Kali Francois of Marinette, left, works out Dreaming of Julia at the Gulfstream track in Florida. Francois, an exercise rider for trainer Todd Pletcher, has overcome a serious accident to pursue her dream of becoming a jockey. Special to the EagleHerald
Kali Francois of Marinette, left, works out Dreaming of Julia at the Gulfstream track in Florida. Francois, an exercise rider for trainer Todd Pletcher, has overcome a serious accident to pursue her dream of becoming a jockey. Special to the EagleHerald
Like a thoroughbred threading its way through tons of galloping girth, Marinette's Kali Francois is heading full-steam toward her dreams.

After graduating from Chris McCarron's North American Racing Academy jockey school last may, Francois is one of just two female exercise riders working for trainer Todd Pletcher. Pletcher had five horses in the Kentucky Derby, including third-place finisher, Revolutionary.

Exercise riders work long hours far away from the big-money glory of the Sport of Kings. But for every thoroughbred champion, there is an exercise rider who has prepared it for its run to riches.

The day begins long before sunrise for Francois, who gets up at 4 a.m.

"I love working with young horses. It's really rewarding," said Francois. "I get up and ride six to eight or sometimes eight to 14 horses a day. I ride them for a half hour and then get on the next one."

With more than a ton of speed underneath her, it's important for Francois to know the personality and quirks of every horse she rides.

"They're all go, go, go all the time," she explained. "Some horses you really love and some you'd rather not get on again. You have to use every horse you get on as a learning experience. They all have their quirks. You're not just a passenger up there. You have to be five steps ahead because accidents can happen."

As an exercise rider, Francois is the human link between the horse and the trainer. She follows Pletcher's workout goals and lets him know of any injuries or lameness during her morning jogs at the Saratoga track in New York.

Francois' connection with the horse and the powerful, graceful gait of the thoroughbred is a magical feeling that drew her to the sport. The raw power of a horse charging along the rail at 35 to 40 mph and the diminutive stature of Francois can also be the recipe for high-speed disaster.

While riding a horse at the Gulfstream Park , Fla., track last July, her horse hit the rail. Francois was tossed off her mount, hitting her head on the rail before she crashed to the turf. The horse landed on her, breaking her ankle in three places.

"People thought I had a broken my back and neck," recalled Francois. "It's not a matter of if it (an accident) is going to happen, it's a just a matter of when it's going to happen. I earned my tiger stripes."

The accident sidetracked Francois' career for eight months. Instead of being atop a hard-charging colt, Francois was relegated to getting around on crutches for four months.

Following her recovery, Francois resumed exercising horses at Saratoga last month.

She had no qualms about getting back on horses. Her passion for horses and her goal of becoming a jockey left any lingering fear in the dust.

"I wish (the accident) wouldn't have happened, but you move on," she explained.

Francois, a 2009 graduate of Marinette High School, dedicated herself to not only recovering from the accident, but coming back even stronger.

Her work ethic earned the respect of Rosie Napravnik, who rode Mylute to a third-place finish at Saturday's Preakness.

"Rosie said I look stronger after the accident than before the accident," said Francois.

Before her injury, Francois was the exercise rider for Dreaming of Julia, a highly-touted filly that won the Gulfstream Park Oaks and was the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks before finishing fourth.

Dreaming of Julia is expected to run in the final leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, the grueling mile and a half Belmont Stakes.

"You could tell from the beginning that she was going to be a very nice filly," said Francois. "You look at her times and the distances she's run, the colts (who will run in the Belmont Stakes) don't hold a candle to what Dreaming of Julia has done. It's sad that I'm not her exercise rider anymore but I'm really pleased to watch her success."

Only 30 percent of exercise riders in the country are females and Napravnik is the only female aboard a Triple Crown horse.

"It's tough in many ways," Francois said of breaking the male-dominance in horse racing. "I think it will be years before women are normal at the track."

Francois has received tips from world-class jockeys including Joel Rosario, who rode Orb to the roses at the Kentucky Derby, Gary Stevens, who rode Oxbow to the winner's circle at the Preakness, and Johnny Velasquez and Angel Cordero.

"Johnny has really helped me a lot. I watch replays with the stewards. It's a great opportunity to be getting this experience and to be able to learn from the them."

Francois, the daughter of Scott and Julie Francois, is eagerly awaiting the Saratoga racing season which runs from July 20 to Labor Day. It will give Francois another chance to learn from the country's top jockeys.

Everything she learns as an exercise rider is another step toward her goal of being a race rider.

"If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me when I was going to be a race rider, I wouldn't have to be a race rider," she said with a chuckle.