12/22/2015 9:40AM

Gonzalez follows his dream to top of standings

Benoit & Associates
Santiago Gonzalez won more than 2,200 races in his native Venezuela.

Santiago Gonzalez walked off an airplane after a flight from Miami in December 2014, brand new to Southern California.

The jockey had been successful in his native Venezuela and had won 41 races at Gulfstream Park West and Gulfstream Park in 2014 but needed a change. California, he hoped, was the answer.

“It was a dream to come here to ride,” he said last week.

:: Santa Anita: Buy PPs, watch Saturday’s card live

The dream has taken Gonzalez to unexpected places in recent months. Gonzalez, 32, has become one of the leading riders on the circuit and won the jockey title at the three-week Los Alamitos winter meeting, which ended last Sunday. At the Santa Anita autumn meeting, he finished third in the standings with 13 wins. At the Del Mar autumn meeting, he was second with 18 wins, two behind Rafael Bejarano.

Working with agent Craig Stephen, Gonzalez has made steady progress in Southern California. No one has been more delighted – and surprised – at the success than Stephen. He was tipped to Gonzalez’s desire to move by former jockey agent Alex Procel but was somewhat reluctant at the time to take on a new client.

Stephen noted that Gonzalez was riding only six or seven horses a week in Florida.

“I thought, ‘This will be a longshot,’ ” Stephen said. “He’s a journeyman, and he has no reputation. You either have to come with a name or be endorsed by someone.”

Well, Gonzalez had no reputation around California, that is. Gonzalez won more than 2,200 races in Venezuela, but those wins did not gain him recognition in the U.S.

Gonzalez rode his first mount in California on the opening day of Santa Anita’s winter-spring meeting last December and had his first winner within a week. He did not have a stakes mount until last February. A few weeks later, trainer Eric Guillot needed a rider for Moreno in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap and turned to Gonzalez.

Moreno finished second to the heavily favored Shared Belief. Even though it was a loss, the Big Cap was a breakthrough ride for Gonzalez, Stephen said.

:: Santa Anita: Buy PPs, watch Saturday’s card live

“I think people caught on,” he said.

Through the early months of the year, Gonzalez rode steadily for trainer Jim Cassidy and won the Senorita Stakes at Santa Anita last June aboard Prize Exhibit for him. A month later, Gonzalez won the Grade 2 San Clemente Handicap at Del Mar on Prize Exhibit, his most prestigious win in the U.S.

“I don’t think we would have made it without Jim Cassidy,” Stephen said. “We wouldn’t be where we are now.”

On Saturday, Gonzalez is booked to ride two of Cassidy’s runners in stakes – Ocho Ocho Ocho in the $200,000 Mathis Brothers Mile for 3-year-olds on turf and Holy Lute in the $100,000 Daytona Stakes on the hillside turf course. Prize Exhibit is expected to race early in the meet.

“Hopefully, I can get another horse like that,” Gonzalez said on a recent afternoon at Los Alamitos.

Gonzalez does not speak English, so his comments were translated by his valet, Ozzie Ayala. While many people on the backstretch speak Spanish, being unable to speak English can be a public-relations drawback, Stephen acknowledged. Owners enjoy speaking with jockeys in the walking ring before a race.

Gonzalez began riding in the U.S. at Delaware Park in the summer of 2011. He won 41 races at Delaware Park, Penn National, and Parx Racing that year before returning to Venezuela in 2012 and 2013.

Less than a year after arriving here, Gonzalez is established in Southern California. But he would like to win more stakes. He won two stakes during the Del Mar autumn meeting – the Kathryn Crosby Stakes on the Cassidy-trained Full Ransom and the Betty Grable Stakes on My Monet, who is trained by Ricky Agarie. Gonzalez rode Sutton’s Smile to a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes at Los Alamitos on Dec. 12.

Gonzalez’s goal is to win his first riding title at Santa Anita this winter.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “With hard work, I’ll have no problem competing.”