07/07/2011 11:33AM

Woodbine phenom Contreras on record-setting pace

Michael Burns
Luis Contreras, celebrating his winning ride aboard Inglorious in the Queen's Plate, is on pace to break the Woodbine record of 221 wins in a season.

If Luis Contreras is overwhelmed by pressure situations, he has mastered the art of keeping it covered up – a tactic he skillfully demonstrated when he settled Inglorious behind rivals and guided her to the Queen’s Plate winner’s circle in June. As 30,000 fans at Woodbine witnessed only the fifth filly to sweep the Woodbine Oaks and Plate, Contreras appeared poised competing for the first time in Canada’s most important race.

In the years between riding ponies on the family’s farm in Mexico and racing Thoroughbreds over the Woodbine Polytrack, Contreras has developed the ability to remain cool in adversity. It is an asset that has guided him to a breakout 2011 campaign. Through Tuesday’s races, Contreras led the Woodbine meet with 87 wins, 23 more than his closest pursuer. He has scored at such a feverish rate that he is on pace to smash Mickey Walls’s 20-year-old Woodbine record of 221 wins.

Contreras’s success is the culmination of a four-year journey in which he – accompanied by his wife and two sons, Luis Jr. and Alberto – has traveled through three countries and adjusted to three circuits to pursue his dream of becoming a top jockey. While talent and work ethic were integral to his ascent, patience may have been his greatest asset. Less than a year ago, Contreras was stymied by a temporary work permit that made him ineligible to ride about six out of every seven horses on the Woodbine backstretch.

“There are 1,800 horses in the backstretch,” said his agent, Tony Esposito. “Last summer, we had access to maybe 15 percent because we were only permitted to ride horses owned by foreign interests.”

This arrangement wasn’t new to Contreras, who worked under the same rules at Woodbine in 2009. The restriction wasn’t a factor because he had other career priorities − he had moved from New Mexico to Toronto primarily to ride for one of the continent’s top trainers, Steve Asmussen.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Contreras said. “I was riding for Asmussen already in New Mexico, and I was doing well with him. When he told me about Woodbine, I checked out some of the photos and watched some races on the Internet, and I really liked it. I said, ‘I want to go there and try it.’ ”

The restrictions of his work permit weren’t an issue because most, if not all, of Asmussen’s horses were owned by foreign interests. Of the 67 races Contreras won at Woodbine in 2009, 49 were with Asmussen. It was a strong follow-up to the success the pair enjoyed earlier in the year at Sunland Park, where Contreras rode 17 of Asmussen’s 20 winners.

Asmussen didn’t know a great deal about Contreras before 2009, when Contreras rode at Northern California tracks such as Golden Gate. But Asmussen knew the Northern California scene was hindered by small fields, which could prevent a developing rider from building momentum.

“When we were in California, I wasn’t familiar with him,” Asmussen said. “But asking around, a lot of people really recommended him. He went to Sunland and did really well for us, so we asked him to go to Canada. He’s a really good kid. He’s very athletic, very light, and it just seems to come to him very easily. He tries so hard. He’s got a lot of effort in him.”

Contreras took full advantage of the Sunland Park opportunity, riding for other outfits when he wasn’t riding for Asmussen. He finished the 2009 meet with 301 mounts and won 53 races, two more than he had accumulated since moving from Mexico City to Golden Gate in 2007.

Contreras was a four-time leading rider in Mexico, beginning his career at age 16. While he said he is thankful for the guidance offered by his father, a successful conditioner, he credits the direction of his career path to the faith Asmussen put in him.

“I learned a lot riding for him,” Contreras said. “I really appreciate what he did for me. He’s a trainer that likes everything to be perfect, even in the morning.”

At the start of the Woodbine meet in 2010, Contreras felt he was ready to take the next step. He had great ambitions of riding more frequently at Woodbine, not just in the handful of races Asmussen had horses entered.

“He had 40 horses in the barn,” Contreras said of Asmussen. “But I was only riding two or three per day. I wanted to ride all the time. I was watching races in the room. I wanted to be outside riding in the races.”

Contreras hired Esposito as his agent to help fill in the blanks. One of the first tasks was completing the paperwork to eliminate the restrictions that limited him to foreign-owned horses. Esposito said it took about three months to gather the documents and another two months to process the application. It turned out to be the most critical five months that Contreras would have to endure, especially when, shortly after the season started, a streak of losses prompted Asmussen to relieve him of his first-call duties.

Contreras wasn’t totally barred from Asmussen’s barn, but the guaranteed workload, which represented 73 percent of his 2009 wins, had disappeared. Determined to stay in Toronto, Contreras learned to make the best of his limited opportunities. From the start of the season until the second week in September, he won 48 races from 310 starts, a 15 percent win rate.

On Sept. 12, the wait was over. His application for a Canadian work permit was approved, paving the way to allow Contreras to ride more frequently and select from a wider range of mounts. Every barn in the backstretch housed a potential mount, and he was on a level playing field with the other jockeys at Woodbine.

Contreras closed the meet with more wins than any other jockey over the same period, going 79 for 365, a 21.6 percent win rate. His mounts even showed a flat-bet profit of $2.87. At all levels, he had become Canadian racing’s newest sensation.

“It’s much better for me to ride more horses,” he said. “It was just as much about riding the right horses in a race as it was about riding more horses.”

So far, he has proved the end of 2010 was not a fluke. By winning the Queen’s Plate in his first try, Contreras joined an exclusive list of jockeys that includes Pat Valenzuela, Kent Desormeaux, Eddie Arcaro, Craig Perret, as well as past Sovereign Award winners Sandy Hawley, Emile Ramsammy, and Eurico Rosa Da Silva.

The Plate was one of Contreras’s 37 wins in June, easily his most productive month in 2 1/2 years at Woodbine, and through July 3, he had ridden at least one winner for 23 consecutive race days.

With 87 wins through last Sunday, he has connected at a strike rate of 22 percent and averaged 1 1/2 wins per race card. If he were to maintain this pace through 167 race dates, he would have 250 victories by December, well over Walls’s record.

“We were lucky if we were riding 10 per week last year,” Esposito said. “Now on some days we ride 10 per card.”

Among North American riders, Contreras has cracked the top-10 list in earnings this year, an impressive feat, considering many of the riders on the list have had at least 200 more mounts than him. At more than $5 million in purses through July 3, he was eighth, less than $100,000 behind Garrett Gomez.

It is uncertain how high he might rise on the earnings list or whether he will keep up his phenomenal pace and break Woodbine’s season record for wins. What is certain is that Contreras is no longer tied down to a specific type of horse. As a rider should be, he is in control of his destiny and in a wide-open position to provide the answers.