Former top jockey Vann Belvoir returns to Emerald Downs as an elite trainer

He’s a track junkie.

He’s a track junkie.

One minute, he’s talking excitedly about his time in the spotlight as one of the nation’s premier jockeys.

The next, with the speed of an auctioneer on a double-shot caffeine kick, he’s colorfully divulging how being a trainer gives him a rush like no other.

Whether it be riding, training or owning, one thing about Vann Belvoir remains paramountly clear: the man has a passion for horses that comes out of his mouth with every adrenaline-laced syllable.

Always has, always will.

It’s that passion that drove Belvoir, a history maker on a number of local fronts, to drop out of Kentwood High in 1990 after only his sophomore year to pursue dreams as a jockey. It’s what drove him to places like Kentucky, Texas and Arizona simply to satiate what has become an unquenchable thirst.

And, ultimately, it’s one of the key elements that has brought Belvoir back home, where he returned a little more than a month ago and is now part-owner and full-time trainer at West Coast Training Center near Flaming Geyser Park.

“It gets boring looking at the same horses over and over again,” concedes Belvoir, who moved from his farm in Texas with wife Sauci and their two children, Ace, 5, and Jade, 4. “Maybe that’s why we’ve moved so much.”

This move, however, was done with family in mind.

“All my clients were up here. My mom and dad (noted trainer Howard Belvoir) were up here and my wife’s parents live in Idaho,” the 34-year-old Belvoir explained. “We just figured it would be nice to be close to home.”

But what’s even nicer these days for Belvoir is his recent claim of Schoolin You, a 5-year-old gelding he believes can make an immediate impact at Emerald Downs. Belvoir claimed Schoolin You for $20,000 — a bargain-basement price for a gelding of this caliber — with an eye on Sunday’s 73rd running of the $300,000 Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs.

“Where in the world can you get a horse for $20,000 three weeks before a $300,000 race that has a chance?” asked Belvoir, who claimed Schoolin You from the Jim Penney barn.

In fact, Belvoir figures his horse already has a victory. During the annual breakfast to draw post positions for the Mile, Schoolin You, who ran fourth in last year’s Mile, first had to win a special drawing with Maxey Boy just to get into the race. A total of 13 horses were entered, but only 12 spots are available in the gate. Rules stipulate that the lowest-weighted horses (both were assigned 110 pounds) must draw to see who gets in.

“We were on pins and needles the whole time,” Belvoir said. “That was like a win.”

Common bonds

While family played a big role in Belvoir’s decision to return, so too did horses.

However, it took a little convincing from longtime friend and new business partner Keith Swagerty for the one-time wrestling standout and star jockey to find his way back.

The two were introduced at a Mariner game more than a decade ago and quickly formed a bond through baseball, country music and horses.

But it wasn’t until this past June, when Swagerty purchased the training center, that he had the necessary bait to draw Belvoir back.

“I didn’t think he’d be available or interested,” Swagerty said.

Available? Interested?

When it comes to horses or his own schedule, Belvoir always has been the type of guy who does what he wants, when he wants and makes no apologies for it. It’s that no-nonsense, confident-but-not-cocky personality that left an indelible impression on the Kentwood wrestling mat nearly two decades after his first — and only — prep season.

It’s an impression that many in the local wrestling community still talk about. Because to this day, Belvoir and Jason Cleverly remain the only teammates in Washington history to meet in the state championship. Cleverly got the better of Belvoir on that particular February afternoon in 1990, claiming the 101-pound title, then went on to become Kentwood’s lone three-time state champion.

“I was more mentally into horses at the time,” admits Belvoir, who beat Cleverly in double-overtime a couple weeks earlier. “I was beat before I went into the match. I was riding (horses) all weekend and wrestling all week.”

Even 18 years later, Belvoir is not ready to relent to Cleverly — or to anyone else.

“I was probably as good or better than him,” notes Belvoir, who won his first race as a jockey at Yakima Meadows a few months before that title bout.

A star is born

Belvoir’s heart was with horse racing.

Not wrestling. And certainly not school.

“I could have cried when he told me he wasn’t coming back,” former Kentwood coach Lee Reichert said. “But, there was no question in my mind that Vann was going to be successful in horse racing. … He was meant to do it.”


Between 1989 and 1996, Belvoir won 1,353 races. During his final year of riding, he was the leading jockey at the inaugural Emerald Downs meeting with 148 wins, a total that put him among the top five jockeys in the nation and a number that was not surpassed until last year.

Not bad for a high school dropout.

“I enjoyed what I was doing and I didn’t like school anyway,” said Belvoir, who became accustomed to cutting considerable weight for both sports. “School, in my opinion, you don’t learn anything. How many kids at 16 are writing checks, paying agents?”

But riding came at a price for Belvoir. At 5-foot-8 and competing at 121 pounds during his jockey days, he always was bigger and heavier than his peers.

“The reason I had to pull so much weight was because I had to hydrate myself or die,” he said. “Whatever I put in my body would double in weight.”

Success follows

Weight limitations cost Belvoir his career as a jockey.

But he has no regrets about retiring from that aspect of the sport.

“I miss the good horses,” he said. “But the everyday grind of pulling weight? No. It’s like anything. If you start driving a good car and they want you to drive a bad one, it’s not fun anymore.”

Instead, he simply and quickly changed directions.

Less than a year after hanging up the reins, Belvoir won the training title at Emerald Downs’ only winter meeting in 1996-97. Since then, he has campaigned horses across the Midwest and recently saddled his 201st winner as a trainer at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Now that he’s back at Emerald Downs, Belvoir’s banking on that same kind of success — along with the same break-neck, adrenaline-pumping feel — to follow.

“I bet some people like watching me more than the horses,” Belvoir proclaims. “I like having fun. What are you going to do? If you can’t have fun, then why be in it?”

For a track junkie such as Vann Belvoir, it has always been just that.

Erick Walker can be reached at 425-432-1209 or


• WHAT: The 73rd running of the Northwest’s richest thoroughbred race, a Grade III event.

• WHEN/WHERE: Sunday, Emerald Downs.

• POST TIME: Approximately 5:38 p.m.

• ON AIR: FSN, KJR 950 AM; both 4 p.m.

• LAST YEAR’S WINNER: The Great Face (not running this year).

• EARLY FAVORITES: Tropic Storm, True Metropolitan, Wasserman.

• ALSO ON THE CARD: The $100,000 Emerald Distaff, 1 1/8 miles, fillies and mares 3 years old and up. The field includes Shampoo, who has won five stakes at Emerald Downs.