Updated on 03/10/2017 5:13PM

Diaz an older, wiser apprentice rider

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Chelsea Durand/NYRA
Hector Diaz Jr. gets sprayed after his first victory, which came Jan. 15 aboard Honorable Jonas.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – The typical apprentice jockey is barely old enough to shave or vote and most certainly is not of legal drinking age. At age 27, Hector Diaz Jr. is not your typical apprentice jockey.

Sure, he went to the same jockey school in Puerto Rico as Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz – Diaz’s cousins – and Manny Franco, but he did not ride races there. In fact, the first time Diaz rode a horse in a sanctioned race, he finished second aboard Shoppingforsilver in a $16,000 claiming race at Aqueduct last Nov. 11.

Four months, 79 mounts, and 12 wins later, Diaz has emerged as the top apprentice in New York, one many observers believe has a big future.

“This is a rising star,” said Steve Moyer, the assistant to trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who named Diaz on horses Friday and Saturday at Aqueduct.

Diaz comes from a family of riders. His father, Hector Rafael Diaz, was a jockey. His younger brother, Hector Miguel Diaz, rode briefly in New York in 2014. Hector Miguel Diaz was paralyzed in a spill at Camarero in Puerto Rico.

“That pushed me to make it,” Hector Diaz Jr. said. “He can’t do it. I want to do this for me, but I also want to do it for him.”

Diaz was 5-foot-6 at age 18. His father thought he was going to be too big and too heavy to be a jockey, so he tried to talk him out of it.

“He didn’t want me to be a jockey,” Diaz said.

But when Diaz saw his younger brother ride, he told his father that that is what he wanted to do as well. Diaz went to the riding school in Puerto Rico but only galloped horses. When he first came to the U.S., he worked as an exercise rider for Joe Orseno. When he came back to the U.S. after a trip to Puerto Rico, he was freelancing.

Blair Golen, the Belmont-based assistant to trainer George Weaver, hired him, and Diaz basically galloped exclusively for that stable for three years. Last fall, Diaz decided it was finally time to be more than an exercise rider.

“I improve every year. I learn every year. I breezed a lot of horses,” Diaz said. “I always, in my heart, wanted to be a jockey. I felt it was the right moment. Everybody was looking at me, saying, ‘You’re ready.’ ”

Diaz rode 17 horses before getting his first win aboard Honorable Jonas on Jan. 15. Over the next two months, he impressed more and more trainers. On Feb. 17, he won his fifth race to go from a 10-pound apprentice to a seven-pound apprentice. Up to 12 wins now, he will retain his seven-pound weight allowance until he reaches 40 wins, and then he will be allowed a five-pound allowance until next Feb. 17.

Linda Rice, who typically doesn’t use apprentice riders, started using Diaz recently. They won two races together last Sunday.

“I think he’s got really nice hands,” Rice said. “I’m a little nervous because he’s awful tall. I don’t know how long his career is going to last. I think he’s a natural. He’s got a nice way about him as far as the way he handles horses.”

When Rice was told that Diaz is 27, her fears about him becoming too tall were alleviated.

Rudy Rodriguez, a former jockey and the meet’s leading trainer, used Diaz for the first time Friday at Aqueduct.

“He’s riding good. He looks like he’s nice and patient,” Rodriguez said.

Diaz, who is represented by agent Tony Micallef, is getting more business. He was named on seven horses Friday, five on Saturday, and seven more on Sunday. He has been getting on horses in the morning for trainers Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher.

“I was a little late starting, but I think it was the right thing to do because in my mind, I don’t think like a kid, I think like a man,” Diaz said. “I got clear what I want and where I want to go. Everything has a purpose. This is the right moment. I’m going to work hard every day. I know I started late, but I can have a good, long career if I don’t get hurt.”

Diaz said some horsemen have told him he has the talent to compete for an Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding apprentice rider. Diaz said he’s tuning that out.

“I wake up, I want to work hard – that’s all I want to do,” Diaz said. “It’s not that I want to be bug boy of the year, I want to be a jockey with a good career. I don’t want to be [around] just one year. I want to stay.”