985, when Canterbury Park opened in Shakopee. In what started out as merely a hobby, Ziegler began working with the animals and preparing them for their races; a practice known as breaking horses.
This includes walking and grooming the horses, cleaning the stalls and exercising the majestic creatures. Eventually, Ziegler says he was encouraged to start riding horses after numerous remarks were made about his diminutive five-foot-two inch frame.
“A lot of people would say ‘you’re so small, you should be a jockey.’ So I figured I should give it a shot,” Ziegler recalls.
For the next two years, Ziegler made stops in Colorado and Oklahoma to learn more about the art of horse racing. Knowing very little about what he was getting into, Ziegler says he just remained hopeful his interest would guide him in the right direction.
“A lot of jockeys have family members who have rode horses before, but I went into this business completely in the dark,” Ziegler reveals. “It was really my size that aided in my decision to pursue the thoroughbred industry.”
Ziegler credits trainer Kent Stalhiem and jockey Cliff Thompson as two important mentors early in his horse racing career. Their tutelage allowed Ziegler to prepare for his first professional race at Erie Downs in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1987.
Since that first race, Ziegler has not only compiled 2,500 wins, but he has tallied 2,417 seconds and 2,412 thirds in a grand total of 19,238 starts.
With over 30 years of horse racing under his belt, Ziegler says his longevity in the industry is part luck and part preparation. The thoroughbred professional exercises his horses six days each week with a practice known as breezing; or exhibition rides of short distances. He also maintains a weight of 110-120 pounds.
“Breezing helps build up the lung capacity of the horse. We do that for about four hours every morning,” Ziegler shares. “I also practice weight control because trainers typically don’t want you to be much heavier than 120.”
Ziegler and his wife Jackie have raised five children together; Krys, Zack, Shelby, Bailey and Nick. Of the group, Zack and Shelby have taken a unique interest in their father’s line of work.
While Zack has completed veterinarian school and has been exercising horses for the last five years, Shelby began working with horses last year as a member of the United States military.
Ziegler knows he is towards the tail end of his racing career, but says he still enjoys the routine of being a jockey. For now, he plans to continue riding for as long as he can.
“As a jockey, you never know how long you’re going to last because injuries can happen at any time. I’ve been very fortunate to last this long, and I’m just going to take it one day at a time,” Ziegler adds.