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Behind the Scenes: Former Jockey Melinda Vest Now an Equine Lip Reader

October 16, 2016

LEXINGTON, KY (Oct. 16) As Keeneland’s Identifier, Melinda Vest receives a most unusual view of horses. When they arrive in the Saddling Paddock before each race, Vest turns their upper lips inside out so she can read the numbers tattooed there. The procedure ensures that the name in the program matches the animal standing before her.

Thoroughbreds receive lip tattoos before they race. Vest compiles a list of these numbers along with detailed descriptions of horses’ markings from their The Jockey Club registration papers and before each race stands near the entrance to the Saddling Paddock where handlers stop their horses for her review.

In some cases, Vest knows exactly who a horse is but she still needs to check the tattoo.

“I almost feel silly checking their tattoos, and I apologize because I know the horse is the right one,” the former jockey said. “When I checked American Pharoah’s tattoo (before he won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic-G1 at Keeneland), of course I knew he really was American Pharoah but I still had to do my job.”

After confirming each horse’s identity, Vest removes the unavoidable saliva from her hand with a small towel that is color coordinated with her clothing. Her towel collection was a gift from Barbara Borden, the longtime identifier who now is the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s Chief State Steward at Keeneland. 

Vest, who grew up in Louisville in a non-horsey family, said she asked for a pony every Christmas but never received one. After graduating from high school, she was determined to be around horses and enrolled in an equine program based at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. There she learned all-around horsemanship including advanced riding that led to her first job as an exercise rider at Keeneland.

She became a jockey, and from 1980-1988 the former Melinda Spickard won 402 races from 4,707 mounts while competing on the Kentucky-Ohio circuit. Eleven of those mounts came at Keeneland.

As Identifier, Vest relishes being able to continue to work with horses. Once she completes her responsibilities, she also enjoys other aspects of Keeneland.  
“Keeneland is a beautiful place to work and the people-watching is great,” she said. “I get a lot of good fashion ideas from watching the crowd.”