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    Riders up! An echo in the paddock. After 42 years, jockey Perry Wayne Ouzts’ patent-leather boots and white nylon pants form a second skin. In these pre-race moments, he’s mellow, not a hint of jitters. This quiet, slight man carries a reputation — ironman, tough guy. Really, he’s a man in love, a guy who can’t stay away after 40 shattered bones, 10 surgeries, a broken back that compacted him from 5-foot-2 down to 5-foot-1, a horse’s kick to the eye that swelled his face pumpkin-sized and left two keepsakes — mild double vision and a droopy eyelid. Most jockeys have a 15- to 20-year shelf life. And those are the lucky ones.

    He approaches a brown filly named Dance Electric with the ease one might have walking to the mailbox. Though, at 61 years old, he has trekked to the mailbox some 19,000 times; this walk’s even more familiar. 

    He flings one leg over his horse, just like the 20-something babyfaces around him, just like the Pat Days and Victor Espinozas. But Ouzts never opted to race with the giants. “I like being a big fish in a small pond,” he says with a smile. Easier to win that way. Tonight’s pond — Turfway Park, a 1960s relic that announces itself in the Northern Kentucky skyline with five neon-green horses that light up one by one in lazy cadence, a tick shy of a resting heart. Fourteen people press against the rail, waiting for the race to begin under the evening’s sapphire sky. A cold winter wind that just whipped the neighboring airport smacks the track. Inside Turfway’s glass-encased grandstand, seats go mostly unfilled. Hundreds mingle in the smoky belly of the track, $1 beers and $1 hot dogs in hand as they bet on races near and far. 

    “They’re at the post,” an announcer calls. Keep me safe, Ouzts prays. He likes to point out that horse racing is “the only profession where an ambulance follows you around while you’re working.” But fear doesn’t cross him. Maybe it never did. There’s comfort in knowing God made you for this, those tiny, twig legs that dangled, unable to reach the floor while sitting at his fifth-grade desk. He couldn’t crack 100 pounds in high school. And then there’s that competitive spirit that howls when the starting gate bursts open.

    Ring! “They’re off!” Seven horses bolt. Ouzts always gets them out the gate fast, his arms flapping like wings, reins snapping up and down, a proper giddy-up. That’s why they call him “Scootin’ Boot.” If Ouzts has a strong horse under him, he’ll win. 

    “Dance Electric takes the first turn wide…but takes the lead,” the announcer says. Ouzts still looks fit. “Not like Ichabod Crane,” he jokes. He doesn’t feel 61. But study the pack at 40 miles per hour and the other jocks have more spring in their crouched frames, more bounce. Ouzts stays low and solid, like a wooden plank riding a restless ocean.

    Wearing lime-green-and-purple silks, Ouzts moves into the final turn of the one-mile race in first. A horse named LZ Nancy pulls up on the outside. This is a pretty minor claiming race — a $7,500 purse. Ouzts doesn’t care. “Win’s a win. I get the same thrill every time,” he says. “If it’s a cheap, cheap race or a big stakes.” Ouzts whips Dance Electric five times on the left, eight on the right. He doesn’t ever give up, fellow jockeys say. Sometimes it looks like he lifts the 1,000-pound Thoroughbred over the finish line. That’s why he wins so damn much. Over a card game in the jockeys’ room, a debate: How many times has he won? 3,500? 5,500? 

    “Nearing the wire, it’s Dance Electric. Dance Electric and Perry Ouzts lead the whole way!” That’s win number 6,574. A security guard chuckles, says, “He makes it look so easy.” 

    It’s impossible to talk about Perry Wayne Ouzts without allowing for a holy smokes! moment. At press time, he had totaled more than 48,000 mounts or starts (48,112 to be exact). With more than 6,500 wins, his 2,200-square-foot suburban brick home in Hebron, in Northern Kentucky, doubles as a trophy case. There’s a 20-pound bronze award for his 6,000th win, an elegant glass bowl for the 5,000th. Framed photos and posters document his 32 leading-rider titles at his favorite track, River Downs (now Belterra) near Cincinnati. “No one will ever beat that,” he says, smiling. “Ever.” It’s similar to the grin painted on Ouzts bobbleheads sold at regional tracks.

