02/21/2012 2:04PM

Santa Anita: Bejarano passing tests on, off the track

Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography
Jockey Rafael Bejarano celebrates aboard Secret Circle following a victory in Monday's Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The race was just a maiden claimer on a Wednesday, but for jockey Rafael Bejarano the victory by John Bobby at River Downs on July 10, 2002, was a publicity tool that launched his American career.

Bejarano, 20 at the time, was months removed from his native Peru, spoke virtually no English, and did not have an agent. When he moved to Hoosier Park in Indiana that summer, Bejarano needed attention – and fast.

“No one knew who I was,” he said.

Bejarano found an article on his first win, went to a copy shop, and “made like 100 copies,” he recalls. Before dawn one morning, he walked through the barn area at Hoosier, slipping the sheets on the desks of as many trainers he could find, along with his phone number.

“It worked,” he said. “People started to get to know me. They would call and say, ‘We need you at 8 for a workout.’ ”

Such a basic idea for promotion has helped carry Bejarano to the top of American racing. That season, Bejarano was the leading apprentice at Hoosier Park. Within a few years, Bejarano was a leading rider on the Kentucky circuit, which he left in 2007 for California. Since then, along with rival Joel Rosario, Bejarano has been a fixture at the top of the standings at the major meetings in Southern California.

Beginning with the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting in 2007-08, Rosario and Bejarano have won every riding title at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita.

With his professional life secure, Bejarano, who will be 30 on June 23, has sought a more personal goal this year. On Feb. 16, Bejarano passed his U.S. citizenship test in Louisville, Ky. All that waits is an induction ceremony at a date to be determined this year.

“It means a lot,” Bejarano said. “I think it’s better for me and my family. I can have more opportunities.”

Bejarano has won more than 2,660 races, but admitted last weekend that the 10-question citizenship test was one of the harder tasks he has faced of late.

“I passed,” he said. “I was nervous. I studied 100 questions from the book and I didn’t know which questions they would ask. I studied everything. They asked 10. I answered nine correct.”

Now he awaits word for the induction ceremony.

“They said they’d send me a letter with the date and everything,” he said.

Note to immigration: Bejarano plans to be in Louisville on the first week of May. It would be as good a time as any for his ceremony.

Bejarano has yet to win the Kentucky Derby from seven mounts. Riding the race annually since 2005, his best result has been a fourth on Papa Clem in 2009. Last year, he finished 18th of 19 with the longshot Watch Me Go.

This year, Bejarano is likely to have a live mount. Working with his agent, Joe Ferrer, Bejarano has become closely allied with the powerful Bob Baffert stable.

On Monday, Bejarano and Baffert swept divisions of the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park with Castaway and Secret Circle. Back in December, Bejarano rode the then-2-year-old Liaison to a win in the $750,000 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park for Baffert.

Earlier this month at Santa Anita, Bejarano won an optional claimer for Baffert on Fed Biz on Feb. 9 and a maiden race on the highly promising colt Bodemeister on Feb. 11.

“He won so easy,” Bejarano said of Fed Biz. “I was confident with both horses.”

For Richard Mandella, Bejarano won an allowance race on turf aboard the 3-year-old Tiz Point last Saturday. Tiz Point could switch to the main track for his next start. Mandella, for one, is impressed with Bejarano’s athletic ability and work ethic. He compares Bejarano, in one way, to the retired Hall of Famer Laffit Pincay Jr.

“He fits a horse really well,” Mandella said. “He takes a hold when they need it and loosens up when they need it.

“He takes his job seriously. When he comes [into the paddock], he knows what’s going on. Pincay was like that. He had a plan.”

Through Monday, Bejarano had won 34 races at the winter-spring meeting, second to Rosario who led with 46. One of them is likely to win the title for the meeting, which ends April 22.

Bejarano has won four stakes at the meeting, a figure that could grow if Sway Away wins Saturday’s San Carlos.

Bejarano has already reached his goals of winning riding titles and becoming a U.S. citizen. Now, he hopes to get to the Kentucky Derby with a chance.

“That’s my next dream, a good dream,” he said. “I’m waiting and I’m hoping.”