12/17/2009 12:00AM

Panama: Cradle of jockeys

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Leslie Martin
At 17, Luis Saez has caught the attention of top trainers at Calder, including Marty Wolfson. That pairing has a .600 winning percentage at the current meet.

For the last three months, few other jockeys have been as scorching as 17-year-old apprentice Luis Saez. At his base of Calder Racecourse, he is neck and neck with two veteran riders for the riding title. Here since August, Saez is the next can't-miss jockey.

But it was a little more than a year ago that Saez slept on a tack room floor on the backstretch of Presidente Remon racetrack in Panama City, a hopeful 16-year-old jockey about to graduate from riding school there. For two years, Saez, a kid from a remote jungle area, shared that small concrete floor with another classmate, not to mention a bevy of rats and cockroaches that also called the tack room home.

To graduate from the school, riding was the last step; first there was walking hots, and grooming, and mucking stalls, eight hours of laborious tasks a day, all for little pay. Up at four in the morning for training hours, classes in the afternoon, then four more hours at the barn. The hose Saez used to spray the horses doubled as his shower.

"It's a great sacrifice to live in those quarters," Saez says now, through an interpreter.

Saez dreamed of riding in the United States, even the Kentucky Derby, he would tell people, although his knowledge of American racing was confined to what he had seen simulcasted at Presidente Remon. His dream was not improbable. After all, his instructors at the riding school frequently reminded him and his classmates: Panam es la cuna de los mejores jinetes del mundo.

Panama is the cradle of the best jockeys in the world.

It's the school's slogan, and Saez often remembered those words. But it's more than inspirational fodder. His instructors are right. This postage stamp-sized country has been the most fertile patch for jockeys over five decades, much like the Dominican Republic has been for baseball players.

The school, which now carries the name of its most famous graduate, Laffit Pincay Jr., has been around in some form for about 50 years. So when Saez graduated last December, from a class of 14, he followed along a well-worn path. The hard part was finishing the demanding two-year program and getting to the United States. Riding here has seemed effortless.

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Two weekends ago, he won four races Saturday and five Sunday, the latter from six mounts on an eight-race card. In September, he won four races on consecutive Saturdays, including his first stakes victory.

Trainers and horseplayers have been swept up by Saez's success. Even Chuck Streva, Calder's linemaker, said in October that he had started adjusting the morning line down a point or two on Saez's horses because of all the betting action they had been taking.

Marty Wolfson, one of the leading trainers in south Florida, quickly became one of Saez's prime backers. Their results together have been staggering: a .600 winning percentage, including four wins in a row to start their partnership.

"I've ridden the best bug boys that have come out of here," Wolfson said, naming Eddie Castro, Javier Castellano, Jose Valdivia, and Alex Solis, "and Luis has been as good as those guys as bugs."

Wolfson said he uses apprentices not for their weight allowances but because he takes pride in discovering talented riders. He calls Castro, also from Panama, his favorite; together they won the 2006 Breeders' Cup Mile with Miesque's Approval. Saez, he said, is right there with Castro, who won an Eclipse Award for outstanding apprentice jockey in 2003.

"He's got a knack for having horses relax, just like Eddie Castro did," Wolfson said. Asked what Saez can improve on as a jockey, he said, "Just his English."

Saez is not alone in the United States. From his class at the Pincay School, there are seven other apprentice riders here. Abel Lezcano arrived on the same flight as Saez, and he has climbed his way into the top five of the Calder standings. Ricardo Santana Jr., the leading apprentice in their class, had been riding in New York until an injury sidelined him last month. Jorge Gonzalez is riding at Zia Park. Four others - Olmedo Pitti, Abel Peralta, Angel Moreno, and Antonio Lopez - have either started their careers or will soon; they're in Florida making adjustments with Jose Corrales, an ex-Panamanian jockey.

This might be called an invasion if it didn't happen regularly. Some of the most accomplished young riders - Eddie Castro, Fernando Jara, Jose Lezcano, Gabriel Saez, and Elvis Trujillo - are products of the same system. Same as successful veterans such as Rene Douglas, Martin Pedroza, Alex Solis, and Cornelio Velasquez. Then there are the legends, the Hall of Famers: Pincay, Manny Ycaza, Braulio Baeza, Jorge Velasquez, and Jacinto Vasquez.

