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Brandon Meier ‘Gets the Gate’
It came with little fanfare – a simple stewards’ ruling that stated “The… jockey license is hereby rescinded without prejudice in lieu of a race track employee license (assistant starter)” – and with that the race-riding career of jockey Brandon Meier was over – or at minimum placed on hold.
By contrast, the start Meier’s career in May 2008 was quite the spectacle. As the son of veteran reinsman Randy Meier, who was still riding at the time, the spotlight was clearly on the debut, which had been originally scheduled for the winter of 2008 at Gulfstream Park but was delayed by injury.
The younger Meier did not disappoint, winning that first start aboard the Wayne Catalano-trained Houseboat. The race was not without its own drama as the rider returned to the winner’s circle bloodied and bruised after his mount had tossed in head in the gate just prior to the start of the race. Brandon barely made it through the obligatory post-race on-camera interview before heading to first aid and eventually the hospital to get his mouth stitched up. “I still have those (bloodied) silks,” he recalled.
Riding a great deal for leading trainer Wayne Catalano, Meier racked up 58 winners at Arlington that summer and was named the meet’s “rising star.” So why barely five years later is Meier hanging up his tack?
“It seems like the last few years, I’ve had so many injuries,” Meier said. “Every time I came back and got going again, I’d have another injury. Business really died down after the third or fourth injury. So I tried to do something new and went to Canterbury (Park in Minnesota). It’s tough to break in somewhere new without a barn (backing you). I gave it two months and it just wasn’t working. I ended up with three winners. I was riding 50-1, 60-1 shots and just one or two (races) a day. I never had a problem with my weight when I was riding. That was never an issue, but at the same time do you want to keep doing that (keeping the weight down) to just ride (longshots).”
As a result, Meier decided to return home to Chicago. He certainly could have resumed his riding career here, but starting mid-meet it can be tough to get business. “This is home. This is where I want to be,” he said. “My girlfriend and I have a condo in Wheeling. I’d rather be here than trying to find a new racetrack every few months. You can stay here all year. So, I came home.”
With the racetrack in his bloodlines, a job at the track in some capacity was a given. “I thought I could get two jobs – work the gate in the afternoon and gallop horses in the morning. I love being around horses and riding them, there’s no doubt about that. So if I could get a nice gallop job in the morning and work on the gate in the afternoon, it would be two paychecks.
“The gate is a good gig,” he continued. “I’ve grown up with most of the guys on the gate. I used to go out to (starter) ‘Blue’ (Knott’s) place close to Iowa every week and go finishing.”
After numerous injuries on the track, a move to a job on the starting gate with its own inherent dangers might come as a surprise to some. “Being a rider for so long, you kind of need that adrenaline,” he said. “It’s a different adrenaline, but when a horse is acting up in there and you have nowhere to go – it still gets your heart pumping. I’m kind of looking for that rush. I’ve been on the gate for about a week in the mornings and I helped out behind the gate (Saturday) afternoon and I’ll help out again (Sunday). I’ll work (in the gate) Thursday and Friday.”
While weight was never a problem for Meier, he still had to watch what he ate when he was riding. Now ‘Blue’ and the guys on the gate are trying to fatten him up. “Before it was watch the weight to keep it down and now it’s bulk up because you have to be able to wrestle these horses (when they act up),” he said. “So it’s from one extreme to the other. Now it’s eat as much as you can and put muscle on. I’ve been trying to put weight on and I’m still only 123 pounds and can’t over that.”
Unlike his father whose career was ended by an injury in late 2009, Brandon was able to walk away on his own terms. “I’ve been lucky enough to come back from all my injuries. I’m also lucky enough to say, ‘Hey, it’s not my time to ride and I’m going to find something else.’”
Meier’s career numbers as a jockey saw him win 269 races from 2,520 mounts. When asked about his favorite moments in the saddle he said, “That first win on Houseboat getting all busted up is one I will never forget. That whole first summer was just a hell of a summer for me, but Helicopter was probably the best horse for me. We just had a ton of fun together. I love that horse. I won on him from seven (furlongs) to 2¼ (miles). I got to travel all around this country and Canada with him. We set a bunch of track records together. I ended up winning 18 on him. I won on the lead on him one time at Hawthorne (which he never did) and I also won from far out of it. He was a neat horse and I always liked getting on him. That was the best time of my career.”
When it comes to dealing with jockeys, one has learned never to use the word retirement and Meier has certainly not ruled out a return to race-riding. “For the time being, this is the right move for me,’ he said. “You never know in the future. I don’t look it as retiring. I look at it as trying something new and seeing how it goes. Look at Gary Stevens, he did the TV thing and he’s back. Look at Mark Guidry, he was training and now he’s back. So you never know.”