    Ouzts stands as the 11th-most winning jockey in the country, just nudging out his cousin Earlie Fires, a Hall of Fame jockey whose tally is 6,470 wins. But Fires’s number won’t budge. He’s retired. Ouzts wants 7,000 wins. That would bump him up to number eight. 

    A glimpse at this list of winning jockeys shows a tale of two career paths — the big boys who rake in the cash and obscure riders pounding out wins at scrappier venues. Edgar Prado, a Hall of Fame jockey who rode Barbaro to victory in the Kentucky Derby, is currently the eighth-most winning jockey. He’s earned nearly $259 million in his career. Ouzts? Just over $41 million. (He has pocketed about 10 percent of that.) 

    Then there’s the guy who tops the list — Russell Baze. The winningest jockey boasts 53,372 starts, almost 13,000 wins and about $198 million in earnings. Baze, who is in his late 50s, shares Ouzts’ M.O. He races at a small, weathered track overlooking the San Francisco Bay, a place where he sweeps up victories like crumbs. “He’s the only jockey who likes to ride more than me,” Ouzts says in an Arkansas drawl.

    Rivervale, Arkansas. That’s where Ouzts grew up. About an eighth of a mile down the road lived his cousins, the Fireses, a large family of nine boys and two girls now known for Earlie’s success as a jockey and for Earlie’s brother — William “Jinks” Fires — who is a respected trainer. They introduced horses to a young Ouzts. (Pronounced Oots, it’s an unusual and perhaps “made up” name courtesy of German relatives. “I think it was Utz when they came across the waters,” Ouzts says. “Somehow they changed it to O-U-Z-T-S. Makes no sense.”) By the fifth grade, Ouzts had his mind set, handing over a report to his teacher indicating that when he grew up, he’d work as a professional jockey. 

    Nothing in Rivervale much interested him. Factory jobs, that’s about all it had to offer. Uncle Sam briefly called, then got a good look at him. “When I was 18, I had to go down and register for the draft. At that point I just hit 5-foot-2,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to go because I heard about how, with the smaller guys, they’d send them into the tunnels. They called ’em tunnel rats to see if there was Viet Cong. So I thought that was going to be my job. I went in. They weighed me. I weighed 95 pounds. They said, ‘You’re too small. We’ll call you if things get really, really bad. But we don’t need you in the Army.’ I went, ‘Phew! Dodged a bullet!’”

    In 1973, just a week out of high school, Ouzts jumped at opportunity. One of “the Fires boys” called him up with a question: Want to come up to Chicago and be a jockey? At the time his cousins rode on a circuit that included tracks in Chicago and Hot Springs, Arkansas. We’ll teach you everything, they proposed. “I said I’d give it a shot,” Ouzts recalls. “And I never looked back.’”

    Over 42 years, a lot has changed. Most jockeys now hail from Latin America. Tracks are safer than they used to be. But many that used to run five or six days a week have cut back, making it harder to make decent money. Ouzts blames, in part, the influx of casinos to the area. Money flew to the twinkling 

    newcomers. “The purses haven’t went up much in 42 years,” says Ouzts. “Everything else went up 400 or 500 percent. Purses haven’t. And when I started riding, the losing jock’s mount fee was $35. Today, it’s $50. In 42 years it’s only gone up $15?” (Some tracks pay more.) Interest in the sport seems to be waning, he admits. He’s nervous about horse racing’s future. Maybe that’s one perk to his golden years.

    While his body, wiry and strong, mirrors youthful jockeys, his face holds the age. Wrinkles crease around his light blue eyes. The grit of 48,000-plus headwinds coarsen his almost sheer white skin. Blond hair, once lush, thins at the hairline. “I’m going to be able to collect Social Security soon,” Ouzts says, laughing. “And I’m still a professional jockey.”

