“I’m actually breezing a horse now. I’ll be back to the barn before long and call you then.”
It was 7:20 Thursday morning, Alex Birzer answered his cellphone from the back of a running Thoroughbred at Remington Park.
The Council Grove family man demanded as a top jockey throughout the Midwest returned the call less than 15 minutes later. “This is an easy morning. I only have three rides today,” insisted outgoing jovial Birzer.
“Easy” it might seem to the 45-year-old, 5-foot-two horseman who weighs in at 115-pounds saddle included. Yet quite the contrary to any other’s opinion. Birzer had ridden in five races under the Oklahoma City racetrack lights just the night before.
No trouble sleeping though he admitted. “Oh, I get away from the barn about 11 o’clock,” Birzer said. “But it’s after midnight before I’m in bed and then I have to be back at the track by 5:30.”
A typical morning for Birzer is breezing about a dozen mighty Thoroughbreds. “Sometimes, I’ll ride five or six before the track break and that many more before the morning’s over,” he tallied.
Clarification was made that “breezing” the race-ready-runners was shorter distance than the “exercise boys” gallop their mounts. “The trainers have them ‘blow’ those horses a half mile, maybe three-quarters of a mile,” Birzer said,
“My brother-in-law Furrel Good travels the track circuit exercising horses and has his family here at Remington now. He does a great job,” Birzer noted.
After five races Wednesday night, Birzer was contracted by trainers to jockey Thoroughbreds in four more races Thursday night.
“I had a tough go last night picked up a third and fourth and others down the pack. It goes like that. The next one could be a winner. That’s always the one we’re planning for,” the optimistic jockey exclaimed.
Obviously, it’s the life he loves, always has. “Oh, some kids wanted to be policemen, firemen; the like. I just wanted to ride. I wanted to be a jockey,” Birzer declared.
Growing up around racehorses being trained by his dad Gerald, the jockey proclaimed, “I’m living my childhood dream.”
Times were different then, the prominent talented racehorse rider remembered the olden days. “Dad ran the Kansas fair circuit a lot of races at Hutchinson, of course Eureka, Anthony, Bluestem Downs at Emporia. Jockeys wearing blue jeans and t-shirts sure were my inspiration,” Birzer grinned through phone connection.
The early day Birzer racehorses campaigned beyond Kansas. “Dad had an accident galloping a horse in Chicago and was unable to ride,” Birzer said. “I was in the seventh grade and that was really the first time I got to help exercise the racehorses.
“I weighed about 65 pounds, but was wrestling in the 70-pound division,” the athlete recalled. “I did try cross country, but I was so small, I couldn’t compete too well. I just stuck with wrestling and riding.”
Size actually kept the jockey off the official track for longer than he wanted. “I started working as a jockey when I was 19,” Birzer said. “I’d been galloping horses all the time, but wasn’t ready to race until then.”
No slowdown, full steam excitement adrenalin building stronger throughout his lifetime. “Dad continued training off and on ended up working for the postal service and retired to Branson now,” Birzer said. “My little brother Gary was also a jockey but had a major racing accident and became permanently sidelined.
“I’m still going,” the enthusiastic jockey grinned bigger.
Up to date records show Alex Birzer has ridden in 24,000 races going to the winner’s circle 3,300 times.
That ranks him 144th in all time race leaders going back before last century.
Racehorses with Birzer as jockey have won nearly $55 million.
“It’s been a great ride,” he conceded certainly no pun intended.
There’ve been setbacks as with any job. “You never know when you’re going to get rolled off over like a bowling ball. I’ve had a few. Nothing too serious, or bad enough to keep me from getting excited and mounted for the next race,” Birzer avowed.
The jockey’s suffered a broken back, collar bone, nose, injured knees several times, cracked ribs and more.
“What are you going to do? Just keep going. You can’t tell your trainers or your banker you can’t ride. It’s what I do. I ride race horses for a living. It’s my job,” Birzer reiterated.
