Jack Sisterson looked out the plane window as he approached Louisville Airport in 2002 and saw his life unfold right before him. The native of Durham, England, who grew up with horses, as a jockey and show jump rider, had been offered a soccer scholarship by the University of Louisville and was looking forward to fulfilling his dream of moving to America and getting a free education, playing soccer, and working with horses.
“I looked down and there was Churchill Downs, and there was the university, and it was a no brainer," Sisterson said. "I didn’t have to see what the campus looked like. All I knew was that it was close to Churchill Downs and that was it.”
Now here he was 10 years later, seeing Churchill Downs from a different perspective – standing in the winner’s circle of the Kentucky Derby.
Sisterson, assistant trainer for Doug O’Neill, had been at Churchill for two weeks, preparing Barn 3 for the arrival of Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Robert B. Lewis (gr. II) winner I’ll Have Another. He was thrilled just to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby with a legitimate shot.
When I’ll Have Another crossed the finish line 1 ½ lengths ahead of Bodemeister, Sisterson, watching from the tunnel to the paddock, rushed to the rail where he waited anxiously to charge onto the track.
“Words were coming out of my mouth and I had no idea what I saying,” he said the morning after the Derby. “It was absolutely crazy. I don’t think there are any words that can describe the feeling. All I kept thinking was, ‘Wow, is this real?’ I actually got a little teary eyed. After the race I had 93 text messages in 30 seconds. I had my phone on vibrator and it was just one continuous vibration.”
Among those who texted him were his parents, who have supported him in all his endeavors. They had gone to Ladbrokes to get a fixed price on the horse.
“They said, ‘We’re so proud of you, Jack. Well done. Just savor the moment,’” Sisterson said. “Without my parents I wouldn’t be in this position. I owe a lot to them. To have this happen is a dream come true.”
"Coming to the barn this morning, it really hasn’t sunk in yet. How many foals are born each year and how many of them point specifically for this race? You have people who spend hundreds of millions of dollars to try to get a Kentucky Derby winner, and Dennis (O’Neill’s brother) finds this horse for $35,000. He has a remarkable way of finding young talent.
“Doug has done a fantastic job with this horse. When he won the Lewis and it was decided to give him the two months to the Santa Anita Derby, Doug knew he would have him peaking at the right time. And he’s only going to improve off the Derby.”
Sisterson originally had hoped to be a jockey, but got too big and eventually turned to show jumping and exercising horses.
“I’d sit on the arm of my couch and pretend to be riding races,” he said. “Horses were in my blood, and if I couldn’t be a jockey I wanted to eventually become a trainer; as long as I was hands-on with the horses. I played soccer for a professional club in England, but got released. I had a few schools interested in me to play soccer and then was offered the scholarship by the University of Louisville. I played soccer there and also kicked for the football team.”
After graduating, he began to steadily work his way into racing, doing summer work for Todd Pletcher and some work for a bloodstock company before getting a job with trainer Eddie Kenneally. While with Kenneally, he went to the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in 2009 with BC Juvenile starter Aspire and fell in love with Southern California.
“I thought California was brilliant and I’ve been there ever since,” Sisterson said. “I was at Hollywood Park when I took notice of (owner and entrepreneur) Mark Verge’s bright red silks, with the logo “For Rent” on them. I thought, ‘I’ve got to look this man up.’ I went on the internet and saw that he owned hotels and restaurants and Westside Rentals (the largest apartment and home finding service in L.A. and Orange County), which is where the words on his silks came from. I sent him an e-mail and asked if I could possibly meet him, because I knew he was involved with horses. The next morning, I received a reply at 5 o’clock in the morning telling me to call him. I wound up going to his office and having coffee with him and kept going back, always asking him questions. How many people in his position are going to take in a perfect stranger who asks to meet him?
“He introduced me to Doug and here I am now. Doug has been so great at accommodating the public to come to the barn and see how we do things. It’s an open door policy at the barn. I’ve learned so much from Mark and Doug, not only about racing, but about life. Doug believes in keeping spirits high, because he’s convinced it rubs off on the horses. We get our job done, but we like to have fun. That’s what the game is all about.”
Verge went on to be named CEO of Santa Anita this past March, and was at O’Neill’s barn before the Derby, joining in the walkover, and afterward celebrating the victory of I’ll Have Another, which also was a victory for Santa Anita and Southern California.
As for I’ll Have Another, Sisterson said he’s “very straightforward and easy going. At Churchill, he got over the ground so beautifully it looked like he’d been stabled there the whole time. That’s something you want to see in a horse, how he gets over the ground. If he doesn’t get over it well it’s game over. He’d go out there and come back bucking and squealing. We thought at that point, maybe he really does have a chance. And he continued to train that way. Then his gallop on Friday morning sent shivers down the spine. We were in the temporary bleachers when he went by and we just looked at each other and there was no need for any words to come out. We knew without saying anything how good he was going into the race.”
So, now Sisterson’s unlikely journey continues on to Baltimore. If I’ll Have Another runs the way he did in Kentucky, Sisterson once again will be feeling those good vibrations.