Riding on a barrel

The rise of Latin American jockeys can be traced back to 1946, when Angel Valenzuela, a 17-year-old youngster from a Mexican family of 22, came to this country to ride. He made it to Hollywood Park by 1952 and was joined there by his brother Ismael, also known as Milo. Milo Valenzuela became the better of the two, and in his Hall of Fame career he won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1958 and 1968.

The Valenzuelas were the first arrivals, but Manny Ycaza was the first to captivate railbirds. One of nine children of a Panama City bus driver, Ycaza began riding in Panama at age 14 and came here permanently in 1956. He was colorful, skilled, aggressive, and, at times, reckless. By 1967, he had already served more than two years (746 days) of suspensions given by stewards.

Heliodoro Gustines followed Ycaza, and he had an exceptional career, a master on the turf and regular rider of the champion Forego. Braulio Baeza, a son and grandson of jockeys, was a phenom in Panama City; in 1959 he won 309 races on 112 racing dates, and the following year signed a contract with owner Fred W. Hooper. Unlike Ycaza, Baeza was graceful, clean, and, in the post parade, striking for his erect seat. He rode 24 champions, including nine Hall of Fame horses. Jacinto Vasquez arrived next; known as the regular rider of Ruffian, he also won two Kentucky Derbies and rode 10 champions.

Barbara D. Livingston

15px;">Laffit Pincay Jr. at the Breeders' Cup last month. He and other legends such as Manny Ycaza were the role models for a new generation of world-class riders to emerge from Panama.

Ycaza, Baeza, Gustines, and others mostly taught themselves through experience on the track, or their families and trainers they worked for. When Jorge Velasquez and Laffit Pincay Jr., also hungry, poor kids, arrived at Presidente Remon after Baeza had just left for the U.S., an old, former jockey named Bolivar Moreno had set up a school there. They wanted to be the next Ycaza or Baeza.

Moreno's early lessons were based on Eddie Arcaro's series on the Art of Race Riding, which had appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1957. He would have the kids sit on a barrel, and he would use rope to make stirrups and reins.

Velasquez said they picked up the basics on that barrel - how to keep low, how to hand-ride, how to hit a horse, how to come out of the gate. They would ride imaginary races, and, as Velasquez recalls, Moreno would instruct them: "We're going into the gate now. . . . It's going to be three quarters of a mile. . . . Now you're breaking out of there. . . . Rate the first part. . . . And sprint the last quarter."

Velasquez and Pincay apprenticed at the track, without pay; they walked hots, groomed and fed horses, mucked out stalls. Pincay used to cut grass and sell it to the stables for small change. They hustled for chances to gallop horses. "You learn everything from the beginning," Velasquez said.

They were hungry, Pincay said, in the literal sense and also for opportunities. "We started being very poor. It was a way out to get ahead. It was a way to get an opportunity. We were hungry. We tended to try harder."

Velasquez began riding in 1963, and he became a sensation, like Baeza had before him and Pincay would soon enough. Almost three years later, in August 1965, Ramon Navarro, a local trainer who had first tipped Hooper on Baeza, did the same for Velasquez. Navarro told the owner about Pincay a year later.

In 1967, Velasquez led all jockeys in wins and topped the money list two years later. In 1974 and '79 he rode Chris Evert and Davona Dale, respectively, to a sweep of the filly triple crown. He was the regular rider of Alydar, racing's most famous runner-up, and won the 1981 Derby and Preakness aboard Pleasant Colony.

As for Pincay, his career was nonpareil. More dedicated than any rider in history, Pincay retired at age 56, in April 2003, with his then-record 9,530 wins.

These were the jockeys - Ycaza, Gustines, Baeza, Vasquez, Velasquez, and Pincay - who for decades crowded out almost everyone else in the national standings and rode at the best racetracks and won the biggest races. Their collective success shaped a national reputation and drove new generations of hungry kids into the riding school at Presidente Remon.

The same formula

Jockey schools are now commonplace in countries with racing. France, for instance, has an exceptional one, and, domestically, Chris McCarron opened the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky., three years ago, something the Hall of Fame jockey considered woefully missing.

Little has changed in five decades in Panama. Pincay and Luis Saez experienced much the same things. Then, as now, the formula remains the same.

The school is more formalized than it was in Pincay and Velasquez's day; students are still matched with trainers to apprentice for, but in between morning and afternoon sessions at the barn they take basic courses such as science, math, and geography, in a building adjacent to Presidente Remon. English classes were added this year. One horse owner recently donated a computer to the school, which was hailed as a great accomplishment.

