Don't bet against Nikeela Black--at the track, in court or just about anywhere else. Those who underestimate the 27-year-old Boise attorney and jockey usually end up on the sidelines, watching Black in the winner's circle.
Black grew up on a 10-acre farm in Kennewick, Wash., training Arabian horses by the age of 14 and galloping thoroughbreds by the time she was 16.
"I was taking high-school classes in the morning, galloping race horses at midday and taking classes at the community college in the afternoon," she said. "Then, I would train the show horses in the late afternoon."
Black has cleared more than a few of life's hurdles along the way--including sexism and significant health issues. She's a University of Idaho law school grad, studied mediation in Europe and the Far East, and when she's not taking a thoroughbred through its paces, Black is practicing law at Arkoosh Legal Offices, specializing in custody, divorce and child support. Prior to her first mount at the Wednesday, May 1, opening at Les Bois Park, she spoke with Boise Weekly about her passions for jockeying and justice.
It sounds as if your high-school schedule was pretty intense.
That doesn't even include my 4-H, which I was in from the age of 9-18.
Did you ever count your ribbons?
I think my record was 350 entries.
No, just in one year at the Benton-Franklin Fair. I did everything; we had detailed schedules and carried walkie-talkies.
Plus, you were a rodeo queen.
I had to participate in a different county fair every weekend from March to September. I would ride in a parade in the morning, head off to the track to race horses, put my rodeo stuff over my racing silks, participate in a rodeo and then run back to the track for the rest of the races.
But that all had to eventually come to end.
I'm rather spontaneous. I packed up and drove to a race track in Portland [Ore.].
Did you know anyone there?
No, I just showed up. Looking back, that was not a smart move without any connections. I'm sorry if you like Portland, but Portland was miserable.
Can the racing world be cruel or exploitive to a young woman?
I didn't know who the good guys were and I was very naive. Also, being a female, rumors started immediately; but I didn't hear about them until long after I left.
Was heading back home to Washington an option?
No. I packed up my truck and drove to Phoenix, Ariz., to race at Turf Paradise. The weather was better but, again, I didn't know anybody and I was pawned off to an agent who turned out to be a drunk.
I'm trying to picture a young woman doing all of this. How tough are you?
I think I had to be tough. But I began running into weight issues. I was bulking up and getting muscular, and I couldn't make the required weights. I started hitting the sauna, wearing plastic gear.
What weight did you need to be at?
I needed to be 110 pounds stripped, and I'm five foot six. It wasn't healthy. I was flipping.
Basically, it's bulimia. Then there was Lasix.
Hold it. Lasix is for horses [Lasix is used to curb nose bleeds in race horses].
Veterinarians prescribe bottles of Lasix for horses, but it's an extreme diuretic.
This sounds miserable. Were you masking this from the people who cared about you?
My sister figured it out. I don't think much of my family knows about that to this day. I never really have gone into detail about what was going on down there.
And my guess is that your story isn't terribly unique for a jockey.
Unfortunately, no. I had it better than a lot of guys, constantly trying to make weight.
Where was the light at the end of that tunnel?
I was cramping up a lot. I passed out once in a hot-box, and I had a bloody nose. Later that day, a trainer gave me a bunch of shit about being two pounds over. I thought, 'Forget this.' I never had body images before in my life. I raced that day, but I packed up my stuff and came back to Washington. It took about a year for my body to recover.
Did you find your love for racing again?
Washington had higher weights and I got a lot of mounts. I won all the riding titles in the summer of 2005. At the same time, I went to Eastern Washington University and got a degree in psychology [she graduated magna cum laude]. I also got married in 2007 to my best friend of six years.
And how did the law come into your life?
Someone came by the farm one day and offered me a job as a paralegal. I would gallop in the morning and work in the law office in the afternoon. Experiencing my family's painful divorces, I was interested in studying alternative dispute resolution.
Ultimately, you graduated from the University of Idaho law school.
And I got a chance to study negotiation and mediation in London and Geneva one year and in Hong Kong and Beijing the next year. When I was back home, I would continue to race all summer. But by 2010, I was home for only 10 days.
Was that on purpose?
My husband and I had agreed to separate by then.
You were studying mediation. Do you see the terrible irony in that?
It was what it was. On the day of my law school graduation in 2011, I attended the ceremony but had to race in Pocatello the next day. I rode horses for a Jerome farm that whole summer--in Boise, Pocatello, Salt Lake City and in Nevada and Wyoming. I took a job at a law office, balancing that with working the horses and racing on weekends.
Why did you take the job at Arkoosh Law here in Boise.
Because I can race here. I just got a home on 13 acres in Greenleaf--40 minutes to the [downtown Boise] law office and 30 minutes to the [Les Bois] racetrack. I get up at 5 in the morning, gallop at Les Bois until 11 a.m., shower, change and head to the law office. I'm here some evenings until 8 p.m., go home and work a bit more.
And your personal life?
I met a really great guy last May. He sent me a message saying he had watched me beat his race horses that he owned. I said it was nice to meet him, but I wasn't going to apologize for winning. He lives in Price, Utah.
But long distance is a struggle. Is he moving here?
That's the plan. My 13 acres are next to 10 acres that he owns.
Are there horses out there?
Not yet. But there will be.
What's the worst injury you ever suffered?
I've been incredibly lucky. My joints have been torn up pretty bad, though.
You're very slight. How strong are you?
I don't know [Black immediately flexed an impressive muscle and gave a handshake usually reserved for a man twice her size].
How much do you love all of this?
If you're not passionate about it, it will break your heart.