    Down the final stretch, Ouzts rides a pretty, gray nine-year-old gal named Spice of Life. If she wins, her owner says, “She’s gonna be a mama.” Ouzts’ right arm flails. Go, girl. Come on! Fellow jockey Sophie Doyle marvels at his skills. “I’ve seen him on horses that look beat — like, that’s not gonna win — and suddenly he comes out of the clouds,” she says. “And you think, How on earth did he do that?” No guarantees, though. These smaller tracks don’t have the quality stock found at first-tier tracks like Churchill Downs or Santa Anita Park. 

    “From the back of the pack, No Warranty!” an announcer calls as a horse surges on the outside, flying across the finish line as Spice of Life tires out. Fourth place. Motherhood will wait. Steam rises from her back as Ouzts hops down. 

    “Can’t win ’em all,” a fan calls out. 

    “Sure would like to, though,” Ouzts returns. 


    At the rail, a thick man with aqua eyes and spiky, gelled hair intercepts him. “You’re a legend,” he says, presenting an envelope of Ouzts action shots printed off the Internet. Ouzts always makes time for fans — hugs, pictures, whatever they want. The man’s wife places her beer on the ground and snaps photos on her iPhone — tap, tap, tap, pause, tap, tap, tap — as Ouzts signs the photos in blue Sharpie. “That’s not me,” he says, halting at a black-and-white photo. Could’ve been though. When Ouzts first started racing, finish photos were printed in black-and-white. Framed in his home: Ouzts in black-and-white sitting atop Rablue on April 2, 1973, the first horse he won on at the now-shuttered Beulah Park racetrack in Ohio. 

    It’s that sort of anecdote that crystallizes Ouzts’ longevity, makes the whole thing seem incredible. Because a gruesome time gap spans Rablue and tonight’s blue Sharpie. Snapped bones popping out of skin. Riding in the ambulance with another cousin, Jackie Fires, back in 1977 after a horse tripped over itself during a morning workout, rolled on Jackie and paralyzed him, then hearing his frightened cousin repeat, “I can’t feel nothing. I can’t feel nothing.” And that kick to the face in 1992, the only time in 42 years that the pain lurched Ouzts into momentary doubt — should I still do this? 

    How has he done this? Ambitious angels must heed that prayer — Keep me safe. Or maybe it’s the man, the way Ouzts carries on. He doesn’t complicate things. No obsessive research to dig up new racing fads. Ouzts has eaten the same thing everyday for 42 years: coffee with Sweet’N Low and a sweet roll for breakfast, half of a ham sandwich (two slices of meat on white bread) for lunch, some sort of meat and potatoes dish for dinner, one chocolate ice cream bar. He works out, never pigs out, hasn’t touched alcohol in 25 years and has been in the sauna to lose pounds “maybe two or three times” in his whole career. Jockeys break down when they shed weight too fast for too long. “I’m lucky,” Ouzts says, “I don’t have to fight it like a lot of guys do.”

    In the jockeys’ room, Ouzts barely speaks. No tantrums over cheap horses or few mounts. “Nothing shakes him,” says Jon Court, a well-known jockey who’s married to one of Ouzts’ relatives. “He has nothing to prove to no one other than himself. And that’s a great feeling to have.” Younger jocks play Ping-Pong, shout at the television, mess around. Ouzts is in and out, washing his face, changing silks, sitting perched on a white table, like a child at a doctor’s check-up, as he waits for the next race, staring into some peaceful abyss. A monk’s temperament cut with a bare-knuckle boxer’s toughness. Maybe that’s his secret. Those who know him best might say don’t overthink it; it’s all about heart.

    Horsemen never stray. Ex-jockeys become trainers. Hot walkers become grooms. Trainers become agents. Within this loyal bunch, Ouzts’ passion for horse racing is noticeably pure. This year he had the opportunity to go to a ceremony where a documentary about him, titled “Ironman Perry Ouzts,” was being honored. Fellow jockey Sophie Doyle urged him to go. “I said, ‘Are you gonna go?’ He said, ‘No, I’m gonna stay here and ride.’ I said, ‘Perry, this is about your achievements. No one’s gonna be offended if you don’t ride for one day.’ And he said, ‘No. I’d rather just ride here. People have said they won’t run their horses if I’m not here. I don’t want to do that to anybody. I’d rather ride.’” When asked about this, Ouzts laughs. “I won two races that night!”