About two dozen students enroll in a class. They must weigh a minimum of 104 pounds, show a certificate of good health, be between ages 14 and 22, and have completed a certain level of school. The Ministry of Education oversees the school. Knowledgeable of the tradition, a few aspiring jockeys from overseas have recently joined, including a young woman from Slovakia who recently graduated. The program lasts about 18 consecutive months, and graduation always arrives in early December.

Until last year students still learned the basics of riding on a barrel, just as Bolivar Moreno had taught. Pincay ended that 50-year practice after he donated two mechanical horses known as Equicizers. Concepci n Barr a, an ex-Panamanian jockey who had a successful career in Mexico, is one of two current riding instructors.

What's the same is the students are poor and consider the school their only way out. Some arrive at Presidente Remon from the countryside or jungle; Luis Saez, Gabriel Saez (they are distant cousins), and Eddie Castro grew up without electricity or hot water on subsistence farms in the far-flung region of Darien. They learned horsemanship at a young age, riding cows and ponies.

Barbara D. Livingston
Gabriel Saez has ridden such top horses as Friesan Fire. Only nine students from his original class of 30 graduated from the Pincay School in 2005 because of the backbreaking work.

At Presidente Remon, they are still paid little for backbreaking work; only by their second year can they earn the opportunity to get on a horse. Usually, half or more of a class drops out before graduation.

Gabriel Saez, 21, who has ridden horses such as champion Proud Spell, Eight Belles, and Friesan Fire, said nine students from his original class of 30 graduated in 2005.

"It's too hard, man," said Saez, who was Panama's leading apprentice before leaving in 2006. "You have to work so hard to get the opportunity to get on a horse."

Luis Saez said he earned $50 a week to take care of seven horses every day. He ate all his meals, which cost $3 a day, at the track kitchen. Every student has to pay $25 a month in tuition, leaving little income. Sometimes Saez helped the blacksmith to pick up a few dollars. After everything, he said, "I loved working with animals."

After graduation the new apprentices hustle for mounts. Racing takes place three days a week, and jockeys might expect to win a hundred dollars for each win. The best ones try to leave immediately.

"I hate to say it, but there's nothing over there," Gabriel Saez said. "You work for pennies over there."

Luis Saez saved all the money he earned from 37 wins, though still less than the five-thousand dollars, plus immigration papers, required for an American work visa. Jaime Gooding, his principal trainer, and Gooding's friend, Michael De Leo, a 60-year-old American immigration attorney whose practice in Panama City has assisted jockeys, paid for and oversaw Saez's application and then paired him with another friend in Florida, agent Peter Wright.

De Leo, who once owned horses in south Florida, handled the paperwork for several other apprentices from Saez's class. He said his practice earlier this month signed four apprentices from the new class. Along with Gooding and Jose Corrales, they recently set up a management company in Florida that will ease the transition of the young jockeys they place in the United States - help with tax returns, immigration counseling, expense reports, and, in some cases, more training on a horse.

De Leo has streamlined a process that for five decades relied on a tight-knit but informal network of trainers, owners, agents, and jockeys. New graduates of the Pincay School, of which there were 16 in December, including two girls, should find it easier to emigrate to the United States; next up, De Leo said, might be Eddie Castro's younger brother, Elvis Trujillo's cousin, and Martin Pedroza's nephew.

For now, they are all watching Saez. For all his success, his transition has not been altogether smooth. He does not speak English. He is often homesick; Wright, his agent, placed him on his cell phone plan, and in his first month he racked up a $1,700 bill calling Panama. Saez wants his younger brothers - 10 and 12 - to follow in his footsteps.

Still, he has found a few reminders of home. The first thing he asked for when he arrived was a barrel, something close to the one he used in riding school. Wright found a 50-gallon hard plastic blue one, something that might hold industrial chemicals.

After the races, Saez sits on top and imagines a race, first sitting still, strengthening his legs, then using reins and a whip. He has to do it alone, he said, too embarrassed for anyone else to watch.

* Handicapping roundups from Hollywood and Calder

* Jay Privman's Q&A with former trainer, jockey, and jockey agent Joseph "Mossy" Mosbacher

* Steve Andersen on the development of former jockey Gary Stevens's stable

* Byron King on the 2-year-old standouts who began their careers in Florida

* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes