Jerome Aiken took a few steps forward in the muddied stable on a mid-September morning and leaned in to touch his four-legged prospect on the head as she munched on strands of hay.
Somethingwonderful is Aiken’s dark brown, two-year old New York-bred filly with a name inspired by his hopes for her. For the first time, Somethingwonderful’s learning to be a race horse.
Aiken grew up near the Pimlico Race Course in Northwest Baltimore — home to the Preakness and second leg of The Triple Crown — and always dreamed about getting a horse. He has achieved that and more. For over 20 years, he’s owned, sold and raced at least 40 horses. Though he’s had significant wins and losses, he’s still chasing the likes of one horse that made him first take the leap into the industry.
“This is the world I done fell in love with,” Aiken said.
That horse was named Xtra Heat, and was purchased for $5,000 by its owner and earned nearly $2.4 million in race winnings throughout her career. Somethingwonderful resembles Xtra Heat a bit, with her dark brown coat and white spot (also known as a star) on her forehead. Xtra Heat won 26 of her 35 starts in racing, including stakes in Delaware, New York and Laurel. She was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2015. Aiken first read about Xtra Heat in The Baltimore Sun years ago, while working in Korea as a software engineer.
The story of Xtra Heat and her success was the final nudge Aiken needed to get into the horse racing industry at age 41. While maintaining his full-time job, Aiken started reading books about horses to understand what to look for when purchasing one. He saved up and bought his first horse, Star City Dancer, for $1,500 at an auction in Florida and eventually moved her to Laurel Park. She came in sixth place in the Maiden Special Weight, a race for horses that have never won, in 2002 at Pimlico.
“I was just happy that she made it around the track,” he said, considering all the effort it takes just to get a horse ready to race — let alone win.
Star City Dancer eventually won at a claiming race in Laurel in late 2002. Horses in claiming races are all for sale, so not only did she win, making Aiken $17,000, but she also sold for an additional $10,000.
It was the start of making his childhood dream a reality.
As a kid, Aiken enjoyed movies like “My Friend Flicka,” a 1943 film about a young boy who has to raise a horse on his own, and “Boots Malone,” a redemption story about a jockey agent taking on a new prospect. His father would talk to him about some of the great Black jockeys who once dominated the industry. Thirteen of the 15 jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby were Black, and Black jockeys dominated the contest from 1875 to 1902, winning 15 of the first 28 races, according to Chris Goodlett, a senior director of curatorial and educational affairs with the Kentucky Derby Museum.
Aiken, who is Black, said when he was getting started he didn’t see many Black horse owners, but he believes that’s starting to change.
“We have not in recent years, recent decades, had a proliferation of African Americans in those spaces. People do not see it as an option because it is not displayed,” said Clark Williams, a member of the executive committee of the Ed Brown Society based in Kentucky.
Aiken believes he can be the face that people don’t usually see.
Although he loves what he does, Aiken has experienced highs and lows. He once owned eight horses and was on a winning streak, but he’s also had expensive horses get fractures or other injuries and one that unexpectedly died from a cardiac condition. He used to be too scared to answer the phone because he thought someone might be calling about a horse’s injury or sickness.
“This game will get you crying,” he said, because the industry can cause an emotional roller coaster.
Aiken has also seen changes in participation and affordability. Gone are the days when the grandstand shook from the crowd’s cheers when horses entered the track. It’s also harder for the “working man” to break into the industry because of the increased cost to train, house and take care of horses, and the reduced number of races, he said.
When he first started, he paid $45 a day for training, and now it’s between $70 and $75. Higher gas prices also means transporting horses to different tracks or from auctions is more expensive. He bought Somethingwonderful for $7,000 and pays a daily rate to keep her at Laurel Park. High costs can force people into partnerships, but he often prefers to operate solo so he “can take all the blame and all the glory.”
Aiken takes what he calls the “meat and potatoes” approach when it comes to horse racing. He doesn’t have his eyes set solely on the big races, like Preakness, which can be hard to get a horse into. His horses usually race year-round in West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia and New York, if they qualify.
Some of Aiken’s horses were part of big races, though, including Maryland Million Day, Black-Eyed Susan Day, Preakness and the Old Nelson Stakes at Colonial Downs. The latter was his biggest win — $75,000 — with a horse named Redeemed Gentleman.
Recently, Aiken arrived early at Laurel Park and stood behind a white picket fence to get a good view of Somethingwonderful with his longtime trainer, Anthony Aguirre. An onlooker asked if Aguirre still trains his horses.
“Married at the hip. I can’t get rid of him,” Aiken said.
He smiled as Somethingwonderful made her way to the track alongside another horse. Amid the sound of thudding hooves on the dirt track, Aiken said people in the industry can be some of the nicest.
“Because we’re all suffering together, I guess,” he said, laughing. “Misery loves company.” Many people have the goal of finding that “special” horse, he said, but the outcomes are never guaranteed.
Aguirre still jokes about Aiken’s first horse, Star City Dancer, who was so crooked, with feet pointed in different directions, that she knocked over a piece of exercise equipment. Together, they’ve picked out horses and won races. But Aguirre also see changes, especially with new regulations and oversight like the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority created by Congress. The authority was signed into law in 2020 and recently implemented medical control and anti-doping rules and regulations in May. The governance can make those unfamiliar with the day-to-day of horse racing critical and assume mistreatment is widespread, he said.
“We go above and beyond to care for these animals because they are not only our prized athletes, they’re like our children. That’s the level these horses are taken care of on the back side,” Aguirre said, adding that he wishes he had “10 Jeromes” because of how much care and money Aiken invests in the horses.
Aiken’s animals don’t stop at the track. At home, he has 26-year-old Sisko, an African grey parrot, Scottie the turtle, a dog named Taco, and Sasha the cat.
Aiken tries to look for affordable speed when buying horses and he’s not deterred by fixable flaws. Somethingwonderful, for example, had bone chips — fractured pieces of bone that separate from the joint — in her front legs, and spent time on a farm recovering.
If Aiken could change the industry tomorrow, the sport would be advertised better and those in charge of the tracks and races would be more involved in their communities. At a recent auction, the Midlantic Fall Yearlings in Timonium, the catalog had a fraction of the pages it used to, and Aiken said the turnout seemed lower than previous years.
For now, he does his own part by sharing what he knows about the sport with others. His former coworker Franklin Jenkins said Aiken convinced him to give the industry a try and was intrigued by Aiken’s analysis of horse and track varieties. Jenkins partnered with Aiken and they had a horse named RV Treasure.
Aiken “definitely has a bright insightfulness and drive to expand the knowledge of the sport,” Jenkins said.
Aiken plans to retire next year and devote more time to horse racing. Somethingwonderful will be the last horse he manages solo, he said. He’d like to continue developing his website, Reality Horse Racing Exchange, where people can buy micro-shares of horses and get experience in the industry. He’s also writing a book called “Horse Racing is my Business,” to give people the accurate information that was unavailable when he was getting started.
And Aiken also has a chase to attend to.
“There’s another Xtra Heat out there and I’m gonna find it,” he said.