GRANTS PASS — It was a brief encounter, but one that felt meaningful to Kassie Guglielmino and Jake Samuels.
The Grants Pass Downs jockeys were complete strangers until 2012. At a Canada-United States border crossing, the two young competitors were introduced by friends they had traveled with to race in British Columbia.
Samuels extended his hand out to the wide-eyed Guglielmino, who was instantly interested in the man who stood in front of her.
“The thing I remember is shaking her hand,” Samuels says. “She squeezed my hand harder than any guy I had met.”
Says Guglielmino: “I was surprised to see someone my age and I was intrigued.”
Unbeknown to the Washington natives then, they had attended rival high schools.
The short but sweet moment was never forgotten as their lives advanced. Samuels continued his young jockeying career as Guglielmino began hers, each wondering what the other was doing.
And then a fortuitous thing happened. At Les Bois Park in Idaho last year, the two reunited. The pair spoke for hours, and Samuels convinced Guglielmino to jockey the five-stop Oregon fair circuit.
Fast forward to last Thursday, with the 5-foot-1 Guglielmino and 5-foot-5 Samuels jumping into their vehicle in Grants Pass and beginning a journey back to Boise, this time for one race before scrambling back to Southern Oregon for Saturday’s action at Grants Pass Downs. They are now girlfriend and boyfriend officially, and they’re not just any typical couple either.
The 20-year-old Guglielmino is the leading jockey at Grants Pass Downs with 11 victories, seven second-place finishes and three thirds. A fan favorite, she has a GPD-high 31 mounts that have racked in $19,200 in purse earnings. Guglielmino has twice captured four wins in one day through four days of action at the track.
The 22-year-old Samuels, meanwhile, is the defending leading jockey at the track. He stands in second place this summer with eight victories, four seconds and five thirds.
The two rarely settle down for more than a few months, always on the road to jockey full-time. But here, they unpack and get comfortable. They’re inseparable, the staff says.
“It’s a dream,” Samuels says. “I love it. I love doing it with someone I love. It makes everything a lot easier being on the road. Before her, I spent a lot of time by myself traveling.”
The feelings are placed on mute when the dirt flies, though. During those furlongs, their motivation is to be No. 1.
Having a pair of jockeys like Guglielmino and Samuels at GPD is a win for everyone, racing secretary John Everly says.
“They are just outstanding kids,” Everly says. “Both of them are a pleasure to be around. Their professionalism is beyond their years.”
Guglielmino is competing at GP Downs for a second straight year. The Northport, Wash., native earned her jockey’s license in 2012 when she was 17. Her visit to British Columbia marked her first competition. The two attended high schools a few hours apart in the Panorama League, but never crossed paths.
Guglielmino was a state track champion at Northport High, winning titles in the 100 meters, 200 and 400. She also played volleyball and basketball.
After high school, Guglielmino attended the University of Montana Western for one year. At a pivotal juncture in her life, she decided to take a chance and race at Portland Meadows instead of returning for her sophomore year.
“It was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” says Guglielmino, who rode in the Rose City last winter. “Sometimes you only get one shot and I decided to take it.”
Last season at GP Downs, Guglielmino had 10 victories in 60 mounts with a winning percentage of 17. She rode more horses than any other jockey, with her mounts racking in $28,997.
She also had 16 second-place finishes and 11 thirds.
Guglielmino was up at 7 a.m. each morning at the barn helping out last season, GP Downs trainer Bill Hof says.
“That is very appreciated,” says Hof. “She is just a fine young lady. All class. She’s a hard worker. I appreciate her as an individual and as a human being.”
Guglielmino already eclipsed her total victory count from 2014.
“It is a lot fun,” she says of her hot start. “I had some rough spots through the winter. Riders get hot and cold. It kind of evens out.”
Samuels obtained his license when he was 18. The Wellpinit, Wash., native rode at GP Downs in 2011, 2013 and 2014.
Last year, Samuels recorded 15 wins in 52 mounts with a winning percentage of 29. The horses he rode tallied a purse total of $31,885.
He also had 10 second-place finishes and five third-place efforts.
Guglielmino and Samuels have driven up and down the interstate for stops in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Their fair trek begins in Union, and then hits Grants Pass, Prineville, Tillamook and Burns. At the stop in Union this season, Guglielmino earned leading jockey honors with one more win than Samuels.
The life of a jockey is a traveling one, Samuels says. As the couple drives, they gladly talk shop.
“We seem to always be talking about jockeying,” Guglielmino says.
When they stop in Grants Pass, the staff here embraces them.
“It was rumored before the meet that maybe they’d go to Les Bois Park and possibly not be returning, and everyone was holding their breath hoping they’d return,” Everly says. “Everyone is ecstatic they’re back.”
The feeling is mutual, Samuels says. He and Guglielmino live on-site at GP Downs and stay for the entire season, which began June 20 and ends July 12.
“We love it here,” Guglielmino adds. “We talk about coming here all year. It feels like a second home.”
Guglielmino and Samuels are typically two of the younger jockeys at tracks, but their maturity has been noted.
“The character of those two young people is special,” says GP Downs trainer and owner Judi Yearout. “They have more love for horses than any other jockey I’ve seen.”
And they’ve got plenty of love for each other, too.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com. Find him online at twitter.com/danjonesmt