12/05/2012 10:19PM

Faces behind the photos


They peer back at me from countless photos, every day, from each track I visit. Most I will never know, although many faces are familiar. Some hold reins between their fingers and, others, a leadshank. 

They often shift from track to track, as meets end and others open – sometimes with just a day’s notice.  Many live on-track.  Most get up at 4 or 5 a.m., even in bitter cold or rain.  Some have no days off. 

These men and women often go unnoticed as owners lead horses into winner's circles and trainers accept congratulations for a job well done.  Yet, without the backstretch workers, there not only would be no winners, there would be no racing.

Below are five people I’m sure you’ve all seen in some photo at some time.  They are professional, friendly, helpful, and excellent horsemen.  And I owe each a debt of gratitude for making my job much more pleasant.

I sent a few questions to each and, in most cases, their replies are in their own words.

Above:  Juan Aguayo, at Santa Anita last month, with Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby.

Juan Aquayo hails from Jalisco, Mexico.  He first came to the US in 1995 and settled in at Wayne Lukas’ ranch in Santa Inez, California.  He went to work at a racetrack two years later - at Belmont Park - while still with Lukas. 

In 2000, soon after winning the Belmont Stakes with Commendable, Juan went to work for a former Lukas assistant named Todd Pletcher.  Juan remains with Todd to this day.

Above:  Juan Aguayo in 2000, when he was the groom of Commendable, the evening that Wayne Lukas-trained colt won the Belmont Stakes.

Above:  Juan and Commendable during Belmont Stakes week 2000.

Above:  Juan that autumn with Todd Pletcher trainee More than Ready before the 2000 Vosburgh.  More than Ready ran second that day to fellow Pletcher trainee Trippi.

Above:  Juan at work, summer 2012.

Above:  Richard Johnson aboard potential 2012 champion turf female Zagora. 

Name:  Richard Johnson

Hometown:  Fajardo, Puerto Rico

How did you start working with horses:  When I was little, my dad used to take me to the racetrack in Puerto Rico, El Comandante.  I started to be more related to horses when my dad made me take Paso Fino classes when I was 7 years old.

I went to jockey school and then moved to Boston, MA to ride at Suffolk Downs.  I went down in a spill in 2007 and stop race-riding.   Moved to NY and start galloping for Asmussen that year, until 2008, when I began working for Chad Brown.  He was just starting business as a trainer.

Favorite track:  Belmont

Favorite horse:  Silver Timber

Favorite horse he never rode:  Curlin, because I had the pleasure to work with Asmussen when that horse was around. 

Favorite non-racing things to do:  Sleep and visit NYC 

What’s it like to ride Zagora?   Zagora is very special to me because I galloped that mare almost all the time.  I’m very proud of her.  She had her moments of being ‘blonde’ and having an attitude, lol.  Maram also was a special mare I galloped in 2009, but Zagora won the Breeders’ Cup. I’m really proud of her, and myself, for that achievement.

Above/below:  Richard Johnson during Belmont Stakes' week aboard Street Life.  Chad's assistant Cherie DeVaux holds Street Life, above.

Above:  Richard Johnson aboard his favorite horse, Silver Timber, during 2009 Breeders' Cup week at Santa Anita.

Above:  Richard on a Chad Brown trainee at Belmont Park this autumn.

Above:  Richard began his education around horses at age 7.  His love for horses is readily apparent.

Above/below:  Richard on his star mare Zagora, at Belmont earlier this year (above) and Palm Meadows last winter (below).

Above:  Katie Merritt, wearing clothes to match Brian Hernandez's silks, greets Fort Larned after his Breeders' Cup Classic victory.

Name:  Katie Merritt

Hometown:  I moved to Oklahoma when I was 12, so I claim that as ‘home.’

Why did you start working with horses, and how many years have you worked with them?   I read a book when I was 5 or 6...A Horse Called Wonder.  It was about a young girl that nursed a sick filly to health and then rode her in huge races. And won, of course. I caught the bug, but it took me awhile to make my way to the track. I've been working with horses for 9 years.

Favorite horse you've ridden: I narrowed it down to three: Miss Isella, Capt. Candyman Can, and Fort Larned. (But I have to give Spintastic an honorable mention.)