    That may make Ouzts sound addicted to the sport. But Toni Ouzts, a brunette beauty with bright blue eyes and chipmunk cheeks, commands a good chunk of his devotion. Married 31 years, the two met on the backside at River Downs. “She was walking hots around the barn,” Ouzts remembers. “I used to watch her go by. I was thinking, man, that girl is cute. Asked her out. Been together ever since.”

    It makes sense, their coupling. She works seven days a week all year. He nearly matches that schedule. But the two keep a happy home life. A black Harley and Mercedes SLK convertible in the garage for him. She’s in charge of decorating, red roses on the breakfast table, a large painting of Ouzts racing over the couch. If there’s been a fight in 31 years, neither recalls it. At night, Ouzts wouldn’t think to obsessively watch race video or rehash disappointments. Instead, they settle on the couch for The Voice. Ouzts promises one weeklong vacation every year and recently surprised Toni with a trip to Chicago to see Coldplay, her favorite band. A gentleman, Ouzts carries laundry baskets full of dirty horse dressings and towels for Toni and helps wash them. In the afternoon, if it’s not a race day, he’ll assist her with feeding horses on the backside. “No one works as hard as she does,” he says. “She hasn’t had a day off in over a year.” 

    They’ve raised two blond boys now in their 20s, both inexplicably hovering at about six feet tall. (Toni is only a few inches taller than Ouzts.) Neither of their sons has ever ridden a horse. “They never did show any interest,” Ouzts says with a shrug. 

    In Toni, Ouzts found love and a like mind. When he got kicked in the face by that horse in 1992 and spent almost a week in intensive care, Toni was scared, but never wished he would quit. “That seems so bad,” the youthful 52-year-old says with a laugh before shifting to a more serious tone. “My thoughts were: I hope he can get back because I don’t know what he will do if he can’t. He loves it so much.

    “I worry (about) when he has to retire. Because I don’t think he’s ever going to want to.”

    A light snow dusts Turfway’s backside. Pigeons mob the place, snatching up stray seed. It’s about eight in the morning. Gentle thumping on the black turf track slows as horses end morning workouts. Ouzts walks through the 20 barns, mid-century clunkers of concrete block and metal siding. He wears his black riding helmet and goggles, despite having no horses to breeze this morning. “Just in case,” he says. 

    This morning he’s here for the “PR.” Trainers have to be on-site every morning. So should the jocks, says Ouzts. Such diligence after 42 years seems like overkill. Everyone at the regional tracks knows him. He has a bobblehead! Ouzts disagrees. “I’ve known jockeys who’ve done really, really well for a few years. Then they start slacking,” he says, referring to missing morning workouts. “After a few years it’s: Who’s that jockey that was doing so well?”

    Ouzts meets up with his agent, James Fowler, a thin, intense man with gray in his goatee. He carries a bottle of orange juice and a stack of folded racing cards. Together, they walk into a barn with a candy-cane feel — white stalls, red gates, red blankets, red buckets. A few pigeons eavesdrop overhead. Fowler and Ouzts talk about a horse named My Partner Cal, recently selected as Ohio’s two-year-old of the year. Ouzts will race him in a little over a month. “When they gonna start working him?” Ouzts asks Fowler. “He needs to get busy.”

    “Soon,” Fowler answers. “They’re just bringing him back.”

    Fowler and Ouzts have been together since 1986, an outlier among most jockey and agent pairings. Jockeys move often. Grudges form over lack of mounts or payments. But these two have kept it simple: Ouzts works hard, acts courteous, wins; Fowler ensures he’s racing non-stop so the wins keep coming. (Twenty-five percent of winnings go to agent, 10 percent to valet.) They’ve hit a good groove for 30 years. But lately Fowler gets nervous highlighting Ouzts’ history. Mention his client’s 61-years, he grows agitated. 

     “That’s the number-one thing that hurts him. I’ve told him and told him: Don’t be talking about your age. They don’t need to know how old you are. They just need to know how you ride. Nobody wants to ride an old man,” he says. “No one sees a 60-year-old football player.”

