After taking advantage of an equestrian vocational training program while in prison, Alex Wooten has risen from groom to race horse exercise rider to co-owning a small horse farm with plans to develop his own program. (Charles Cohen for The Baltimore Banner)

Taking big strides up the slope from his horse pasture to his barn, Alex Wooten said the Preakness is the last thing on his mind. For an equestrian, he says, the Preakness would be nothing but work.

Not that he’s afraid of work. This is a guy who starts his day at 2:30 a.m. six days a week, waking up from his bed at Laurel Park to exercise racehorses — anywhere between seven to more than a dozen thoroughbreds a day. Then he zooms along Maryland horse country helping trainers “break” babies, horses that are younger than two years of age.

And after he gets enough knocks to the ground and is satisfied with the day’s work, he makes his way back to his small horse farm in Marriottsville. He and his partner, Erin Wheeler, are preparing the farm to become an equestrian center with a soft heart for Baltimore youths who, like himself, would take to horses if they got a chance.

But catch him at the day’s end, when he has his stalls mucked, his six horses munching on fresh hay on the hill, and his Newport cigarette lit up, and he will tell you that any horseman would be lying if they never pictured having a horse in a premier race like the Preakness, which rolls into Pimlico Race Course for its 147th running on Saturday.

“If that’s not their goal, then we don’t understand why they’re doing this,” the 49-year-old said.

This is an interesting question to apply to Wooten himself, however. His why unfurled seven years ago when he was finishing a 20-year sentence for armed robbery in Baltimore, a crime that he says was a case of mistaken identity.

“I just chalk it up to life,” he said. “I wasn’t always innocent. So, karma comes back and bites you.”

His dismissal of what he maintains was a wrongful conviction may seem brash except that Wooten’s strategy has been one of micro-focus and movement. In seven years, he has gone from an inmate taking a pilot equestrian therapy program to working up the ranks of stable life to leasing a small horse farm on the cusp of launching a full-service equestrian therapy center. Wooten is constantly in motion, as if being constantly busy is the safest place to be.

“OK, the most popular saying that they had in prison is if you want to learn to become a better person and not make the same mistakes or repeat the past, then you have to change the people you hang with, the places you be and the things you do.” he says.

That change came in the form of a new equestrian program offered to him while he was finishing his sentence in Sykesville. The opportunity had him flipping through his childhood, before he moved to Baltimore as a teenager.

When he was 13, he took part in an intensive summer riding program in Pennsylvania. There, he learned to care for and ride horses. But it ended, like all good things do, and the memories seemed out of reach with the passing years.

Even back then, he loved every minute he was with those horses, but he had no clue that people could make a full-time living with them, until he was sitting locked up in Sykesville when representatives from The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Second Chances pitched him the program. He signed up, and the next thing he knew, he was getting his first taste of freedom, riding in a van into the countryside, minus the shackles. He was allowed to step out on a wooded horse farm without confinement.

“You haven’t been able to go through a wooded area or walk outside without handcuffs or anything for a long time,” he says. “And then when you finally do, it’s like,” Wooten, pauses and gazes up at the skyward trees bracketing his farm filled with sunshine and so many singing birds it’s almost corny, “this is what it’s like out here.”

Wooten found he took to the work. He liked cleaning out the stalls, the smell of horses and hay. Then he reacquainted himself with the Zen-like approach that one needs to carry to these animals easily 12 times his weight.

Bringing stress into a stall will undoubtedly put a horse on high alert, Wooten says. He developed a dual system of breathing and talking. He will breathe easy to find a calming center in himself but will also talk to the horse, and it’s not a one-way conversation. He’ll talk out his problems, observations of the day or his plans. “Then you’ll hear that horse sigh and you’ll know he’s relaxed,” he says.

The prison equestrian program didn’t just put Wooten to work; it also offered afternoon classes about therapy and care — all pursuits that were familiar to his upbringing, but which as an adult offered an emerging window to a new life he had never imagined.

By the time he was released in 2016, the advice that he could not only get a job at Laurel Park but also a place to live wasn’t lost on him. Laurel, like other tracks, needs live-in employees for round-the-clock care of the horses. Wooten knew all too well from those who got sent back to prison that the first couple of weeks home are crucial in not becoming another recidivism statistic.

Four days after getting back to Dundalk, with his money dwindling, he barely had enough for a one-way bus ride to see about getting a job at Laurel Park. He was betting his last dollars on himself.

“I’m either going to go there and I’m going to end up with a job or I will be teaching myself a really good lesson and walking back to Baltimore City,” he recalls saying to himself.

It was at Laurel he met Bobby Lillis, executive director of the Maryland Horsemen’s Assistance Foundation and a Maryland trackside legend, who encouraged Wooten to follow his curiosity of all things equestrian.

Wooten started out as a hot walker, responsible for walking the horse from place to place, then moved onto being a groom, where a brush and a comb would be the tools of his trade. By the time he made barn foreman, he realized he wanted to be a trainer. And to be a trainer, he would have to know how to ride these horses, built for speed and fierce competition.

This isn’t exactly an obvious transition from grooming to riding a thoroughbred thundering down the fairway as the sun cracks the horizon. While he had a taste for speed, thanks to his motorcycle days in Baltimore, he knew he would need some guidance, to say the least.

By this time, Wooten understood how track life operated like an extended family. People know people who know people, and Wooten was put in touch with Kevin Boniface, head trainer for Bonita Farm, a well-known horse operation in Harford County. Boniface is a big believer in the transformative powers of horses on people.

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” Boniface says, letting that saying hang in the air before giving it attribution. “Winston Churchill.”

When Boniface met Wooten in 2019, he knew he could teach him how to ride, how to gallop, going from one ornery horse to the next. But what he saw was a man that could deal with these emotional creatures on their level.

“He knows how to get them to do what they want to do, and make them think it’s their idea,” Boniface says.

Sitting at the mouth of his barn, Wooten talks about what it’s like to ride these racehorses — not quite at full speed, but to the point that you feel like you’re off the ground and all you can see is over the horse’s head between their ears. But the more he tries, the more it seems there is no description that works — it’s like flying jets or pressing a motorcycle to its limit.

“One of the things that we say on the track is as an exercise rider, we have to be some of the craziest people in the world,” Wooten says, wearing the dirt from being thrown from a horse a few hours earlier.

But despite being one of the few who gets to ride these horses and even with the farm growing — he, along with Wheeler, is building a teaching arena — he knows he’s not where he wants to be.

He is looking to be a well-known trainer, creating a safe place for others to learn, creating the very opportunities that stabilized his life, and yes, after all that, he’d like to eventually have a horse one day in that big race.

Charles Cohen is a freelance journalist, filmmaker and digital storyteller. He is a Baltimore native.