It probably won’t be hard to find jockey Kevin Radke during Sunday’s Longacres Mile.
He will be riding Papa’s Golden Boy, the horse expected to take the early lead. Can Radke help the horse ration his speed and keep him in front?
It’s a question Radke didn’t think he would be pondering a couple of years ago. He had retired from riding — again — and was living the good life with his wife on his Auburn farm, purchased with the help of two garbage businesses that he started and sold.
Having broken more than 40 bones during a successful but injury-riddled riding career, he had had enough.
But then Radke started galloping horses, and he got the itch to return.
“I was working for Kay Cooper and she had one horse I really liked — Nationheart — and he was the one that made me want to ride again,” Radke said.
So here Radke is, back riding at Emerald Downs at age 50 and performing as well as ever. In May, he tied the track record of six wins in a day after initially setting the record 20 years ago.
Life has never been better, Radke said, and now he looks forward to having a legitimate chance at winning the biggest race in the Northwest.
“For me, it would be a dream come true,” Radke said of winning the Longacres Mile. “I have never won it and I would really love to win that race.”
A jockey is born — at age 25
Unlike most jockeys, Radke was not born into the game. He was a star wrestler in high school in Cleveland, attended Akron and Kent State for a while and had a stint in the Navy before starting a painting business.
Nothing really stuck until a friend suggested Radke consider being a jockey. It turned out he was a natural.
In the fourth race of his career, at Thistledown Race Track outside Cleveland, Radke fell behind by more than 17 lengths on 14-1 longshot Kathy Jill, then passed horses one by one before winning by 2 3/4 lengths.
A jockey was born, and the wins continued.
He was the leading rider at Emerald Downs in 2002 and 2003 and led the standings at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California in 2004.
He was on quite a roll. Then came the injuries. It’s the understood risk of being a jockey. It’s not if you’re going to get hurt, it’s when.
In April 2004 while riding in Northern California, Radke fell when his horse clipped heels with a horse in front, suffering compound fractures to his left wrist and to his nose.
After three wrist surgeries, doctors advised Radke to give up riding. He didn’t.
After a two-year absence, Radke returned to Emerald Downs in 2006. The injuries continued.
In 2007, a horse flipped and landed on Radke, who suffered eight broken ribs, a broken collarbone and shoulder blade, and a punctured lung.
Radke returned to Emerald Downs in 2008 and was leading the jockey standings when he suffered three broken ribs in September. He decided he was finished. For good.
“I sold all my tack after 2009 and thought I would never ride again,” he said. “When you’re getting on 75 to 80 horses every week, it gets to be a little much … and injuries, injuries, injuries. It changes you.”
Into the garbage business
Radke worked as a garbage collector during summers in high school and college, and he returned to the business after leaving horse racing in 2008.
Unlike many jockeys, who find life tough after leaving the business, Radke thrived.
Radke met a man who was a district manager for a garbage company in Florida, and the two started a company of their own in that state. Ten months later, they sold it, and Radke started a garbage collection business in Ohio.
“We put flyers on mailbox flags and door hangers and offered our service for cheaper,” Radke said. “We ended up taking almost 5,000 customers in one county from Waste Management. I was driving, picking up garbage and doing everything. I was picking up the phone while driving and taking in new customers.
“We were delivering brand-new cans that were pink and the trucks were pink — for breast cancer awareness. They were pretty trucks and everyone wanted our service when they saw these trucks pull up.”
Radke said it was way more lucrative than riding.
“You’re building something up and you automatically know that Waste Management is going to buy you out because you are taking away from their business,” Radke said. “I sold it in 2015.”
Radke said many athletes find it hard to step down from competition, but it wasn’t for him.
“I never looked at myself as anybody really important my whole career,” he said. “I have never felt like I was stepping down. I was a painter, I come from Cleveland and I worked on a garbage truck.”
Briefly back in the saddle, again
Radke said he started feeling bored and returned to riding in Ohio in 2016, but the comeback ended after 45 mounts when he injured his shoulder.
He returned in 2018 in Ohio, and even though he was successful, he wasn’t having fun.
“I got up to second in (the jockey standings) in 2018, but I was heavy and I wasn’t eating right,” he said.
