11/23/2017 11:02AM

Nik and Valid - a love story


Above: VALID (2010 dk.b./br. g. by Medaglia d'Oro - Grand Prayer, by Grand Slam)  40 starts 12-10-7, $1,104,647.  Winner Monmouth Cup S. (G2), East Mile West S., Fred W. Hooper S. (G3), Philip H. Iselin (G3), Groomstick S., Harlan's Holiday S., Skip Away S. (G3).  In Valid's most successful year, 2015, he earmed $403,660.

Above: Nik Juarez, 24.  Career statistics 3,039 starts, 484-425-411, $14,506,638 (mount earnings). Nik is currently ranked #28 of 1,523 jockeys in earnings for 2017.

Nik Juarez was nervous in the post parade of his first-ever graded stakes.  Sure, the 22-year-old jockey grew up around the track in Maryland - his dad was a jockey, as was his grandfather.  It was in Nik’s blood.

Still, he had just become a jockey a couple of years earlier.  Nik was in college before that, earning spare money walking hots at Mary Eppler’s Pimlico stable - the same barn where his father worked and rode in the mornings.  Nik hadn't planned to be a jockey.

But one day, when picking up his paycheck, Nik noticed a check made out to an exercise rider.  That check looked far more impressive than his own, and Nik soon found himself in the saddle.  His father - who'd never steered his son toward riding - began dutifully teaching him the ropes.

Nik’s first-ever race, aboard a horse named Love Heart in a Laurel claimer in December 2013, resulted in a victory.  A very successful run as an apprentice jockey quickly followed.  But, regardless, on that day in that stakes post parade, Nik was in uncharted territory: Just four days earlier, he’d lost his bug.

Nik knew all too well the problems jockeys faced during that transition and knew opportunities given to an apprentice could dry up quickly.  After all, it had happened to his father.  So Nik had worked harder than ever as he neared the loss of his apprentice status, studying which trainers used jockeys who might not be trying their hardest, or jockeys with whom the trainer simply might not be having luck. 

Marcus Vitali gave Nik a shot.  And here Nik was at the 2015 Iselin (G3) at Monmouth, aboard a handsome 5-year-old near-black graded stakes winner named Valid.

“It was the first graded stakes I ever rode, and I was very nervous,” Nik remembers.  “Then I looked down at Valid and he was just looking around, very professional, and I thought, ‘This horse has done this without me, and he’ll do it again without me later on. He knows what he’s doing.’”

Nik immediately relaxed and, minutes later, he and Valid won the Iselin by 3 ½ widening lengths.

Nik and Valid partnered for more good times, including a second in the Donn (G1) and a fifth in Nik’s first-ever Breeders’ Cup, the 2015 Dirt Mile.  It was also Nik’s first trip to Keeneland and, for that matter, the Blue Grass State.

Above: Valid and Nik before the 2015 Breeders' Cup Mile at Keeneland, in which they finished fifth

In addition, Nik and Valid were lucky to be alive after nearly being knocked down in the stretch of the 2016 Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2).  The severe stumble would have been enough for most horses to give up and for many jockeys to fall – just watch the replay. Yet they persevered, finishing fourth and being placed third. 

“Valid took care of me that day,” Nik says, his voice echoing gratitude. “Not many horses can recover from that.  What a special, special horse.”

Nik rode the gelding in the mornings, too, and his connection to Valid grew strong.

“I’d sing to him, either his name or a “Don’t run off with me’ kind of thing," Nik says with a smile.  “’Cause when he grabbed the bit in the morning, he was a tough horse.  I’d make something up, singing, something freestyle.

“(Friend) Jenny Young rode him sometimes, too, and she told me she sang Valid that Humpty song.  You know that song, “Do the Humpty Hump"...so now she's got me doing it.”” 

Is Nik a good singer? 

“Not really, I don’t think,” he laughs.  “But maybe Valid was like, “If I just behave, maybe he’ll stop.””

A month after their near-disastrous Gulfstream Park Handicap, Valid and Nik won the G3 Skip Away at Gulfstream.  It was Nik’s second graded stakes win.  It was Valid’s last.

Above and below:  Valid and Nik Juarez win the 2016 Skip Away Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park on April 2, 2016.  It was Valid's final win.

A tendon injury sidelined Valid for the rest of 2016.  Then, surprisingly to many, his name appeared in the 2017 Keeneland January horses of all ages sale catalogue. 

Valid had sold as a yearling to Darley for $500,000.  Two years later, at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga fall sale, Carolyn Vogel of Crossed Sabres Farm had purchased him for $115,000.  This time, the now 7-year-old sold for $15,000.  He was loaded on a van and headed west.

