07/25/2013 12:53PM

Exercise riders: Carmen Rosas

Barbara D. Livingston

Birthdate: July 5, 1973
Birthplace: San Luis Potosi, Mexico
Favorite horse he has ridden: Curlin
Other notable horses he has ridden: My Miss Aurelia, Tapizar, Bwana Charlie, Summerly
Favorite racetrack: Santa Anita

It was the summer of 2007, and Curlin, the eventual Horse of the Year, cut through the Saratoga fog with huge, powerful strides. His ears were flat and his body leveled out, his red coat ablaze with the morning’s first sun. The exercise rider, wearing a blue flak jacket and blue helmet with a white pom-pom, sat still, focused on the track ahead. His grip on the white reins was tight, his arm muscles pronounced, his eyes unwavering. Curlin’s mouth strained against the bit. Cameras clicked, but neither horse nor rider seemed to notice.

How did Carmen Rosas feel riding a horse like Curlin, a monstrously magnificent animal valued at $20 million?

“When we are turning for home I can just feel it in my hands that I have so much horse that, sometimes, my heart just starts pumping hard,” he says. “I think, ‘Wow!’ And if I look at the time on my watch, at the wire or one-eighth pole, and I see how easily he’s doing it, I get chills on my body.”

Rosas, 40, nicknamed Carlos, works for Steve Asmussen and, when he’s not visiting his native Mexico, is one of the country’s most photographed exercise riders. He has been the regular morning pilot of such world-class horses as Curlin, My Miss Aurelia, and 2012 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Tapizar. At 5 feet 2 inches and 119 pounds, Rosas is exceptionally fit, with soulful eyes and a kind face. He wears no jewelry, although one of his front teeth is capped in silver.

He had the tooth capped when he was a teenager – as was the fashion. “It’s cheap in Mexico to do it,” Rosas says, blushing. “But only crazy people do it, stupid ones. I was young.”

Rosas is highly respected for his professional, quiet style and excellent seat on a horse. Yet despite his talent and a strong command of the English language, Rosas is rarely interviewed or mentioned in articles. Even Trevor Denman, in a Santa Anita track video showing Curlin work between races before the 2008 Breeders’ Cup, refers to Rosas simply as “the rider.”

That’s fine with Rosas. He doesn’t ride for the recognition, he rides because he loves horses. So much so that, when he was only 5 or 6, in Santa Domingo, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, he approached his mother with a most unusual proposition.

“I told my mom I wanted to grow up with my grandpa and his horses,” Rosas said. “She didn’t want me to, so I told her that if she didn’t let me go I would quit school. She didn’t have a choice.”

And so Rosas went to live nearby with his grandfather and his horses, Western horses he rode to his heart’s content. He woke up early to feed the horses and cows before school. After school, he headed back to his grandfather’s, ate lunch, did his homework, and then headed back out to the horses. He thought about horses all day and dreamed about them at night.

Rosas moved to Texas in 1993 and began working at a farm, mowing lawns and doing landscaping. He also began learning English. A farm friend taught him an English word each day. Even today, if Rosas hears a word in English he doesn’t recognize, he repeats it to himself until he learns it.

One day, by chance, the farm owner asked Rosas if he’d like to see his racehorses. Rosas excitedly said yes, and by the next morning, he had a new job. He was the first one at the barn to pick stalls and clean water buckets and feed tubs.

“When I saw racehorses for the first time, they looked huge, and so shiny and strong,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ ”

Rosas eventually moved to another farm, working as a groom until an exercise rider taught him how to gallop. With his small size and background, Rosas took to it naturally. But it wasn’t easy.

He remembers how he felt before his body adjusted to his unique profession. After riding all morning, his legs felt weak and his body sore, and he wanted just to sit in a chair afterward and not move a muscle.

Rosas remembers his friend legging him up on a flighty filly to teach him that horses sense fear in a rider. After a nervous Rosas hit the deck several times, his confident friend climbed aboard that same filly. She behaved like a lady.

“Horses are smart,” the man taught Rosas. “Horses are like humans. They know when you’re scared.”

Rosas says he remembers the morning someone asked him to work a crazy filly.

“The guy was the trainer, the owner, and the exercise rider, and the filly had full-cup blinkers, a long mane, so that tells you everything,” Rosas recalls, laughing. “But I’m Mr. Macho Man, so I said yeah.”

Rosas and the filly worked in company, and the exercise rider on the workmate insisted on the outside position. When the workmate began to pull ahead, Rosas’s filly suddenly saw the horse appear on her outside. She bolted, jumped the inside rail, and threw Rosas. He woke up 30 minutes later.

Temporarily grounded with a broken collarbone and shoulder, Rosas still went to the barn every morning to pick stalls and help out − no small trick when using only his right arm.

He soon began galloping at Texas racetracks and has fond memories of working for Ramon Flores, a young trainer who died in 2003. Soon thereafter, when freelancing, an assistant for Asmussen asked Rosas if he’d like to get on a few. A decade later, Rosas still rides for the outfit.

Rosas, who says he’s never had an alcoholic drink and eats mostly healthy food, lives a simple life. He works in the mornings and ponies Asmussen horses for races in the afternoon. He rarely dresses up, and he often lives ontrack.
He dutifully sends money to his family in Mexico − including his wife and two young daughters, along with his mom and dad − and he visits them when he can.

What would Rosas do if he could no longer ride?

“I would like to ride forever, but you know how that goes,” he says. “Your body gets old. A lot of people think this is an easy job, but it’s hard, and your whole body gets a workout, especially your back. And when you get hurt, it never goes away.

“It’s all I know how to do,” he says. “Assistant? No, too much responsibility. Maybe a hotwalker, groom. But I’m going to stay with the horses as long as I can. It can be galloping or something else, but it’s going to be with racehorses, because I grew up with them, and I love it. I’m going to die with the horses.”


THIS WEEK: Eric MessiahPatti Krotenko | Carmen Rosas

PART ONE: Walter Blum | Jane Turner | Humberto Gomez