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Friday, October 24, 2014


Leading online wagering provider, Xpressbet, is excited to unveil a series of videos, dubbed Favorites, which give viewers an unsaddled and unscripted look at North America’s best jockeys. Created in conjunction with the Jockeys’ Guild and HRTV, these videos feature Q&A sessions with top riders as they candidly discuss their lives on and off the track.  


In addition to giving viewers the opportunity to get to know their favorite jockeys better, Favorites also generates awareness for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF).  The PDJF provides assistance to 60 former jockeys who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries.  At the end of each video, the profiled jockey asks viewers to consider donating to the PDJF by texting ‘JOCKEY’ to 50555. 


Episodes of Favorites can be viewed at on Xpressbet’s YouTube channel, XB-TV.  The current series features ten jockeys – John Velazquez, Mike Smith, Javier Castellano, Joe Talamo, Rafael Bejarano, Joel Rosario, Kent Desormeaux, Jose Lezcano, Elvis Trujillo and Joe Bravo – with more videos to be introduced in 2014 and 2015.


“The highlight of Favorites for us, and we hope the viewers agree, was getting to know the jockeys as more than the men and women that we watch riding horses each afternoon,” said Xpressbet’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Kerry Carlson.  “Each rider brought incredible enthusiasm and memorable experiences to the table, and their passion for the sport and the horses is completely evident in the videos.”


Hall of Fame rider and Jockeys’ Guild Chairman, John Velazquez, added, “I had a great time working with Xpressbet and HRTV on Favorites.  All the riders hope that fans will enjoy the videos, and take our plea to donate to the PDJF to heart.  Those jockeys need all the help that we can provide.”


About Xpressbet

Xpressbetprovides legal and secure online wagering services to horseplayers in the United States.  It is the industry’s most comprehensive and user-friendly wagering site, allowing customers to wager on more than 300 of the world’s best racetracks from their computer, phone or mobile device.  Xpressbet operates XB SELECT, the industry’s premier destination for high-volume wagering, and XB Net, which connects bet shops and wagering sites from around the world to North American racing.  Xpressbet is a Stronach Groupcompany, which also owns and operates Santa Anita Park, Gulfstream Park & Casino, Golden Gate Fields, Portland Meadows, Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, home of the world-famous Preakness.  The company owns and operates the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida, the award-winning Adena Springs operation, AmTote, a global leader in wagering technology, and Monarch Content Management.  The Stronach Group is also a major producer of televised horseracing programming through its HRTV cable and satellite network. 




Friday, October 24, 2014

Velazquez Q&A: Jockeys should speak for the sport

This year will mark jockey John Velazquez’s 19th Breeders’ Cup appearance. With 12 previous winners at North America’s year-end Championships, the 42-year-old rider is tied for fourth among the event’s top riders by victories.

Last year at Santa Anita, Velazquez could not add to that tally. Winless on Day One, the rider suffered life-threatening injuries when his first Breeders’ Cup mount on Saturday, Secret Compass, suffered a broken leg during the running of the Juvenile Fillies.

Velazquez made his name on the New York circuit, arriving in the United States from Puerto Rico in 1990 on the advice of Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr., who upon his retirement several years later became Velazquez’s agent.

Inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2012 and perennially among the leading riders in the U.S., Velazquez is a two-time Eclipse Award winner. He won the Belmont Stakes twice, aboard the filly Rags to Riches in 2007 and Union Rags in 2012. Velazquez’s first Kentucky Derby winner came aboard Animal Kingdom in 2011. He is the owner of 26 individual riding titles at New York Racing Association tracks.

On Oct. 13, 2013 at Belmont Park, Velazquez surpassed Pat Day’s mark of $297 million in earnings to become North America’s all-time leading money-earning jockey. Another career milestone occurred in June 2013 at Belmont Park when he rode his 5,000th winner.

Chairman of the Jockey’s Guild, and on the Board of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, Velazquez is an outspoken advocate for the welfare and safety of riders.