One certainly couldn’t blame his new connections for taking a chance. Despite his tendon issue Valid was attractive, had a lovely pedigree and, as a multiple-graded stakes winner who’d earned north of a million dollars, he clearly had tons of back class.

Nik, however, was deeply saddened by the sale. He knew he owed Valid a debt, for giving him not just his first major victories but also confidence in himself. He tried contacting the horse’s new connections, in time even calling the Arapahoe Park racing office for information. He eventually contacted Valid’s exercise rider and finally Valid’s new owner, Tom Thurman, telling Tom he'd happily give Valid a lifetime home when his racing days were through. 

Tom kindly kept in touch with Nik throughout Valid’s short-lived 2017 campaign at Fonner Park in Nebraska and at Arapahoe in Colorado, regularly sending photos and videos of his handsome gelding.  And when it became clear Valid’s career wouldn’t work out – he raced three times without reaching the winner's circle – Tom picked up the phone and made a call.


Nik was firmly established by this past summer. He led the Monmouth Park rider standings, highlighted by a remarkable 5-win day.  He'd also racked up more graded stakes victories along the way, including the 2017 Black-Eyed Susan (G2).  Still, the 24-year-old couldn’t wait to get his old friend Valid back into his life.  Immediately after Tom's call, Nik asked his friend Kelly Breen to help him because, frankly, Nik had no idea how to arrange to ship a horse.  Soon, Valid was loaded onto a van in Colorado, headed east. 

Nik and his father Cali were there to greet the old warrior when Valid stepped off the ramp at his new home, the beautiful Summerfield Stables in Brooklandville, Maryland.

Resisting temptation to immediately hop aboard, Nik instead took his time with his friend.  Cali, now an attentive trainer, looked the horse over carefully.  In addition, they called in a vet to double-check his troublesome tendon. Valid spent comfortable, relaxed days in his idyllic new home being hand-grazed, groomed, and hand-fed his favorite treat, peppermints.

In time, Cali tacked Valid up – Nik freely admits tacking up and grooming horses is not his thing – and Nik climbed aboard.  On their first jaunt, Nik’s young Rottweiler Jessie, used to seeing Nik on the ground rather than on horseback, got concerned.  Whenever she was concerned, her safe spot was as close to Nik as possible.  Jessie scurried directly beneath Valid’s belly.  Valid never flinched.

Above: Valid, Nik, Cali and Jessie at Summerfield Stables in October 2017

Nik is riding at Gulfstream Park this winter, so Valid just shipped to Florida a few days ago.  Nik will join him next week.  Valid’s other old singing morning partner, Jenny Young, is already hand-walking Valid around a park in Davie.  And the gentle gelding is making all sorts of instant friends there.  Jenny explains to anyone who approaches that Valid is a famous racehorse, and people clamor to touch him and to take photos.   Of course, Jenny hands out peppermints.

One of Valid's favorite games is hugging people - stretching his head out around them, especially if people are on the other side of a fence, and pulling them close.  And wherever they go in that park, Valid pulls Jenny along for the fun, acting as coolly as he did back when Nik was nervous in that long-ago post parade. 

Nik's not sure exactly what Valid's future holds but, for now, he'll hack around on his friend and just have fun.  Nik’s girlfriend wants to do some ring work with Valid, and there's a good chance they'll take him to a nearby ocean to see if he enjoys it there.  Jenny Young has suggested they eventually attend the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance show at the Kentucky Horse Park. 

For the time being, however, Valid is enjoying a carefree, laid-back life in the Sunshine State with loving friends.

“Tom and Kelly and everybody else came together and made a great thing happen for a very special horse,” Nik says. 

“That first day when I left the farm after he got there, it was just the greatest feeling," he continues.  "I said to my dad, “We just did something really good.” 

"I went to bed that night with peace of mind, knowing that he’s safe.  He doesn’t have to run any more, and he has nothing left to prove.”

Above: Cali Juarez after tacking up Valid at Summer Field Stables in Pikesville, MD on October 17, 2017.  Cali, a trainer, is also the regular exercise rider of Mary Eppler's stable star Page McKenney.

Above/below:  Nik and Valid head out for a ride.

Above/below:  After the ride, it's peppermint time.  Hurry up, Nik!

Above: Nik, Cali, and Jessie Juarez, October 2017

Above and below:  VALID is already entertaining excited new friends during his first two days wandering around Tree Tops Park in Davie, FL, accompanied by his old exercise rider buddy Jenny Young. (photos by Jenny Young)

Valid's final win, the 2016 Skip Away at Gulfstream Park: 

Valid and Nik's near-fall in the 2016 Gulfstream Park Handicap.  Remarkably, they stayed upright and finished fourth.  They were moved up to third: