By Ron Uchman, Hawthorne Racecourse
Rider James Bielby has faced some adversity in his life. In reality, he has probably faced enough trials and tribulations for three lifetimes. He would be the first to admit that some of it was his own doing and he’s willing to take responsibility for that. Other things, nobody should have to go through.
When we first started talking, I was most interested in his 14 year hiatus from riding. I knew about his previous problems with drugs but was unaware of the rest. I just wanted to know what he had been doing, how he came around to be reinstated as a jockey, and the normal stuff that someone would ask in a normal “fluff” interview.
Bielby was honest, a bit nervous, and emotional.
His story; his words:
“It’s well documented. I got ruled off for three positive drug tests. There are really no excuses but I had just gotten divorced after 13 years of marriage. I had never been in any kind of trouble, any positive tests or anything like that.
“I got married when I was 18 and was 31 when my wife left me. I never saw that coming. I was one of the leading riders down there (Fairmount) when I was 30. I started running around after she left. I was still riding well but I was in the wrong areas and hanging out with the wrong people.. It was pretty obvious. I never tried to hide it. My first positive, I think it was cocaine and marijuana,
“I finished the meet tied with David Gall for leading rider. That was the year he retired, which was pretty cool.
“The next year I got tested again and again tested positive. I believe that was also for cocaine. I went another year or so and I got tested on the last day of the Fairmount meet. I went to Indiana, right after that. The first one I rode down there broke his leg and I went down and broke my collarbone.
“I was back in St. Louis recovering when they called me and told me that I had another positive, this time for meth amphetamine.
“I went through rehab a couple times, the latest for 90 days. When I finished the officials were going to try to give me one more chance and grant me a probationary license. I was doing well at the start of the meet, galloping horses for weeks and I had been clean. I knew they were going to test me again, they didn’t tell me when, and I decided to get high that day, by myself in my apartment, for the first time since getting out of rehab.
“They called me that day to come in. I lied and told them I was on my way to Hot Springs and they told me they were going to take that as a positive test. I just told them that I retired.
“I went to work for the Vaniers (Harvey, Nancy and Lyda). I lived on their farm. I went out there with a pair of high top Nikes that were a half size too small, that I bought for seven dollars. I didn’t even have boots. But, they gave me a job. They didn’t need me but they took me on anyway. I broke all their horses. I never really thought about going back to the racetrack. I missed it but I didn’t leave on my own. They told me to leave. It was always in my heart. I couldn’t even watch the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup. I just couldn’t do it.
“My son Zeke was with me at the Vanier farm. He came to live with me when he was about 18. He was breaking horses with me and he passed away down there.
“He went out and had gotten high one night with some new friends that he had just met and his friends dropped him off at the farm. You have to understand that the farm was about 500 acres and his friends apparently dropped him off near the entrance. He must have gotten disoriented. We found him in the morning. He was blue. It had gotten down to 26 degrees. He died of hypothermia. That was March 5th, 2013.
“He always wanted me to go back to riding. I had gotten clean when he came to live with me in 2006. I had been ruled off in 2001. I was still been screwing up before that and my wife wouldn’t let me see him if I wasn’t clean and one of the stipulations of him coming to live with me was me getting clean.
“I didn’t think I was going back to riding and I was depressed so I kept doing drugs. I was working all the time. But, I got clean the day he came to see me and I’ve been clean since.
“He was my best friend in the world. I was in love with him since the day he was born.
“I worked there another two or three months. I couldn’t take it. Every day I drove past the spot where we had found him and I just couldn’t take it so I quit.
“I called up my best friend, Rusty Hellman. He had picked me up and dusted me off several times when I needed it and he’s always been there for me. I told him that I wanted to try to get back home. I’m going to try.
“I came up here four or five times. I didn’t even want to get back to being a jockey. I just wanted to gallop horses. They (stewards) weren’t even sure they wanted to let me try. But, they relented and sent me to the courthouse to get tested and I passed.
“Then, I got a job with Steve Manley. We had basically grown up together. I knew him about 30 years. So he hired me as a gallop boy. I worked for Steve for the next year and a half.
“Then I got married to Aymara Rivero. She was a jockey at the time. She got pregnant before too long and I started thinking about money. I did ok as a gallop boy and I still didn’t know if I wanted to get back to riding. The love and desire was still there but I really didn’t know if I could do it because I had been away for 14 years.
“I figured I would get some business if I came back, just from people I knew from the old days. At least they would give me a shot. I don’t know what I would do with it and I didn’t know how things would go but I would try to make the best of it.
“I got into the right mode. I lost 20 tough pounds. But once I started doing it, the weight started falling off. When I got into that mode, I remembered how to do it because I had done it for so long.
“I won over 1800 (according to Equibase, he has 1,774 wins from 11,580 races) races in 13 years. I was seasoned was as good as I ever was when I was riding. So, when I got into that mode, really into it, I started telling people that I was going to do it.
“I had my doubters but I had my backers too. I had a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to prove something to the people that said I couldn’t do it. I’ve never been told that. It was a motivating factor for me.
“So, now I have a baby girl coming and a son that had passed away not too long before. When he passed away, he left behind a pregnant girlfriend so now I also had a grandson.
“Then we find out our daughter, who wasn’t even born yet, has a heart problem. The left aorta is very narrow and we might have to terminate. If so, she might have to have a whole series of heart operations before she’s 17 years old. This was like week six or seven when we found out. I don’t remember exactly but it was about a month before the termination date.
“We kept doing ultrasound after ultrasound. Things seemed like they were ok. We finally found out that there wasn’t enough wrong with her to terminate. We went to the leading surgeons in the country. She was about five pounds when she was born and went straight from the delivery table to the operating table.
“But, they fixed her heart. Everything came through fine. Blake is now six and a half months old and now we know that she probably won’t have to have any more surgery. That’s a beautiful thing.
“When I came back, Rusty quit training and took my book. Then Leroy (Hellman) had some complications and Mark Cooper took my book.
“I started off a bit slow and started having some doubts, I am 47 now and not 32, but all of a sudden things clicked. I got fit, I got my timing back.
“I almost had to reinvent myself. I’m a different rider now. When I was younger, I was pretty much a speed rider. I was always within a couple lengths of the lead. Now, I’m riding differently. I came back an overall better rider. I ended being 3rd in the standing at Fairmount after all that time away, winning 58 races.
“I’ve got my angel, my son, up in heaven taking care of me. The Lord has given me another chance. So have the stewards. When I came back they took a chance with me. When I decided at the end of last year to come back, they were hesitant but they gave me the chance.
“I’ve complied with everything they wanted. I promised I wouldn’t embarrass them, that I wouldn’t disappoint them if they gave me the chance.
“I’ve done more than I ever thought possible coming back. The window is short. I’m 47 and think I’ll probably ride until about 55, barring any injuries. I do want to eclipse 2000 wins. I should be able to do it.
“Lyda (Williamson) and Nancy Vanier were very instrumental in my sobriety. They helped me regain my confidence. Without them I’m not here today. They are the closest thing I have to family in the Midwest.
“I have a lot to live for, my baby Blake and my son Zeke, who I dedicate everything to.
Now, I like an occasional cold beer and I smoke too many cigarettes but I’m the happiest guy around here because I’m relieving my dream and I’m relishing every minute of it.”