Former jockey finds new path at Arlington racecourse
Many Arlington International Racecourse fans know Brandon Meier as the young jockey hoping to follow the successful path of his father, veteran jockey Randall Meier.
When they call the horses to post for Saturday's 31st Arlington Million, however, the Wheaton native will not be in the starting gate as a jockey.
But he will be at the gate -- in his new career at the track.
After suffering one too many injuries and riding a few too many long shots, Meier decided it was time for a change. This summer he began working on Blue Knott's starting gate crew.
"I was in the jocks' room one day at Arlington and we got to talking," said Knott, who has been the Arlington starter since 2000. "Brandon started talking to me about the gate and I said, 'Come on over and see if you like it.' He began working for free in the mornings and even a few afternoons just to learn. You can't beat that labor."
Now Meier is getting his paycheck as the youngest member of a veteran starting crew that strives to make sure every horse gets a clean start. Meier also spends his mornings galloping horses for trainer Louis Roussel.
"As a jock, when your horse acted up, it was like, 'OK, get out and bail out.' Now (as starter), you are trying to fight the horse to get back down on his feet and stand still. It's a whole different situation."
Meier, whose father also served as a jockey agent and outrider, is the first former jockey to work on the Arlington gate crew under Knott.
After winning the first race he rode (on Houseboat in 2008 for trainer Wayne Catalano), things didn't always come easy for the 25-year-old Meier, whose injuries include a broken collarbone, torn ligaments in his right shoulder, punctured and collapsed lungs, a torn MCL, broken ribs and two seizures.
Even after his first ride, Meier arrived at the winner's circle bloodied and bruised when his mount tossed and Meier hit his head in the gate before the start of the race.
Meier racked up 58 winners at Arlington that summer and was named the meet's "rising star." Now he will surround himself with international stars at the gate Saturday.
"It's really exciting working for the International Festival, especially with all the horses and jockeys from overseas," Meier said. "They kind of do different things. Their starters try not to handle the horses as much as we do."
Knott is a longtime friend of Meier's father, who retired after a successful riding career shortly after Brandon's jockey career began. Meier has been around horses his whole life -- his mother, Bonnie, rode show horses.
"I used to ride the jumpers with my mom," Brandon said. "But I always wanted to go faster and stay on the ground so that's what I did."
He did it quite well, winning 269 races from 2,520 mounts before injuries took their toll.
"Even on my 13th birthday, I broke my wrist," Meier says with a smile. "It happened when I was riding a four-wheeler at Blue's farm."
Little did Meier know at the time he would join Knott's gate crew 12 years later.
Knott, who said he was surprised when Brandon first wanted to ride, was impressed by his effort: "Truthfully, he was a pretty good rider."
Now Brandon, who lives in Wheeling, is hoping to be a pretty good member of Knott's crew.
"Brandon's a great kid and I hope it works out for him," Knott said. "It might be a long career for him, galloping horses and working on the gate crew. He can make a good living."
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