05/20/2001 11:00PM

Chavez deserves new nickname

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BALTIMORE - Even after Jorge Chavez had established himself as the top race-winning rider in New York, most trainers were reluctant to put him atop their best horses.

Chavez was so aggressive that he had earned the nickname Chop Chop, a description of his slashing style with the whip. Gamblers loved him because he was obviously trying so hard to win, and trainers vied to acquire his services for claiming races. But ride Chavez on a valuable stakes horse? That was a different matter.

The jockey's agent, Richard DePass, had a longtime association with trainer John Ward Jr. but when he urged Ward to try Chavez, he received a familiar reaction. "He's too aggressive for us," Ward replied. "He's got the name [Chop Chop] and all that."

DePass insisted that Chavez was misunderstood. "Just watch him ride," he pleaded.

Three years after that conversation, Ward watched Chavez ride his colt Monarchos in the Kentucky Derby, watched him deliver a smooth, flawless, tactical performance that produced a victory in America's greatest horse race. It was the ride that might finally have put the jockey's old image permanently to rest.

If Chavez was once too aggressive for his own good, it was because he came to America with an obsession to succeed. He had a miserable childhood, growing up on the streets in his native Peru, and seemingly had no future. At 20 he was taking tickets in a bus station. But when he belatedly started to ride, he showed that he was a natural, raw talent, and was the leading jockey in Peru for five straight years.

He watched tapes of races in the United States, yearning for a chance to come here, and arrived in Florida in 1988. He was an almost immediate success and quickly acquired a reputation as a fiercely combative rider who would do anything to win. In his first year, Chavez accumulated 85 days of suspensions.

His competitiveness made him a darling of the public, particularly after he moved to New York. While some leading jockeys reserve their best efforts and risk-taking for stakes races, Chavez would ride a $10,000 claiming race as if it were the Kentucky Derby. On a horse's back, he was in perpetual motion. Sometimes he rode so frantically that he seemed out of control.

Trainer Nick Zito, who rides Chavez on his best horse, Albert the Great, can recount various important races in which the jockey was indeed out of control, getting into trouble, disregarding instructions, riding with his instincts rather than his head. "Years ago," Zito said, "Jorge was a guy who always seemed in a rush to get where he is now. Sometimes he didn't think. I credit the Wards - particularly Donna Ward - for helping him change."

Donna Ward shares the training duties with her husband and she is in charge of certain horses in the stable. Her most beloved baby is the champion mare, Beautiful Pleasure, who in 1998 was a promising but speed-crazy 3-year-old. When DePass made his pitch on behalf of Chavez, Donna reacted as negatively as her husband: "If he rode Beautiful Pleasure, she'd faint in the stretch the way he hits."

When she finally relented and let Chavez ride Beautiful Pleasure, she could barely watch the race, but Chavez got the filly to relax behind the leaders for the first time in her life. And Donna Ward used an adjective to describe the rider that had never before been applied to Chop Chop: "gentle."

That was the beginning of a friendship and a productive professional relationship between the Wards and Chavez. Donna insists that they didn't change Chavez's style but said, "We softened him some." But they also perceived that Chavez's riding had been misunderstood.

As John Ward watched Chavez ride, he came to understand what makes him different. A classic jockey like Jerry Bailey looks smooth on a horse because he has a long torso that allows him to extend his arms and push a horse rhythmically. At 4 feet 10 inches, Chavez can't ride like Bailey, so he has to be more active in the saddle to propel a horse, and Ward likens his motion to a man rowing a boat. It isn't pretty, but, Ward said, "He gets the same effect as Bailey."

Although Chavez won more races than any other rider in New York during the 1990's, he had never won a Breeders' Cup or a Triple Crown race before 1999. His association with the Wards and Beautiful Pleasure marked a turning point in his career. He captured his first Breeders' Cup race aboard Beautiful Pleasure in the Distaff and on the same day won with Artax in the Sprint. Those triumphs helped earn him the Eclipse Award as the outstanding jockey of 1999.

"He's always been a wonderful rider," Donna Ward said, "but he's more sophisticated now, with more finesse." She marveled at the way Chavez approached his Kentucky Derby ride on Monarchos. Discussing strategy with the Wards, he declared, "I'm going to break and I'm going to move over to save ground. Then I'm going to ease out and I'm going to come running like we did in the Florida Derby."

Donna said, "He had ridden it in his mind." And then he rode it the same way at Churchill Downs, saving ground and maneuvering his way through the 17-horse field without pausing or losing momentum for a split second. NBC followed his entire journey with an isolated replay, allowing millions of viewers to appreciate his skill. His longtime fans are happy that Chavez has received proper recognition because of his skill and finesse, but to them he is still revered as Chop Chop, the man with the lethal whip.

(c) 2001 The Washington Post