The regular rider for leading Breeders’ Cup Juvenile contender Carpe Diem, it was recently announced that Velazquez would replace the injured Rajiv Maragh aboard Main Sequence for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Velazquez lost his marquee Breeders’ Cup horse when Wise Dan was ruled out of the Breeders’ Cup Mile with an injury, but is now expected to ride Grand Arch in that race.

Karen M. Johnson interviewed John Velazquez on Oct. 1.


It’s nearly a year now since your accident. Are you still affected by the loss of your spleen?

“Not having the spleen means my energy level goes up and down. When my kids are sick, I can feel my energy level gets pretty low. I try, with help from supplements, vitamins, not to get sick. It is something I have to watch. The doctors told me right after the accident that I had to be careful around people who are sick because I don’t have my spleen, which aids the immune system.

“Another thing that is happening and I don’t understand why, so I will ask my doctor at my next appointment, is that my weight has not been the same since the accident. I constantly have to eat more to maintain my weight a little higher. When I ride, I lose weight a lot quicker than I did before the accident.”

What are your recollections of the spill?

“I remember everything. From the time I fell, from the time I told someone I was about to pass out and I kneeled on the track, to the time they put me in the ambulance . . . I never really passed out.

“I felt pressure in my ribs. I thought I broke a rib and hurt my knee. When I got to the hospital, all these doctors and nurses were surrounding me and I was like, ‘holy crap.’ People were everywhere. I was still pretty calm even though I was uncomfortable with pain in what I thought was my ribs.

“A doctor is telling me I have lost a lot of blood and will need a transfusion and surgery. I understood about transfusions because my dad went through that, so I told the doctor to go ahead and do what he had to do, but I told him I didn’t want surgery. At that point I had no idea what my damage was internally.

“I pulled my wife, Leona, to my side and told her no surgery until a specialist comes in and talks to me. Not five minutes later, my whole body went limp, and they had to do an emergency blood transfusion. I was awake, but I was very limp.

“Then they brought me to the [operating room] and I saw Leona and my kids at the door as the wheeled me there. I remember telling the doctor, ‘Whatever you do, I just want a little incision.’

“There were so many things wrong with me internally. The spleen was cut in half and that was why I was losing so much blood. My pancreas and kidney were lacerated. I was bleeding in different places.

“Later, the thing that scared me the most was the injury to the pancreas. The doctor in California didn’t go into details, but told me after the surgery I wasn’t out of the woods yet with the injury to my pancreas. He told me once I flew home to New York I needed to have a surgeon on call and should I get the slightest bit of a fever I was to go to the hospital. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and I haven’t had any complications.”

Did you consider retiring after the accident?

“I never thought about it. When I got home to New York, Leona said to me, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Are you going back [to ride]?’

“I told Leona that it never occurred to me to retire. The doctor in California told me I was going to have a full recovery. So retiring was never in my mind. Leona was fine with that and told me she supported me 100 percent. We never talked about it again.”

Will you be thinking about the accident when you return to Santa Anita this year for the Breeders’ Cup?

“Once you start riding [after an accident], you have to put that behind you. When I went back to Santa Anita [earlier this year] to ride, one of the reporters there asked me the same question. I told him, ‘It is just another day on the job, basically.’

“Accidents can happen at anytime on any racetrack. I can’t live my life thinking about that. If I am thinking about that, I should not be riding. You shouldn’t be in a job you are afraid of.”

You’ve been quoted as saying Wise Dan is the “whole package.” What did you mean by that? Where does he rank among the best horses you have ridden?

“By far, I think he is the best horse I have ridden. To have a horse do the things he has done, race after race, is hard to do. Horses like that don’t come that often. To come back race after race, running hard against different horses at different tracks . . . you have to take off your hat to a horse like that.

“Even after the [colic] surgery and layoff, Wise Dan came back and ran his eyeballs and heart out . . . that is simply incredible.”

John Velazquez and Wise Dan winning the 2012 Breeders' Cup Mile. Photo: © Breeders' Cup/Gary Mook 2012.
John Velazquez and Wise Dan winning the 2012 Breeders' Cup Mile. Photo: © Breeders' Cup/Gary Mook 2012.

Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero, Jr. motivated you to come to New York from Puerto Rico in 1990. Several years later he became your agent. In what ways has he shaped your career?

“Without Angel, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come to New York when I did. He was the guy who brought me here. I was going somewhere like Ohio before I ever was going to have the opportunity to come to New York. It probably would have taken me awhile to come to New York, or you never know, I might not have had the opportunity. I lived with Angel and his family for almost three months, and from day one they treated me like family.”

What has trainer Todd Pletcher meant to your career?

“He has meant a lot. Angel started the whole thing back in [the late 1990s] when he got me on a few horses for Todd. Angel told Todd he was going to be the champion trainer of the future and that I would be the champion jockey of the future. Angel told Todd that he and I should get together because we would be a really good team.

“So our growing together during our careers, and [achieving] the things we have as a team, means a lot to me.

“Todd has also supported me, accident after accident. If you look at the last 10 years, I have had probably five bad accidents. After being hurt and coming back and having someone trust you with the type of horses Todd has . . . and also taking the heat from owners who are questioning if I will be 100 percent or if I’m scared, has meant a lot to me and my family.”

John Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher hold up the trophy after winning the 2007 Belmont Stakes with Rags To Ritches. Photo: NYRA/Adam Coglianese.
John Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher hold up the trophy after winning the 2007 Belmont Stakes with Rags To Ritches. Photo: NYRA/Adam Coglianese.

You had never ridden the Graham Motion-trained Animal Kingdom before winning your first Kentucky Derby on him in 2011. How did you end up getting the mount?

“It was one of those things you couldn’t have anticipated because it took so many things to come together. I was going into the race riding Uncle Mo for Todd and thinking I had a really good chance on him. I loved the horse. I thought this was the year I was going to win my first Derby. Then [the week of the race] I heard the horse might not run because he wasn’t 100 percent. And it ended up he did not run.

“So, Angel was talking to Graham Motion about Animal Kingdom who was supposed to be ridden by Robby Albarado, but Robby went down in a race a few days before the Derby. Thursday night I had dinner at the hotel with Graham and his family. He told me if Robby didn’t return to ride on Friday, [Team Valor] the owners of Animal Kingdom were looking for a rider and they wanted me. I got the mount when Robby didn’t ride Friday.

“Animal Kingdom ended up winning easily, impressively. Everything opened up for me, even the little spot at the three-eighths pole I knew I had to take before it closed, so I put the horse in there and he took it.”

What did the Derby win mean to you?

“I have had a very blessed career with all of my wins, leading rider titles, my Breeders’ Cups. But not to have won the Derby . . . it was definitely missing. It’s a race everyone dreams of winning. Not having won it was bothering me, so it was definitely special to get it done, and also a [weight off] my shoulders.”

You were appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to the state’s Task Force on Jockey Health and Safety in 2013 to discuss, among other topics, the subsidization of health insurance for riders, something that is only offered in five other states. Was the request by New York riders for subsidized health insurance addressed by the state?

“[Legislation] was passed earlier this year for jockeys, who qualify, and their families to receive health insurance coverage [subsidized] up to 70 percent in New York. We’re very, very happy about that.”

The funding for that will come from video lottery gaming revenue originally intended for purses at New York tracks. Horsemen there, and in other states, have argued against subsidized health insurance because they consider jockeys independent contractors and in some states such as New York, injured jockeys are already covered under a workers’ compensation policy. Why do you believe riders should not be viewed as independent contractors?

“Tracks tells us that we have to be in the [jockeys’] room at a certain time. We have to take a breathalyzer test, which I am 100 percent for because it means safety for me too. We have to have our weight checked at a certain hour. If you don’t weigh out at a certain time [the stewards] can fine you. If you’re not here at a certain time they can fine you or take you off [mounts]. I have to follow rules and regulations they have or I don’t work. They are not my rules. So, am I an independent contractor or not?”

As chairman of The Jockeys’ Guild since 2006, can you comment on the Guild initiatives that work well and the areas where improvements can be made?

“When I came in, [the Guild] was in complete disarray; a complete mess. We were down to bankruptcy, bad publicity . . . it was horrible, to tell you the truth. The [relationships] with racetracks were really bad. It was difficult at the time to convince the racetracks that it was going to be a completely new Guild.

“With the new Guild in place, we told the racetracks we are here to work with you, not to break or disrupt the business. We are here to help and promote the business. We are here for the health and welfare of the jockey . . . that is what the Guild is about . . . making sure we are safe and that the track is doing things correctly, which will end up reducing insurance [costs] for them.

“We ask that riders are taken care of when there are accidents on the racetrack. That the insurance policies carried by the racetracks have [sufficient coverage] so when a rider gets hurt the bills are paid. That the ambulances are there and that the paramedics are there.

“Having paramedics [versus emergency medical technicians who are not trained to the extent of a paramedic] at Santa Anita last year is what saved my life. The Guild wanted California tracks to have at least one paramedic on the grounds, and we finally got them to do that, not too long before my accident. If there wasn’t a paramedic there, I probably would have been taken to the hospital next to Santa Anita and bled to death. But instead, I was taken to a trauma center because a paramedic recognized [the severity of the injuries]. It saved my life. We also have paramedics in New York, which was one of the first places to have them. We are still working with other racetracks to have at least one paramedic on the grounds.

“We work with racetracks so that our helmets and [safety] vests are up to standards [for insurance purposes]. So working with the tracks has [built] trust. But it was a long process of making that connection with the racetracks, and it’s still a work in progress.

“We’re still working with racetracks to open their doors to new fans through promotion. That has been very slow progress. In my 25 years in the business, it’s my opinion that we do things the same way, we don’t grow like other sports industries.”

How can the racing industry use jockeys to promote the sport?

“We don’t promote racing the way other sports do. Racing has always done the horse first. The horse period. Not a combination of horse and rider. I think it needs to be a combination of the two of them, and to have the jockeys speak for the sport. We don’t do that in our sport.

“Obviously, using jockeys in television commercials and promotions would be a start. That will allow us to compete with other sports and bring new fans to the game. It’s great to have the horses, but they don’t last very long before [being retired]. Jockeys, or even trainers, are around for a long time. If we put them out there, they will be recognized more.

“In other sports, they always have a spokesman for the sport. Not only are they promoting the sport, but they are there answering questions. Basketball, baseball, hockey players, what have you, are on the television all the time even when they are not playing. They are constantly on everybody’s mind. We don’t have that.

“This year, The Stronach Group and Gulfstream [produced] commercialsthat were on local television to promote some of the track’s big races and jockeys were used. It seemed to work as a lot of people came to the track. We need to do more of that at other tracks as well.”

New York jockeys join John Velazquez on Galloping Giraffe in the winner's circle at Belmont Park after his 5,000th win. Photo: NYRA/Adam Coglianese.
New York jockeys and trainer Todd Pletcher join John Velazquez on Galloping Giraffe in the winner's circle at Belmont Park after his 5,000th win on June 14, 2013. Photo: NYRA/Adam Coglianese.

What are the challenges that face the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund?

“We don’t have guaranteed funding, so it makes it difficult for us every month to continue to give money to the [approximately 60] riders who are recipients.

“We have to do fundraiser, after fundraiser. You can’t keep going to the same well, keep taking water, time and time again. It’s going to dry up sooner or later. So we are still working on that . . . trying to build an endowment that will make the fund [self-sufficient]. There is $3 million in the fund now and we are way off with that number in terms of the needs for these riders we help . . . we are looking to build an endowment of $20 million. If we took just one cent from every dollar from [handle] or purses, oh my god, that would create so much money.

“We do have some generous owners, who wish to remain anonymous, who have given us almost $2 million in the last three or four years, and that has helped to keep the fund going.”

As one of the senior members of the jockey colony, how important is it to you to mentor the younger riders?

