Jockey Joe Steiner’s journey brings him back to Emerald Downs

Success in thoroughbred horse racing, historically, is a matter of bloodlines.

So it is with veteran jockey Joe Steiner, who returns to the region to join the rider colony at Emerald Downs for Saturday afternoon’s season-opening card.

Those who have spent time in the barns and backstretches know that race tracks aren’t, in a practical sense, all about blood — they actually run on coffee and gravy.

The elder Joe Steiner, the jockey’s father, and wife Sally supply those in abundance as the operators of the Quarter Chute Café, an eatery that is open to the public, with windows that open out onto the parade of horses and jockeys passing from the barns to the track.

This year, those jockeys include their son, who is one victory short of a landmark 1,000th in a career that has taken him to tracks across the country and abroad, and allowed him to ride horses as famed as Seabiscuit.

Or at least the horse that played Seabiscuit in the recent movie.

As is the case with thoroughbreds, Steiner’s racing bona fides are passed down through the distaff side. His mother’s father and her brother, both named Jack Leonard, were noted jockeys in Washington and down the West Coast.

Joe Steiner was just 5 when he saw his uncle race, and he internalized the sport became as a lifelong obsession. At 10 he got his first horse. And when Steiner was 16, his grandfather took him to Southern California and introduced him to legendary trainer and Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Longden.

Like an young artist serving an apprenticeship to a master, Steiner was set up residence in Longden’s tack room and learned the business from the best.

“My father was so connected,” said Sally Steiner, cashier, coffee purveyor, and unofficial den mother of the Emerald Downs community. “He used to go bowling with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. He did the riding scenes in the first Seabiscuit movie.”

At 31/2, Sally was pictured on the lap of Shirley Temple, star of “The Story of Seabiscuit,” the 1949 movie in which her father was the stunt-rider aboard “Seabiscuit.”

Sally was relaxed and unworried when her father and brother rode, but when it came to watching her son, the nerves were unavoidable.

With good reason. Steiner, 50, speculates he has ridden 70,000 horses in races or morning works. He has ridden horses at Longacres and Emerald Downs (getting 22 wins in the inaugural 1996 meeting). And he has beaten the odds to last this long in a business that chews up jockeys who succumb to “growing out of it, or fear,” he said.

His love of riding, and the magical connection he feels to the horses, kept drawing him back to the track, even though he has broken 32 bones — including a neck injury that forced him into a seven-year retirement and surgeries to implant metal plates and screws.

And weight became an issue at one point. Taller than most jockeys, at 5-foot-5, Steiner developed bulimia in his obsession to make weight.

“It’s not something I like to talk about, but it is part of my experience,” he said. “A lot of guys go through things. It was addictive, and I got stuck in that routine; it’s a hard thing to get out of. Fortunately, I learned to eat correctly. I had to learn how to do it the right way.”

He speaks about it on the chance he can help others avoid the problem.

“I’ve always tried to help other riders in any way possible,” he said. “Whether it’s health issues, personal issues, riding issues. I think that’s part of my role in life.”

He had another role, though, which was a strange testament to happenstance and the value of recycling good stories.

Steiner was riding at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, when jockey Chris McCarron came by looking for riders to help as stunt doubles for the new Seabiscuit movie to be released in 2003. Steiner related his grandfather’s movie experience, and McCarron installed him as the double for Gary Stevens aboard Seabiscuit in his famous 1938 match race with War Admiral. That win didn’t count on his official riding total, however.

Born in Renton, Steiner is so committed to his return to Washington that he’s considering this a permanent move.

“There’s a lot of factors,” he said. “It feels like I was being pulled back up here. As time goes on, you learn the important things; your health, doing what you love, being around your family.”

Vito Lucarelli, Steiner’s jockey agent at Emerald Downs, called him “an extremely talented hand; he’s won a lot of good races and he’s worked for (Bob) Baffert and some of the bigger trainers.”

Steiner’s best skill, Lucarelli said, is making the horse comfortable and getting it in a rhythm that produces its best effort.

That’s the root of what Steiner said is the best part of racing: the almost inexplicable connection to the horse. He cited the movie “Avatar,” when an animated character attaches his pony tail to the mane of a flying animal.

“They connect and become one — that’s what we do,” he said. “We hop on a horse that maybe we never have seen, and build an instant connection. Their legs become ours, and our minds connect. It’s amazing.”

He likes to look at his lengthy career as a journey, and he’s now back near the starting point. “I hope I can be an inspiration for others to appreciate what they have in life, and fight toward their passions.”

So he plans to ride another five years, or maybe more, as long as he can give his mounts the rides they deserve.

Even then, it will be hard for him stop. After all, it’s in his blood.