He got angry when a trainer replaced him with another jockey on a horse that he had won twice in a row on, and that was the moment when he had enough.
“I was fighting my weight and getting sour and I told my agent, don’t enter any more horses for me. I said, ‘It’s over, I quit,'” Radke said. “I will finish out what you have me entered on but I’m done.”
Radke decided to stay in the game, getting his trainer’s license in 2019, working as an assistant under trainer Gary Johnson in Ohio.
He would work in the mornings at the track, then work on remodeling his house in the afternoons.
In 2020, Radke raced a horse under his name for the first time, winning with West Leonard at Mahoning Valley racetrack in Ohio.
“I like winning as a trainer better than winning as a jockey,” Radke said. “That was pretty cool.”
West Leonard raced two more times under Radke, and he might still be in Ohio had he not reconnected with Jamie Miller, whom he met at the 2010 Longacres Mile.
The two were married and Radke moved here in January 2021. The couple bought a 29-acre farm in Auburn. Radke started galloping horses and not too much later he was competing again.
“The more he rode in the morning, the more healthy and the more fit he got, and the better he looked on them,” Cooper said. “(But the comeback) had to be from him, because I know he went through a lot of injuries, and sometimes, the injuries, you don’t come back from.”
Loving life at 50
Radke’s 2021 comeback came to an abrupt halt in August when he suffered a broken arm when he was hit by a falling branch while trimming a tree.
He was ready for the start of this season and with a new jockey agent, David “Marbles” Singer, to whom Radke gives a lot of credit for his success.
Radke was shut out on opening day, but has been on a roll since, including winning six times May 21.
Julien Couton (2018) and Seth Martinez (2008) are the only jockeys to accomplish that feat. Radke was the first to do it in 2002.
“I was really trying to get that seventh one,” Radke said. “I would have liked that better, but I’m blessed. To do that 20 years later, that’s hard to do.”
Radke is second in the jockey standings with 53 wins, trailing leader Alex Cruz by nine. Radke has ridden in 256 races this season, more than anyone else at Emerald Downs. He often competes in every race on the card.
Radke said he would like to ride a little less, “but that’s not the deal with Marbles.”
“The alternative would have been to be fourth or fifth in the standings,” said Radke, who will ride for a few months out of state this winter before coming home for a break early next year. “Obviously, I would like to ride a few less (races), but Marbles is hungry.”
Once on a horse, Radke said the only thing that matters is winning,
“There is nothing fun in second through last,” Radke said. “Nothing. It is only fun when you win.”
Radke keeps his weight steady at 117 to 118 pounds, by “not eating what I want to.” He takes pride in his fitness, and said at age 50, he has to work harder.
“I’m more experienced, but I don’t think I’m better,” he said. “The older you get, your body doesn’t the respond the way it did. But I still feel like that I do it pretty good and if I get a good horse, I know how to steer him around a circle.”
Singer said it’s Radke’s experience that appeals to clients, and he said one of Radke’s assets is his ability to give a trainer detailed information after riding a horse. Sometimes he will suggest equipment changes or racing at different distances.
“Some guys will get off a horse after riding it and they won’t always give you great information about it,” Singer said. “Trainers want to know how they can improve the horse for the next time, and I believe that is one of Kevin’s greatest strengths.”
Radke will use his wealth of experience Sunday when he rides Papa’s Golden Boy in the Longacres Mile.
Cooper said Radke is best when riding horses who like to be leading early in a race. A horse like Papa’s Golden Boy.
“It’s a tough race to win,” Radke said of the Longacres Mile. “There are always Southern California shippers or Canadian horses and you’ve got to have a good one.”
Radke hopes he has that horse Sunday, but either way he is content.
“It is the best it has ever been,” Radke said of his life. “I’m getting good mounts and I’m really happy about it, but my wife makes my life easy. The best accomplishment in my life so far is marrying my wife and this farm that we have. We have such a nice little life together, so I’m happy.”
Picks: Better value with Slews’ Tiz win than Background. 1. Slew’s Tiz Whiz; 2. Background; 3. Unmachable; 4. Papa’s Golden Boy.