Prather sets her sights on the top

Updated: February 5, 2001, 12:24 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Before she rode her in her first race, Kris Prather would tell anyone who would listen she was going to be a big star. Barely out of her teens, grossly inexperienced, skinny as a broomstick and a female who was trying to break into a male dominated profession, Prather might have been 1,000-1 to amount to anything, let alone a top jockey. But the odds have fallen -- considerably. Through Jan. 18, the pride of Stevensville, Montana, was leading all jockeys in the country with 26 wins in 2001, two more than runner-up Glenn Corbett. Perhaps even more impressive is her dominance at Turfway Park. The five-pound apprentice won the fall meet at Turfway and is on top in the standings at the current meet with 26 winners, 18 more than the runner-up. As impressive as the numbers are, Prather believes they will be nothing compared to what is yet to come. "I plan to win the Triple Crown," she said. "I know I will win it within five years." Trash talk? Not really. Prather, 21, comes across as an intelligent young woman with a sprightly personality who is obviously very confident in her abilities. "I know that people might be taken aback by what I say and people who don't know me might think that I'm cocky," she said. "But people who know me know that's not the case. It's just that I like to set very high goals for myself and then I'm honest about them when I discuss them." As you might guess, there's not a whole lot to do in Stevensville, Montana, so Prather spent much of her youth reading the Black Stallion series, riding horses on her parents' ranch and dreaming of being a jockey. A top notch high school soccer player, she left home when she was 19 and headed for Kentucky, figuring the home of the Derby and Churchill Downs was the best place for a future star to be launched. It was at Keeneland that she asked Julie Krone for her autograph, a turn of events that changed her life and her career. Krone took an immedaite liking to Prather and took her under wing, even allowing her to travel with her to Louisiana, where Krone finished up her career at the Fair Grounds. With the most famous female rider ever behind her, Prather had a big leg up on the competition. Not that she couldn't handle things on her own. So determined to become noticed, she'd often have herself paged on the backstretch several times, telling the stable gate guard to call her to the barn of Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Elliott Walden, believing people would be imprerssed that she was so in demand with the top outfits. But it was Krone who would begin to put some polish on what she saw as a raw talent who, ironically, didn't seem to have much self confidence. "The first time I saw her gallop a horse I knew that there was a tremendous amount of potential there," Krone said. "You can really tell when someone has so much raw talent, even of they are inexperienced. I knew Kris would be worth the effort. The hard part was getting her to believe in herself." After studying under Krone, Prather moved on to Donna Barton U. Krone called Barton, one of her closest friends, after she retired and asked her to tutor Prather. Barton, arguably the second best female rider ever, put on the finishing touches, both with her riding ability and her psyche. Today, Prather calls the pair her "two moms." "It was Julie and Donna who made me believe in myself," Prather said. "They taught me a lot about riding horses but they taught me even more as far as emotional things go. They showed me that it's okay to fail, as long as you try as hard as you can. Before I was afraid of failure I wouldn't try things. They gave me lots of praise and lots of love and I knew that they'd be there for me if I ever did fail." Prather rode her first race July 4 at Churchill Downs and was not an immediate success. She even went so far as to leave Kentucky for New York, hoping there would be more opportunities there, but she came right back to Kentucky a few days later. Once she got back, her career took off and it hasn't come close to slowing down. With several of Kentucky's best riders riding in Florida or elsewhere this time of year and with jockeys Tracy Hebert and Francisco Torres both serving suspensions, Prather took advantage of a gaping hole in the Turfway riding colony. But it's going to get a lot tougher come spring. Naturally, she plans to give Pat Day, Shane Sellers and the rest all they can handle. "I'd like to say I'll kill those guys, but I know that's not realistic," she said. "However, I plan to be in the top three in the standings. That's my goal. But to do it I've got to get some of the bigger stables, like Bob Baffert's and Wayne Lukas's, to start riding me." And from there? She wants to make it in New York, particularly at Saratoga. And, of course, there's that eventual Triple Crown winner. "I've been so fortunate I consider myself a spoiled kid," she said. "Here I had posters of Julie Krone and Donna Barton on my walls at home and I got to meet both and both did so much to help me. I got to exercise horses for Wayne Lukas, Frank Brothers and Allen Jerkens. I've been leading rider at Turfway Park. Everything I've hoped for has happened so far and it's been served to me on a silver platter. I've been so lucky, but that makes me think there's no reason why things won't continue this way, that I'll continue to get everything I've been dreaming of." Can she possibly be that good? Having ridden less than seven months, Prather has a lot more to do before she's a proven commodity. In the meantime, the numbers don't lie. She's on top, exactly where she plans to stay.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com