Favorite horse you haven't ridden: Balto Star, Cigar, Frankel

Favorite racetrack: Saratoga, but Churchill is a VERY close second. (Monmouth not far behind)

How do you feel when riding Fort Larned? He's a lot of fun to ride. I rode him when he was young and silly and gangly, so most of the time when I'm sitting on him, I'm just having a good time with my buddy. Of course, he has his "moments" ... he's like a big kid. He actually makes me laugh a lot. :) It's a little different now, there's more pressure...but for the most part, I don't really think about that when I'm on his back. He's a very honest horse with a huge heart.

What do you like to do when you are not working at the track?   I love to travel. It doesn't have to be far, but I like to see things I haven't seen before, and meet new people. I like watching movies and reading books.

Favorite music, and/or book, movie, song, etc.:  I love country music, oldies, stuff like Train and Matchbox 20. For books and movies, I can't even choose....I like almost all of them.

Above:  Katie Merritt (left) and some connections of Street Sense, the morning after the colt's 2007 Travers win.

Above:  At Saratoga with her good friend, and morning mount, Bearpath.

Above/below:  Katie Merritt aboard top handicap horse Fort Larned this summer at Saratoga.

Above:  Katie Merritt helps lead Fort Larned to the track before the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic.  He can be a handful at times.

Above:  Katie accepts a hug from her dear friend Susie Raisher after the Classic.  Smiles don't get better than that!!

Above:  Jake Nelson aboard his favorite horse, Bridgetown.

Name:  Jake Nelson

Hometown:  Livermore, CA

How long have you worked with horses?   I’ve been around the racetrack forever but didn't really get into it until ’08. I started galloping in ‘09 at a little jumper place, but not for long.  My dad took me straight to the track at Golden Gate Fields where he works on the gate, and gallops, also.  When I left CA, I rode a horse van all the way to Palm Meadows with $50 - and didn't know anybody…kinda crazy!

How long have you worked for Todd Pletcher?:  I have been with Todd for 2, going on 3, years and plan on never leaving.

Favorite horse:  Definitely, it’s Bridgetown - best personality on a horse ever!  He’s just the happiest guy in the world, loves his job - but will try to get you off him, in a friendly way, ha ha….

Favorite horse you haven’t worked with:  A.P. Indy was unbelievable!!

You’re quite the dapper dresser.  Why?  I like to dress nicely because I like to look good….and when riding nice horses that look good, I should do the same as them, lol.

Above:  Jake working the highly promising Palace Malice at Saratoga in 2012.

Above:  Aboard In Lingerie, as Michael McCarthy accompanies on his pony, Santa Anita 2012.

Above:  Bridgetown is "just the happiest guy in the world," Jake says.

Above:  Jake and Turbo Compressor at Santa Anita this autumn.

Above:  Jake working Graydar at Palm Meadows in early 2012.  Graydar returns to racing tomorrow, Thursday, 12/6, at Gulfstream Park.

Above:  Jake heads to the paddock at Saratoga.

Above:  Guillermo 'Memo' Ochoa Ruiz, with 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.

Guillermo Ochoa Ruiz, from Mexico, came to the US approximately 12 years ago and began working for Graham Motion a decade ago. His father, Eliseo, the Motions' universally respected night watchman/hot walker, has worked at their barn since 1993.

How many years have you worked with horses:  12

Favorite racetrack:  Saratoga

Favorite movie:  Seabiscuit, and Secretariat

Favorite music:  Ballads and pop

Favorite horses:  Many, including Animal Kingdom, Lucky Chappy, Aruna - and Went the Day Well is fantastic to work with…all of the team of Graham Motion.  

Above:  Memo's father, Elisio, at Churchill Downs in 2011.

Above:  Memo with graded stakes winner Went the Day Well, during an uncharacteristically nervous moment for the colt, at Churchill Downs 2012.

Above:  Memo and Went the Day Well looking good in 2012.

Above:  To carry on a theme from my previous blog... The award for 'Best Smile at Breeders' Cup 2012' goes - hands down - to Memo, who could not have been more proud of his Animal Kingdom after the colt's excellent second-place finish in the Mile.

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With a heartfelt thanks to all of the men and women who work on the backstretch.  I hope to feature many more of you, both from well-known barns and less-celebrated stables, in future blogs....