Gene Ho: From restaurants to race courses

Published 8:44 pm Friday, February 6, 2015


Written and photographed by Mark Schmerling


On April 6, 1979, a young jockey named Gene Ho rode a winning horse at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md., a fairly routine day in the life of a jockey.


However, shortly after that race, Ho traveled to Charles Town Races in West Virginia and became one of a very select group of jockeys, when he rode five winners in six races there, on the same day as his Pimlico win, for a total of six wins in seven races in a day. He became just the 24th jockey to do so.


Now retired from the sport, after riding over 1,500 winning horses, Ho is on the culinary staff of Tryon Estates, outside Columbus.


A native of China, Ho came to the U.S. in 1962, at age nine. His dad, who passed away when Gene was five, had owned the oldest Chinese Restaurant in New York City. Adopted as a son by his stepbrother, Gene was brought up in a restaurant atmosphere, he said, as his new family owned three restaurants in the city.


Small of stature — his riding weight of 100 pounds is just two pounds under his current weight — but strong and agile, Gene Ho performed for his high school gymnastics team.


“The rings are what I was really good at,” he recalled.


While the young man was working in one of the restaurants, well after graduating high school, a customer, who happened to train racehorses, came in, quickly surveyed the youth and informed him, “You should be a jockey.”


The trainer hardly knew Gene, but when he saw the young man cleaning a table, he recognized his strength, and knew he might have found a prize. The restaurant customer was Evan Jackson, who trained for Claiborne Farm, which ran horses at Belmont Park in New York.

Claiborne Farm produced Sham, who finished second to the famed Secretariat at Belmont in 1973, the year that Secretariat won the Triple Crown. Jackson had the credentials to recognize the talent he stumbled on that day.


It didn’t turn out too badly for Ho, either.


“He was my pet,” said Ho, who took to Sham.


Ho rode his first race at Belmont in 1973, and also notched his first win at the famous track, on June 28, 1973, on Marinade.


How did that make him feel? “Excited,” he replied. “It was good.”


As Ho’s career progressed, he became the leading rider at Charles
Town nine times. Ho’s 1,500 victories have come at Pimlico, Charles Town, Rockingham Park, Lincoln Downs (both in Connecticut), Pocono Downs in Pennsylvania, and Saratoga in New York.


At Lincoln Downs, Ho set two records — 57.1 seconds, and 57 seconds flat – on the same day.


“Wow, I can’t believe this. I set two records the same day,” he realized at the time.


Ho rode his favorite horse, Your Native, to five victories in six races.


Ho’s success is based on establishing a connection with the horse prior to a race.


“They respond to you,” he asserted. “They can feel your heart beat. They know you’re not going to hurt them. Before I jump on their back, I let them smell me . . . That’s the secret of winning a race— to let the horse relax.”


Ho’s success over a 20-plus-year career had a price attached. He suffered 20 broken bones, among those, his skull, spine, some ribs, his collarbone and a leg. In one race, after his mount broke down, another horse ran over him, crushing one of his hands.


The broken skull kept him out of racing for over eight months, but could have killed him. In the incident, Ho also suffered a shattered eardrum, which bled sufficiently to relieve pressure on his brain.


“That’s how I lived.” he explained.


Only one incident cost him more time — when a fall by a stumbling mount took out nearly all the muscles of his left thigh. After 188 stitches, a skin graft from his other leg, and ten months, Ho was back in the saddle. However, he retired not long after that.


“I just couldn’t do it,” he said. I didn’t have the leg strength.”


In 1994, shortly after retiring as a rider, Ho met his wife, Linda Bond, who owned horses that ran in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Now, they live not far from Tryon. Linda grows her own herbs, and makes and markets her own soaps, and Ho assists her.


Ho says that now he “is pretty much retired,” although he is “just pitching in” at Tryon Estates. Before serving as chef at Tryon Estates he was the head breakfast chef at Pine Crest Inn in Tryon.


Ho owns two spotted draft horses, which he keeps for pleasure riding. He was last on a racehorse in 2008.