There’s so much I love about writing, but an unexpected bonus has been that writing has allowed me to meet a bunch of wonderful people whom I never would have met otherwise.
One person I’m privileged to have met (via e-mail) is ex-jockey and marvelously talented artist Tom Chapman. I was looking for a unique way to celebrate the release of TRIPLE CROSS, my Kentucky Derby mystery, when I found these wonderful Christmas cards by Tom titled “Christmas at Churchill.” I purchased a box or two and e-mailed Tom to thank him for the cards. We’ve corresponded ever since. What follows is Tom’s fascinating story and some of his wonderful artwork.
Kit: How did you get started with horses?
Tom: I was a senior in high school and getting ready to go to college or the army. I wasn't really excited to go to school though. It was 1972 and the army probably wasn't the best place to be at that time. My father suggested that I try to be a jockey. He had a friend who trained quarter horses where we lived in Montana. I thought to myself “Why not give it a try? I can always go to school if I don't like it.” I worked around the fairs that summer and later moved to Southern Cal to work on a horse farm. There I learned from the bottom up. I first started hot walking and cleaning stalls. Later I broke babies and eventually got to the track where I exercised horses. After about four years from the time I left Montana, I finally rode my first race on a filly named Zulla Road at Santa Anita Feb. 17th, 1977.
Kit: What’s it like to ride a half-ton Thoroughbred at 40mph in a race?
Tom: It's about the most awesome feeling you can imagine. The wind in your face, the sounds of the horses and jockeys all around you, the mane slapping your cheeks, and the dirt clods pounding your body just bring such a sensory overload. The power of the horse underneath you is something only another jockey can relate to. On top of all, this there is the competitiveness and the adrenaline coursing through your body.
Kit: How did you prepare before each race?
Tom: I would read the Racing Form and try to figure out who the major competition was, where I most likely would be laying in the race, and try to figure out how the race would be run depending on what riders were on which horses.
Kit: What did you dislike most about being a jockey?
Tom: I didn't like fighting my weight all the time. I also didn't like having to work on weekends and missing things my sons were involved in like baseball and soccer. I also hated it when a horse was catastrophically injured.
Kit: Is there a horse that has a special place in your heart, and why?
Tom: Moment to Buy was a three-year-old filly back in 1984. I won my only grade 1 win on her--the Hollywood Oaks. She beat the best three-year-old fillies that year. She also ran second to two older mares in two different races that year. Royal Heroine was one of them, and she went on to win the BC Mile against colts and horses. The other was Princess Rooney who won the BC Distaff that year. I have several others, but I don't think you have all week to hear about them.
Kit: What can you tell us about a jockey’s life that we might not know about? Some behind-the-scenes tradition or nuance that we might not ever consider?
Tom: The track is like a world all to itself. It's kind of like a big dysfunctional family that sticks together. Once a person is accepted into the family, they are always in. Sounds a little like the Mafia doesn't it? Anyway, I could go to every racetrack in the nation and run into someone that I know or at least a friend of someone I know.
Kit: Besides winning, what did you love best about race riding?
Tom: I loved the competitiveness of it all. I just loved the adrenaline to the point that I was addicted to it. That is one of the reasons I eventually got into painting. On my days off, I would try to replace that adrenaline rush by skiing, paint balling and stuff like that. I would come home more tired than days when I was racing.
Kit: Who influenced you the most in your racing career?
Tom: I learned a lot riding against Bill Shoemaker and Fernando Toro. Everyone knows “The Shoe.” He was a real horseman. I was always amazed at the way horses ran for him without him even moving on them. Fernando Toro was the "King of the Turf" down in So Cal when I started. He rode the turf better than anyone. I also eventually excelled in turf races and a lot of it had to do with learning from him. People would call me the “Toro of Northern California” and I would say, “No, Fernando is the Chapman of So Cal.”
Kit: That's great. Tom, you’ve made a spectacular career change from race riding to painting gorgeous portraits of all kinds. I know you took art in high school, but your talent is spectacular. Is it mostly self-taught?
Tom: I have a God-given talent and I've been able to develop it. I did take some art lessons starting in 1993, but within a year I had outgrown the teacher. She did teach me a lot about color mixing and light and shadow but the rest I just picked up on my own. I also read every book I could find on art and I would try everything that was suggested.
Kit: Do you think your artistic skills and mindset had an effect on the kind of jockey you were, or are they totally unrelated?
Tom: I'm not sure about that. I know I was more involved with other things in life than most jockeys. Don't get me wrong, I loved raceriding and the track, but my life wasn't all racetrack. Maybe that is one of the reasons I got into art. I've always wanted to learn about different things like the stock market, real estate, politics, art, etc.
Kit: Do you usually paint from photographs, or do you sometimes go onsite to paint?
Tom: I usually paint from photographs. I may use reference photos, from 5 to 10 photos for one painting. I rarely just copy a photo. I also go on location to paint at times. That is usually just for a landscape though. I've always said, “If I can see it, I can paint it, and horses won't stand still long enough.”
Kit: How true. Do you use oils? Other mediums?
Tom: I mostly paint with oils on canvas but will do pencil sketches. I've also done a few murals with acrylics.
Kit: What else would you like to tell us?
Tom: I've been married to my best friend, Kathy, for thirty-four years. Our lives together haven't always been easy. but we are closer now than ever. We both know and love the Lord and He has blessed us so much. We have three boys. Matt is 33, Luke is 23, and Daniel is 10. When people hear that they are so far apart, I know that they are thinking that I must have been married 3 different times. I'll jokingly tell them they are all out of the same broodmare.
Thank you, Tom!
Thank you, Kit.
Tom's Giclee prints are very reasonably priced.
Happy reading and riding,