By Brooks Robards

Documentary filmmaker Kate Davis was in her bathing suit at her Chilmark home on Martha's Vineyard, when HBO's Sheila Nevins called and asked her what she wanted to do next. It was August 2001, and Davis's film about transsexuals, SOUTHERN COMFORT, had won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize earlier that year. In April the public will get to see the documentary Davis just happened to have "on the back shelf of my mind" when HBO called.

Called JOCKEY, it drops in on the lives of three of the professional racing world's riders. "I was frankly flipping through a magazine and read about this jockey in Santa Anita, and his life sounded perilous," Davis says. She had a hunch people didn't know why jockeys live such dangerous lives. Once HBO said yes, that’s never been done before; it took Davis a year to find out why.

In the high-priced world of thoroughbred racing, jockeys don't have much of a voice. They aren't unionized, and most of the attention goes to the horses. Nor are these men--who make careers out of perching on the backs of animals galloping at close to 40 miles an hour--considered conventional models of masculinity.

Davis found a certain irony in the fact that jockeys, probably the finest athletes in any sport, look diminutive, more like ballerinas. She began to research the world of jockeys, beginning with Laura Hillenbrand's now-classic account of one famous horse in the racing world, SEABISCUIT.

"I had no idea SEABISCUIT would become a movie," Davis says, “and I don't think it covers the ground my film does." There is little question about that. JOCKEY looks at racing from the rider’s point of view.

Davis, who collaborated on the film with her husband, the novelist David Heilbroner, encountered many challenges in the world of thoroughbred racing. For one thing, it was really hard to film the races themselves. “The camera is like a gun,” she says. “The camera and sound equipment could easily spook the high-strung thoroughbreds. Swing them around near some animals and people could easily get hurt.” It was hard to get access to the locker room, what is called the “jock’s room” in track lingo.

It’s the one private place the jockey can go, the place that hides a lot of the industry’s dirty little secrets. Jockeys can enter the “hot box” or sauna there, and they often “heave,” or purge the contents of their stomachs to get down to the proper weight. In fact, most jock rooms have special commodes for “heaving.” As the film shows, the jockeys’ bulimia often becomes chronic, with serious health problems

Just getting a camera at the starting gate became a big deal for Davis and Heilbroner. If a horse spooks at the sight of a mike boom, a jockey can easily suffer an injury. The racing world spends weeks getting ready for an event like the Kentucky Derby, yet it lasts a minute and a half. The horses blur by at 40 miles an hour, “so what kind of a shot can you get?” Heilbroner says.

It was also very hard to get a jockey’s face. A film about a boxer, or even baseball, offers lots of opportunities for headshots. The jockey’s face is obscured by his racing goggles and helmet. Plus, he shoots out in a pack of 10 or 12 other jockeys on horses. Even in the paddock during the post parade, the cameraman has to stand back and keep the microphone very low. Interviewing can be hampered by the fact that a lot of jockeys aren’t verbal.

One of the ways Davis worked around the difficulties of getting good racing footage was by hiring Louisville cameraman Steve Staley, whose specialty was shooting horse races for regional cable sports channels. He owned a specially designed camera that allowed him to shoot the races without getting too close or being disruptive.

The filmmakers used a Sony VX2000 Mini DV Camcorder for almost all the intimate work. Heilbroner conducted most of the interviews, while Davis supervised the camera work. “It was nice working with only two persons,” Davis says. “My joke job title was ‘Chasing Jockeys.’” This was because their subjects were always on the move, shifting from one track to another, starting at five in the morning.

“They’d just jump in their trucks and race off,” she says. “I felt like I was always losing them. Thank God for cell phones.” Davis and Heilbroner even followed two of their subjects-all three are Louisiana-born--to Louisiana for a duck hunt.

“What does this have to do with the movie?” Heilbroner wanted to know. “Just wait,” Davis answered. Later she concluded, “It’s an important scene. It also gives some humor.”

The filmmakers shot between 70 and 80 hours of film, a lot of it to get coverage of the race tracks, which include Belmont, N.Y., Churchill Downs and Keeneland, KY, New Orleans Fairgrounds, LA, and Turfland in Cincinnati, OH. Some of the more elegant shots of races were bought from companies that specialize in that kind of work on 35mm film.

For their primary subjects, they picked three jockeys. Randy Romero, is a legendary retired rider, who lives in Louisville and has an extraordinary history of wins and losses. A man who has developed serious health problems from racing, he has suffered 23 major accidents and broken almost every major bone in his body. Romero turned the filmmakers onto Chris Rosier, who is new to the profession. Both of them kept mentioning a third jockey, Shane Sellers, as someone they really admired.

Romero looks back over a long, successful career. Rosier brings the perspective of a rider near the start of his career, full of hopes and dreams, and Sellers fits right in the middle.

“I caught Sellers at a critical point in his life,” Davis says. Because of a knee injury, Sellers had not ridden in a year and a half and was vacillating on whether to resume his racing career.

“These guys give up so much,” Davis says. They have no time for a personal life. Even the most basic things like enjoying a good meal at night are off-limits. Nor do they wear protective gear, even though they are at risk for collisions, falls and trampling.

“They go out in these tiny little silks,” Davis says. “It looks good. It’s part of a tradition. One doesn’t think about the implications of wearing something akin to a ballerina’s tutu, while balancing on your toes at 40 miles an hour while weaving in and out of traffic.”

One of the more controversial sequences in JOCKEY is a four-horse pile-up. Racing officials understandably didn’t want it included, but Davis and Heilbroner felt it was too important a part of the racing world to leave out and fought hard to keep it.

Their aim was to make the jockey’s lives become three-dimensional and to question aspects of their treatment. As she did with SOUTHERN COMFORT, Davis has made a quietly political film, portraying a minority, a slice of life that audiences might never encounter otherwise. Racing is a profession with no contracts for the jockeys. If they win a race, they get 10% of the purse, five per cent for second. Even in as big a race as the Kentucky Derby, if they don’t win, place or show they walk away with a $65 track fee,

The editing for JOCKEY was done on Martha’s Vineyard, with help from Galen Productions. Oak Bluffs resident Jimmy Parr did the post-production sound. In the editing phase, Davis worked to interweave the stories of the three jockeys. The fact that the jockeys knew each other made it a lot easier.

“In general, racing is so beautiful,” Davis says. Visually she aimed for a lush look, concentrating on color-the greens of the tracks, the jockey silks and horse clothes. When animal rights friends asked her why she didn’t include more about the suffering of the horses, Davis answered that she couldn’t tell more than one story. “I wish we could have focused on the horses more, but this was a human story.”

Having made most of her other films while living in New York City, she was afraid working on the Vineyard might be like giving birth in the woods, but found that wasn’t the case. Although she and her family have since returned to New York, Davis thinks there are enough filmmakers and technicians on the Vineyard to make it easier in some ways to put together a film.

Brooks Robards writes extensively about film. The author of 10 books including ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Bison, 1992), she taught film at Westfield State College for 21 years and lives in Northampton and Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard.