Matt Calkins: Jockey enjoys bucking the odds

Commentary: Matt Calkins

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PORTLAND -- Marbles knows.

“I’ve never really seen a horse run like that for anybody,” said David Singer, a jockey’s agent better known as Marbles. “She has unlimited potential.”

Burro knows, too.

“I told her to remember me when she becomes famous,” said Felimon Alvarado, a horse trainer better known as, well...you get it. “With some people, they’re just so good, you can’t really explain it.”

And to think, when Eliska Kubinova first began working at the track, it would take weeks before anybody would let her on a horse. Had those stubborn burros lost their marbles?

Apparently so -- because last Wednesday, the former Vancouver resident won six out of 10 races at Portland Meadows. The Wednesday before, Kubinova landed in the winner’s circle five times.

A good chunk of these victories were a byproduct of patience and daring that made certain veterans look like dude-ranch tourists. Someone needs tell her -- the rookie isn’t supposed to be doing the hazing.

Of course, had anybody suggested that the 23-year-old would be having this kind of success six months ago, she’d be the first to set the odds at 1000-to-1. It had been less than a year since Kubinova had left the Czech Republic for the United States, and her desired occupation at the time wasn’t jockey but rather nanny.

That is what she worked as for six months in upstate New York as a means of experiencing life in America -- living with a host family introduced to her through an agency that facilitates foreign travel. But it turned out that sitting kids didn’t have the same thrill as sitting in the saddle, so Eliska moved to Seattle to try her luck at the track.

It’s not as though Kubinova was an equine amateur. At the age of 15, she chose jockey school over architecture school at the urging of her mother, and spent three years learning the finer points of riding.

However, when she migrated to Washington in pursuit of a job at Emerald Downs in Auburn, actual racing was not on Eliska’s to-do list.

“I just wanted to gallop,” said Kubinova, referring to riding horses during practice sessions. “But my trainer Dan Kenney told me that he would get me to change my mind about it.”

Kenney did just that, but not after several weeks in which Kubinova would show up to the track asking if she could help, only to be rebuffed by just about everyone she approached. Eventually, esteemed trainer Doris Harwood would aid Eliska in attaining her galloping license, and after a touch of seasoning and a hint of persuasion -- she...was...off!

Kubinova won her first race at Emerald Downs in her second week as a jockey. Marbles signed on as her agent after watching just three races on TV.

And heading into the final race day Wednesday, Eliska has climbed into second place in the Portland Meadows rider standings while having won 14 of her past 34 starts.

“Are you going to give me a hard time, too?” said Portland Meadows jockey Javier Matias when asked about Kubinova, who has cut deeply into his lead in the jockey standings this month. “People are always like ‘she’s going to beat you.’ Right now, she’s hot...Sometimes she’s dangerous.”

Yes, regardless of whether she wins or places, Eliska is always good for a show. She is not intimidated by traffic or tight spots, which keeps her forever competitive.

Additionally, trainers such as Nick Lowe praise the soft touch that gets horses to “like her.” But as Kubinova explains it, “I’m not strong enough to be physical with them. I have to run my own way.”

Eliska, who now lives in Auburn, hasn’t made up enough ground on Matias to take over first place Wednesday. Even so, this may be your last chance to catch Kubinova at the track.

Portland Meadows trainer Chris Sutton thinks her talent could very well land Kubinova in Southern California, making it so “you won’t be even be able to get her on a horse here next year.”

Doesn’t leave much time to give her a nickname like Marbles or Burro.

Hmmm. Well, she is getting her bettors paid.

Czechbook, anyone?

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com