Scott Bethke wakes up before 4 a.m. every day to make sure he’s at his job by 5 a.m. Some days he doesn’t return home from work until past midnight. Then he’s back up before dawn.
He’s 16 years old.
And a professional jockey.
Bethke celebrated his birthday on March 14. He got his license three days later. His jockey license. He rode in his first race the following day.
He’s still waiting to get his license to drive a car.
“I was ready,” he says.
Ready to ride horses for purses. Bethke is the youngest jockey at Canterbury Park after securing his license at the minimum age requirement — 16. His father, Troy, has been a horse trainer at Canterbury since the track opened its doors in 1985.
Every morning, Scott rides horses for his dad and other trainers during workouts and then races at night. He has had 62 starts at Canterbury, winning four races and finishing in the money 15 times.
“I love riding,” Bethke said. “It’s cool. Something I always wanted to do.”
Bethke grew up around horses on the family farm in New Germany (near Waconia) and tagging along with his dad to the racetrack.
He rode his first horse as a small child and started competing in pony races at county fairs. He could read and decipher racing forms by the time he was 8.
“He’s grown up in the business,” his dad said.
Scott hardly could wait for his 16th birthday so he would be legal age to race. The family had moved their horses to a track in Grand Island, Neb., over the winter to train for the Canterbury season. Scott got his license there and immediately started racing.
He won six times while riding a number of long shots before returning to Canterbury. Bethke takes online classes at home to accommodate his riding career.
“He’s pretty serious about it,” Troy said. “There was no ‘maybe I want to do this.’ ”
Starting his career at such a young age — most jockeys at Canterbury range from mid-20s to mid-30s — makes sense because Bethke realistically could outgrow jockey weight restrictions. He weighs 118 pounds now, so any growth spurt likely will force him out of the sport.
But his age also presents challenges and perceptions. He has to prove to trainers, horse owners and other jockeys that he knows what the heck he’s doing.
“I think most of them are more than fine with him riding,” Troy said. “He’s been extremely safe. He’s not out of control. That probably helps their confidence, too, as far as riding with him. Nobody wants somebody who’s dangerous out there.”
The Bethke name around Canterbury stables gives him credibility, but Scott’s performance on the track earns him rides. Trainers/owners want to win and make money, so it’s a leap of faith to entrust a 16-year-old jockey with their investment.
“People are probably a little apprehensive still,” Troy said. “But he’s been riding a lot of horses.”
He’s had 153 starts between Canterbury and Nebraska’s Fonner Park, winning 10 races and finishing in the top three 40 times this year.
Scott rides two or three horses every morning during workouts. He has raced horses for a dozen trainers at Canterbury.
Oftentimes, he mounts a long shot because he doesn’t get his pick of horses. He’s done well in some of those races, once winning in Nebraska on a 40-1 horse.
Troy had a long talk with his son before he started his career. His message: Never act like you’re too good for any horse.
“Don’t worry about the racing form,” he told him. “Ride the horse like he’s a winner. Period.”
Scott’s strength and conditioning have improved with experience. His debut race left him soaked in sweat and breathing hard. Now he says he’d love to enter “as many [races] as I can.”
He also has a better grasp of the mental side of racing — knowing when to push the pace, when to hold back, how to react to chaos happening around him.
“When I first started riding I was terrible,” he said. “Now I’m starting to get the hang of it.”
His parents feel more at ease, too. They understand the dangers and naturally worry at times about inherent risks. But their son has proved that he can handle himself on the track.
“We’ve been pretty relaxed watching him,” Troy said.
But when will he get his license to drive a car?
“Hopefully soon,” Scott said with a smile.