“As much as we are competitors, we want to make sure everybody is safe. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned – just taking care of everyone. We all want to win, but at the same time we’ve got to be a team first.”
As a proud Flying Cross Jockey Club member, Taylor Shaw is quick to note the important values the club has instilled in her and other group members. Shaw has been with the jockey club since its inception over a decade ago.
“We started out from pretty humble beginnings, to say the least. The first derby we put on, a person that was riding with us, a lesson client, her husband needed a double lung transplant. In order to get him home, they needed $10,000 worth of equipment. We ended up reaching that $10,000 goal. Ever since then it’s become a fundraiser for community or riding lessons for other kids that can’t afford it. It’s always been about community and helping whoever needs help,” said Shaw.
The Flying Cross Jockey Club is part of the Flying Cross Ranch in Lacombe, Alberta. Both the ranch and the club are owned and operated by Roy and Christina Sturgeon. Roy is a lifelong horseman and former jockey who saw value in establishing a program for kids and young adults who love horses and horse racing.
“Everyone was always asking about my career and what I did. So I said to the parents, our core group, ‘I will do a fun weekend and teach them how to gallop and things like that.’ They all liked it, and I went to the parents and asked, ‘would you be interested in me doing this as a class like riding lessons?’ They said yes. I thought it would last a year because most of these kids would fizzle out because it would be too much,” said Sturgeon, who has been running the club for the last 12 years.
Sturgeon found his footing in the racing world through a friend, who saw him riding a pony at a jumping show. Not long after, at the age of 15, Sturgeon found himself galloping horses. “That summer in August I turned 16, and two days later, I got my jock’s license, and I was riding races.”
Tracking someone’s career on Equibase from the ’90s onwards is pretty straightforward. However, if someone race rode back in the early ’80s, it’s a whole different kettle of fish looking up stats. Sturgeon explains why that is. “There is very little of me on there. I rode in the ’80s mostly, and truthfully I rode at many unrecognized tracks out here,” said Sturgeon.
With that said, Sturgeon did ride at several recognized tracks including Stampede Park and Northlands Park. “At the time, I set a record (at Stampede Park)- I won the first two races I rode, and that was the first time it had been done on a recognized track. That would have been ’82,” said Sturgeon, who was also the leading apprentice at Northlands that same year.
In his late 20s, Sturgeon retired from race riding but continued working in the industry in various roles, not only galloping but also outriding. Flying Cross Ranch also operated as a training centre for 12 years. Owning the ranch, which he took over from his parents, Sturgeon has also run and raised cattle and competed in the rodeo.
The Flying Cross Jockey Club is just another feather in his cowboy hat. The club is currently home to about 25 kids, ages 9 to 22. There are approximately 20 to 25 ponies in the program.
Sturgeon notes the club has continued to evolve since its inception.
“It’s changed a lot too. We’ve learned a lot since we’ve started it. It depends on the time of year, but Fridays, Saturdays, or a combination of both are jockey days. So the kids all come and do the chores and look after all the horses before they ride. We gallop on the track or gate school,” said Sturgeon.
“We have a lot of fun nights. We have tailgate derbies. We have race nights for Big Brothers and Big Sisters and they get to come out and watch the kids race. They get horse and pony rides.
“We are going to do a race night for Santas Anonymous this fall. Last year, a couple days before Christmas, the kids dressed all their ponies up and took them into town, took them to the hospital and old folks home and stuff like that,” said Sturgeon.
The program is not just about horsemanship skills. As Sturgeon notes, the kids also learn the value of honing their public speaking skills. “One thing these kids have to do is public speaking every night after we are done. When the night is done, everyone stands around in a circle and we debrief. A kid grabs a word off the word board and we talk about what was good or what we need to work on,” said Sturgeon.
Listening to several riders talk about their involvement in the club, it’s easy to feel the deep sense of community and support built into the backbone of the jockey club.
“A big portion of the club is looking after each other when you are out on the track. You want to make sure we are all working together as a team, and not getting in each other’s way, but also helping each other. If somebody is having an issue everyone works together to do whatever they can to help that person,” said Megan Delong.
At age 16, Delong has been riding at the Flying Cross Ranch for ten years, spending at least five to seven of those years with the Jockey Club. Asked about memorable moments, Delong answers candidly, “The Ponoka Stampede is pretty cool, but really just any day that we are down on the track and doing something it’s pretty memorable for the most part.”
Sarah-Beth Ellis has been with the Jockey Club for three years and enjoys her time in the club. “I love getting to work with all the horses and just being around all the people who make it a fun place to be here. And then all the things that we learn around here,” said Ellis, who just turned 17. One of the club highlights for Ellis has been running in the Ponoka Stampede for three years in a row.
Another club member, Kennedy Churchill, shares what she’s learned on and off the ground while taking part in the program. “Well, riding (wise) a lot of bravery and empathy for the horses. And then on the ground, we work a lot on public speaking and just getting yourself out there. Lots of the kids open up the longer that they are here,” said Churchill, who has been with the club for about four years.
Churchill, who is 14, acknowledges that finding opportunities in Alberta’s racing industry is tough. “Unfortunately, here we don’t have a lot of options to get to the track, so we work on being ambassadors for the sport,” said Churchill.
Sturgeon follows up with a similar sentiment. “As much I love the program, and I love the industry, it’s hard for me to say run away and go to the racetrack because out here they could not make a living,” said Sturgeon.
That said, former jockey club members such as Riley Noble have pursued a career in the horse racing industry. “He went to Vancouver, gallops out there, and he’s got his trainer’s license. He works for a big barn and has a couple of horses of his own out there.”
Overall, the club provides an excellent opportunity for kids to learn the ropes of race riding, master their public speaking skills and provide a well-rounded base for their future endeavours, whether on or off the track.
From the outset and the fun photos published on their Facebook page, Flying Cross looks like the perfect place to get a leg up in the industry. However, as Sturgeon noted earlier, and reiterates once again, there’s more to it than that.
“It’s not just being ambassadors in racing, it’s about being ambassadors, period.”