“It’s our duty to try to teach those young guys coming up. First of all, the better they become as riders, the better it is for all of us who ride with them. If you teach them the right way when they make a mistake it will then be a lot safer to ride with them.

“It takes some of the young riders a long time to understand that we are not trying to steer them the wrong way. They may think because it is a competition out there we are not trying to help with our advice. But it all comes down to safety, for all of us.”

If you weren’t a jockey what line of work would you have pursued?

“When I was in a high school, I was leaning toward being an accountant. I was very good at math and numbers, and keeping things organized.”

How long will you continue to ride?

“I’m going to bring up Mike Smith, who is 49. I read something about him the other day that was very interesting. He said he loved what he did and as long as he was riding the right horses, and was healthy and strong, he would ride for as long as he could.

“I always thought about getting to 45 [and retiring]. But now, I’m looking at it the way Mike is. I’m strong, healthy, and riding the horses I want. Hopefully, I will be doing something close to what Mike is doing when I am his age, and I would be very happy about that.”

Friday, October 24, 2014


Mike Smith has 20 Breeders’ Cup victories, more than any jockey. Retired Hall of Fame riding great Jerry Bailey has 15, and John Velazquez 12, second to Smith among active riders.

Smith, inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2003, attributes his success to more than skill, luck and longevity. How about favorable circumstances?

“It’s getting the opportunity to ride great horses, that’s the key,” the 49-year-old New Mexico native said, just hours before losing Distaff favorite Beholder, who was declared Sunday from the $2 million race on Oct. 31 after developing a fever.

Santa Anita hosts the 31st Breeders’ Cup World Championships for an unprecedented third straight year on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, but as soon as the big event is over, Smith and his agent of 10 years Brad Pegram will have their eyes peeled for next year’s Breeders’ Cup prospects.

“As soon as this one’s over, you start looking for horses you think belong next year,”

Smith said. “Brad’s been doing a great job in that respect. It’s not a coincidence when you wind up on live horses every year. The Breeders’ Cup takes planning. You work for it and you go after it, and he’s been doing a pretty good job.”

          Smith, willow-trim and oak-strong, rarely deviates from his personal training regimen, which accounts for his UFC-like condition as he nears the mid-century mark, which he will reach on Aug. 10 of next year.

“Good Lord willing, I’m healthy and staying strong and fit,” he said. “Hopefully that will continue for future Breeders’ Cups.”

There’s more to just staying physically strong, of course. It’s important to have your head in the game and do your homework, watching film and perusing past performances.

“At this point, you pretty much know who’s running and what their style is,” Smith said. “There are no secrets other than when it comes to a younger horse. We kind of know who the older horses are and what they can do.

“We’ve been watching them all year, but you don’t really begin strategizing and handicapping until the races are drawn. That’s a big part of it, seeing where the horses draw and what you think they might do or might not do.”

Smith’s former stakes winners read like a Who’s Who of racing, and he does his best to stay in contact.

“I try to see Zenyatta as often as I can when I ride at Keeneland,” said the regular rider of the great mare. “I didn’t get to see her last year, but hopefully this year when we head down to Kentucky, at some point I’ll get a chance to stop by and see her. Holy Bull, Lure, and now Game On Dude and Amazombie. That’s pretty neat.

“I saw a picture of Game On Dude playing in the paddock the other day. He had a ball in his mouth and was throwing it in the air.”

The old gelding was just living up to his name.
Santa Anita Communications Department
Friday, October 24, 2014

Gary Stevens to Ride in Breeders' Cup

Hall of Fame jockey and 10 time Breeders Cup winner Gary Stevens will be riding the Breeders’ Cup World Championships exactly 14 weeks to the day after undergoing Total Knee Replacement surgery on July 25, 2014. Stevens will be aboard Sivoliere in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf on Friday, October 31. He will be reuniting with owner Martin Schwartz and trainer Chad Brown.