     Ouzts has gotten some press these last few years. Like that documentary that aired in Cincinnati on cable. Fowler believes the moment that black-and-white shot of Ouzts’ 1973 win popped up on the screen, doubts surfaced. “A lot of trainers used to ride us on everything. Now, they don’t ride us on everything,” he says. “I attribute a lot of that to that show. Right or wrong.”

    Listening to Fowler, Ouzts knows aging is a liability. It’s also inevitable. He feels the pressure. For decades winning was a blast, an adrenaline bomb of joy. Now there’s an element of survival. “Pretty much if the winners don’t keep coming in, I’ll be done,” Ouzts says quietly. “As long as I keep winning they don’t care how old I am. Once the winners stop coming in? You’re too old. You’re washed up. You’re done.”

    Rattling in the starting gates. Ouzts sits in post-position one on the inside rail atop a dark brown mare, My Miss Mary. He glances at the oval’s first curve through goggles. Ring! They’re off. A couple dozen people stand at the rail, chins tucked in puffy coats, a desperate last stand against another freezing night of Friday races. “My Miss Mary sets the pace early,” the announcer calls. 

    “Go Perry, go!” Nadia Greenidge cheers. “Give me my money.” A compact 50-something woman with gold-framed glasses, long braids and a choppy laugh (heh, heh, heh!), she’s a “horse person.” Outgoing and pleasant, she’ll easily talk an evening away — taught therapy riding, worked at a breeding farm, Facebook friends with Victor Espinoza (messaged him about this year’s Derby: “Ride Mohaymen, get the hell off Smokey Image”), ex-boyfriend was a jockey. And she means ex. “He had to go,” she whoops. 

    Greenidge loves Ouzts. “I bet Perry every race to win and show,” she announces, shaking five white tickets clutched in her black mittens. She’s a recent disciple. Up until a few weeks ago, she lived in Michigan. This past fall after watching his documentary, she drove to Cincinnati to meet him at Belterra.

     So impressed by Ouzts, she started two petitions to get him into the Hall of Fame. “My theory is you shouldn’t have to win 500 stakes races,” she says. “He’s been racing for 40 years, tearing it up. He’s still winning races.” 

    Six horses head into the final stretch. “Where the hell is he?” Greenidge says, squinting. My Miss Mary’s all but vanished to the back. Ouzts crosses the finish second to last. “That’s why they call it gambling!” Greenidge says, laughing. 

    Ouzts hops down and gives his ride a gentle pat on the back. “Laid up on me,” Ouzts will later assess. Greenidge catches him before he heads to the jocks’ room. “How you doing, baby?” she asks. 

    “Good, good,” he says, giving her a one-arm squeeze. After 48,000 starts, a crappy race doesn’t frazzle him.

    He’s lucky. He knows it. When Ouzts started racing, he thought by 35 years old he’d be done. That birthday passed. Surely by 40. OK, 50. “When I broke my back the last time, (the doctor) told me my jockeying days were done. ‘You can’t take another whack like this; you’ll wind up in a chair,’” Ouzts recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t think I’m done yet.’ That was 10 years ago. I’ve won 1,700 races since then. So I guess I was right and he was wrong.” 

    Aches and pains are few. Nothing Tylenol or Advil can’t soothe. Ouzts doesn’t see himself as stubborn. Just driven. Even at his age, racing and all the rituals around it don’t induce strain. They offer equilibrium. When he and Toni discuss retirement, they fantasize about a Florida condo. Near a track, so she can still groom and he can, at the very least, still gallop horses in the morning. “I probably will eat the same no matter what,” he says. “Well, I might eat a whole sandwich instead of a half.”

    No wins tonight. A second, seventh, eighth. The longest Ouzts has ever gone without a win is 84 horses over about three weeks. “Felt like forever,” he says. By tomorrow, he’ll get another win. 6,575. On Sunday, another — 6,576. Retirement from racing won’t feel like freedom. “I’ll be sad,” Ouzts says. “I’ve been doing this every day since I was 18.” And so he goes, marching to his horse, throwing one leg over, a few easy breaths before the dash. Focus: Bring in the win. The end can wait with enough great finishes. 

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    Images: Mickie Winters

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