One accident stands out for the jockey. “I got dismounted in a race and the horse behind me stepped on me tearing my ear,” he reflected. “That was a night race, and the trainer took me to the emergency room. It took more stitches then you could count to set the ear back in place.
“The trainer was trying to figure out who to get to ride for me the next night. I popped up, ‘hell, nobody said I was taking off.’ And I rode the race with a patch on my ear,” grinning Birzer affirmed.
Working tracks throughout the country, Birzer had been a jockey in Cincinnati, Ohio. “I decided I wanted to get back to the Midwest and started riding at Columbus, Nebraska,” he remembered. “I met Bonnie (Good) who was working with her dad Dennis Good training and running horses there.
“We got married in 1997 and it’s been up ever since. For 15 years straight every year was better than the previous one,” Birzer verified.
The couple made their home in Council Grove and started raising their family. “We have a 25-acre place. Our children have always attended school at Council Grove. This is our home although I’m not here that much,” he said. “I work three tracks, Hot Springs, Arkansas; Des Moines, Iowa, and here in Oklahoma City, each fourth months.
“I’m home five days for Thanksgiving, 15 days for Christmas and some weekends. When somebody sees me in Council Grove, they’ll ask me how long I’ll be in town. I just look down at my watch. It’ll just be a few hours,” Birzer said.
Bonnie substitute teaches at Council Grove and has coached top rated cheerleaders. She’s also a racehorse trainer and is training at Prairie Meadows in Des Moines now.
“Bonnie is my rock. She’s amazing. I don’t know how she does it. Bonnie never lets me get too high and picks me up when I get a little low. I’m lucky and blessed to have the support of a good woman at home,” Birzer acknowledged.
“Our daughter Jordan is 22 and has our first grandchild. I’m a grandpa too. Jordan’s also working at the track in Des Moines now,” Birzer said.
Their son, Brett, 19, Council Grove High School star athlete graduating this spring, is following in his dad’s profession. “Brett always wanted to be a jockey and is now doing well racing Quarter Horses,” Dad credited.
Youngest son Colby, 12, goes along much of the time. But now with school started he’s staying with his grandparents Dennis and Nancy Good. “His mom misses Colby more than he misses us, as his grandparents spoil him too much,” Dad contended.
Notable, Birzer rode racehorses for his father-in-law operating as Spooky Business Stable LLC for many years. “Dennis has slowed down some in training now but is still heavily involved with race horses. We have several young horses that Dennis keeps in his barn at Council Grove conditioning to get started in training.
“We’ve always gotten along very well. Dennis is my biggest supporter. We’re all in the racehorse business. It’s all of our lives,” Birzer affirmed.
Brian Assmann was acknowledged by Birzer for serving as his agent for more than 20 years. “Brian is probably one of the best agents around. I owe a lot of my success to him.
“I’m extremely lucky to have some great people in my life who give me the opportunity to win some races. We respect each other and have worked pretty well together for a long time,” Birzer appreciated.
Appropriate recognition for racetrack accomplishments came earlier this summer when Birzer was inducted into the Prairie Meadows Hall of Fame.
Birzer rode his first winner at Prairie Meadows in 1999, now owning 1,498 victories there.
A winner of five riding titles at Prairie Meadows, Birzer set a record for consecutive victories at the track by winning the first five races on September 2, 2007.
How long can this outstanding jockey who loves his job keep riding winning Thoroughbred racehorses?
“I’m in great shape. I bought a bicycle and am as strong maybe stronger than I’ve ever been. I’ve never any problem with my weight, if I started to muscle up I’d just back it off a bit.
“I don’t see any slowdown in sight. I still get plenty of horses to race. The bottom line is I’ve had a great career.
“The horse racing industry has been good to me. It’s the very best life anybody could ever have,” the smiling jockey humbly assured.
Birzer’s advice: “When you get up in the morning, make sure you’re proud of the guy in the mirror.”