Stevens and Martin Schwartz famously won the Beverly D at Arlington Park in 2004 aboard Angara. It was Gary’s first mount back at Arlington after his near career ending fall there in the 2003 Arlington Million. “I feel like we got the band back together. I couldn’t be more excited”, said Schwartz after speaking with Stevens about riding the race. Gary rode his last race in July for Brown, before announcing he was taking some time off to get his right knee replaced. “It was something that I knew I would need to do eventually. I just put it off until I had to deal with it,” Stevens stated. “I always hoped I would be able to ride in the Breeders Cup this year, but I knew that I wasn’t going to do it unless I was 110%. I’m so grateful to have owners and trainers that believe in me.”

Stevens won the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year on Mucho Macho Man. He won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Beholder. Neither horse is running in this year’s races. “Nothing can top the Breeders’ Cup I had last year. But being able to go out there and ride at the highest level, for great people only 3 months after having a new knee put in, well it’s right up there.”
The Breeders Cup will be held at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California on October 31 and November 1, 2014.

Contact: Angie Athayde

Meticulous Talent Management



Thursday, October 23, 2014

Get Back Anne Honors Anne Von Rosen

A horse named for injured jockey Anne Von Rosen debuted Sunday at Santa Anita
Monday, October 20, 2014

Jose Montano named Jockeys Guild Jockey of the Week

Jose Montano won a pair of stakes at Charles Town on Saturday to be named the Jockeys Guild Jockey of the Week. The title goes to the week’s outstanding jockey in the opinion of a panel of industry experts. They looked at races run from October 13-19.

Overall, Montano won 4 races, with 4 seconds and a third from 17 starts, earning $329,045. His fans collected an average of $25.15 on $2 mutuel tickets for his four winning mounts.

In Saturday’s fifth race at Charles Town, Montano turned on the afterburners on 40-1 longshot Perfect Cross to nose out odds-on favorite In the Fairway in a four-horse blanket finish in the West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association Onion Juice Breeders’ Classic Stakes. Ironically, Montano had ridden In the Fairway when he scored his first stakes in back in 2012.

Montano came back in Saturday’s ninth race, the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders’ Classic Stakes, on Russell Road to overtake another odds-on favorite, Lucy’s Bob By, to win by half a length. Eight-year-old Russell Road was winning the race for a record third time.

A native of Mexico, 27-year-old Montano became involved in racing through working with his father’s horses in Mexico and Florida.

He rode his first race at Mountaineer Park on October 4, 2011 on Catena Zapata. He won his first stakes race at Charles Town on September 22, 2012 for the track’s leading trainer, Jeff Runco.

Montano notched up 187 wins in 2012, mostly in West Virginia, to earn the Eclipse Award for Champion Apprentice Rider.

Montano is currently ranked second in both wins and earnings at the Charles Town meet.

The Jockey of the Week is the centerpiece of, a new website offering a unique blend of news, features, social media and statistics that will appeal to racing's casual fans, as well as seasoned handicappers.
JockeyTalk360 is collaborating with the Jockeys' Guild and other industry partners to bring fans closer to racing's talented and fearless athletes. A majority of the revenue generated by the site is earmarked for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. spotlights the riders across North America and around the world who may be the bravest, toughest and most accomplished of all athletes. The Jockey of the Week is selected by a vote of representatives of America's Best Racing, the Daily Racing Form, Equibase, the Jockeys’ Guild, the Paulick Report, the Thoroughbred Daily News, National Thoroughbred Racing Association, National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, Thoroughbred Racing Associations, and Turf Publicists of America.

To find out more about the great sport of horse racing, and to learn more about your favorite jockeys visit

Friday, October 17, 2014

Jockeys Around the World Honor Fallen Colleagues

In a week that saw three promising young jockeys die from racetrack accidents, the tributes from fellow riders continue.

Following Thursday’s third race at Santa Anita, the jockey colony assembled in the winner’s circle to honor 17-year-old apprentice Juan Saez, who died Tuesday night following a spill earlier in the day at Indiana Grand Race Course. With a picture of Saez displayed on the track’s Infield video monitor, announcer Trevor Denman also noted the recent passing of Australia-based jockeys Caitlin Forrest and Carly-Mae Pye and asked that everyone observe a moment of silence in their collective honor.

Friday at Britain’s Newmarket on Dubai Future Champions Day, riders participating in the first race, the Dubai European Breeders’ Fund Fillies Nursery, will enter the parade ring a couple of minutes early to lead a minute’s silence as a mark of respect to Saez, Forrest, and Pye.

Jockeys will also wear black armbands as a mark of respect for, and in memory of the fallen riders.

Paul Struthers, chief executive of the Professional Jockeys’ Association, said: “Jockeys share a unique bond wherever in the world they ply their trade, so the death of a colleague is a shock and a tragedy no matter where it happens.

“The thoughts and prayers of the all of the PJA’s members and staff are with the family, friends and colleagues of Carly-Mae, Juan and Caitlin.”
Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hovdey: McCarron forced to teach hard lessons

It’s one thing to stand at arm’s length and contemplate the horror of last Tuesday afternoon at Indiana Grand Race Course, where the 17-year-old apprentice Juan Saez was killed in a race worth $34,000.

It is quite another, though, to wake up the next morning and confront a room full of young Juan Saez wannabes, all of them longing to live the life of a professional jockey in spite of the dangers once again screaming at them from the headlines.

“I’m pretty upset about something, and I’m going to show you what it is,” began retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron as he convened his class at the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky. “Someone has lost their life for the sake of the profession.”

McCarron proceeded to show his students the video of the Saez accident, which occurred without warning when Saez’s horse, the 4-year-old Montezuma Express, appeared to clip the heels of another horse while racing on the far turn of the six-furlong optional claimer. Saez, a graduate of the Laffit Pincay Jockey School in Panama, won 89 races in a U.S. career that began last June and included the riding title at the Ellis Park meet.

“They were visibly saddened, of course,” McCarron said of his students. “There were a lot of concerned faces in the room. But I’m not there to sugarcoat or hide anything from them.”

McCarron has had a lot of material lately with which to work. In recent weeks, there have been a series of well-known riders injured to varying degrees in accidents during the post parade, the starting gate, and in the heat of the race itself.

While a trailing horse was fatally injured in the chain reaction triggered by the Saez accident, Montezuma Express escaped without serious damage. This is a sight that tends to confound the racing fan with a visual disconnect – the horse is loping away, footloose and fancy-free, but the rider is down, terrifyingly still.

To hear experienced riders tell it, horses are clipping heels all the time during a race. This is because American racing is conducted primarily on ovals of a mile or less, and the American style of riding is tight. Jockeys have it driven into their heads at a young age that loss of ground is a cardinal offense. They learn to measure in inches how close they can ride to the opposition, and sometimes they get it wrong.

“It doesn’t happen as often on the turf because horses are flat-shod, wearing Queens Plate shoes,” McCarron said. “It is the toe grabs on the shoes worn for dirt racing that make for a greater chance that a horse could go down clipping heels, and it stands to reason. If the shoe grabs something and holds for only a split second, that interruption in the stride can be enough to cause a fall.”

McCarron has been campaigning for years for the elimination of the cleat, or toe grab, on the front of racing plates, which many trainers believe provides for better traction. There have been restrictions in place – in California, for instance, a toe grab can be no higher than four millimeters – but the fact that they are allowed at all increases the chances that a routine clipping of heels might result in a fall, in McCarron’s view.

“There are other reasons other than toe grabs that a horse will stumble or fall when they’ve clipped heels, just as there are a number of circumstances that lead to horses clipping heels at all,” McCarron said. “Sometimes it’s reckless riding, sometimes it’s careless riding.”

And sometimes it’s the view.

“I was told by someone familiar with Indiana Grand that at that point, at that time of day, jockeys have difficulty with the sun in their eyes,” McCarron said. “There are many racetracks around the country where we experience that problem. If your goggles have any scratches on them whatsoever, the scratches will refract the sunlight, and it’s very difficult to see where you’re going.

“From watching the replay, I’m noticing that Juan did not react at all when the horse in front of him is coming back to him in the middle of the turn,” McCarron said. “There’s no standing up on his part, no checking. It was just getting closer, closer, and then down. I will bet anything that he lost sight for a brief period of time.”

In a career of 28 years, 34,240 mounts, and 7,141 wins at the top of the game, McCarron counts himself fortunate that he never witnessed a fellow rider pay the ultimate price. There have been 153 riding fatalities documented by The Jockeys’ Guild since it started keeping track in 1940.

In October 1988, McCarron was in California, riding at Santa Anita, when Mike Venezia was killed at Belmont Park. In January 1975, McCarron was still in Maryland, fresh off his championship apprentice season, when Alvaro Pineda was killed in the starting gate at Santa Anita. On Oct. 14, 2014, when apprentice Juan Saez lost his life on the far turn at Indiana Grand, McCarron was at home in Kentucky grading quiz papers for his class of future jockeys.

“Whenever there’s such an incident, I’m there to teach them why I think it happened and how it maybe could have been prevented,” McCarron said. “They need to know – this is the worst part of the game.”
Thursday, October 16, 2014

Fray Martinez following his dream – and Victor Carrasco’s footsteps

Fray Martinez and Victor Carrasco, like kids the world over, had their heroes and dreams as youngsters. Growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the pair with a race track background fantasized of being Johnny V. or Joel Rosario, driving toward the finish aboard the leader in the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup Classic. The pair both grew up in racing and both attended and graduated from Escuela Vocacional Hipica, a highly regarded race track riding academy whose graduates include the Hall of Fame member and two time Eclipse Award winning jockey Velasquez

Carrasco, 22 and two years older than Martinez, journeyed from Puerto Rico to the U.S. and made the first step toward realizing that dream when he took the racing world by storm, winning 215 races in 2013 and earning the Eclipse Award as the country’s top apprentice jockey.

Back in Puerto Rico, Martinez followed Carrasco, who he says is “like my older brother,” every step of the way.

“I’d watch him (Victor) on the computer all the time,” the young rider said, “If he was riding anyplace where they streamed the video, we were watching. Then Victor and I would talk almost every night. When they announced he had won the Eclipse Award, everybody in the neighborhood was so proud. We used to talk all the time about someday going to America and riding in this country. But for one of us to win the Eclipse Award, that was beyond even our dreams. I couldn’t wait to follow Victor, to come to the U.S.”

And Martinez was able to make that happen. Carrasco spoke with agent Tom Stift, who has handled the older rider’s career since he came to this country and arranged for Stift to handle Martinez’ engagements when he travelled to this country. Martinez rode his first race in the U.S. in April, and by his own admission, it took a while for him to adjust to what it takes to put horses in position to win in this country.

“We were taught not to rush horses early, to rate them early in races, but in this country and especially at Delaware Park, you have to be on or near the lead most of the time to have any chance to win,” the young rider admitted. “Once I learned that, things have gone much better.”

“We had a little talk a while back,” Stift revealed. “Fray thought he was doing the right thing by taking horses back off the lead most of the time but that just doesn’t work in this country, especially at Delaware. The track is very speed favoring. The trainers know this and train their horses accordingly. We (he and Martinez) were in danger of losing stables if he didn’t change his approach. Once he understood the changes that had to be made, we started to win.”

The strategy change apparently worked, as Martinez has picked up steam in the last two months, winning on 17 or his last 100 mounts. He currently is the top apprentice in the standings at Delaware Park with 31 wins and has won 75 races in 2014, a solid first season. And he has his apprentice allowance until February of 2015.

So Martinez and Carrasco continue to follow their dream. They live together here, and every night they talk about the day, their mounts, and what they can do to improve themselves as riders.

“We’ve both been lucky so far but we’re young and we have goals we both would like to attain,” said Martinez. “It’s great to be able to live together and ride together. It’s what we dreamed of doing and now it’s coming true.”


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