The prevalence of successful jockeys from Mexico and Central America defies coincidence. These talented riders have dominated the horse racing scene in America for many years now. The most recent Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, was ridden to victory by Victor Espinoza who has an amazing personal story. Other riders like Laffit Pincay, Jr. came from impoverished backgrounds to become the most successful jockeys in history. Why do these countries produce many good jockeys? It could have to do with the rich racing history in Mexico.
Mexico’s Horse Racing History
The 1920’s and 1930’s in America were a bleak time. The Great Depression saw many people lose their jobs, homes, and family. Individuals were forced to live in tent cities where they fought each day just to get enough food to survive. The horse racing industry in America waned some as affluent people lost their fortunes, but then it had a resurgence as poor Americans saw it as an opportunity to turn their last dollar into food for a week.
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While the Great Depression affected the poorest Americans the hardest, the wealthy were able to regain their footing much quicker. To escape the sight of homeless and hungry people around them, many of these elite individuals would take trips across the border to Mexico. One of their favorite activities to witness there was horse racing at a Tijuana track known as Agua Caliente. The name translates to English as “Hot Water” or “Hot Springs” which is also the name of where Oaklawn racetrack is located today in the United States.
Agua Caliente was known for more than its hot racing action. There was also a famous brothel near the track which was often visited by American jockeys like George Woolf and Red Pollard who rode the circuit during the winter months. The track thrived for many years and hosted many famous horses, trainers, and jockeys.
Horse racing was a popular border town sport in Mexico, but the smaller villages south of the border also were known for bush tracks where unsanctioned races were held. Pancho Villa himself is believed to have been a fan of matching his men’s horses against one another to see who had the fastest ride. It wasn’t long before the men riding these horses were chosen for their small stature.
Mexican and Central American Jockeys
Many jockeys from Mexico and Central America came from impoverished families. These families often consisted of migrant workers and common laborers. The horse racing industry has always been one that has plenty of room for laborers. From mucking stalls to feeding and caring for horses, laborers found work to sustain their needs. The family unit is also an important aspect of Mexican culture, so it was natural for families to involve their young children in the barn duties.
Soon it became apparent to some trainers that young Mexican boys were idea choices for jockeys. They were small in stature and had big hearts. Many of them had been raised around horses and had no fear of the large animals. They also were not opposed to making the extra money, and the chance at big purses made them try their hardest.
In America, the Great Depression passed on. The war came to an end in Europe. Prosperity began to return and horse racing began to once again rise in popularity. By the time the 1970’s rolled around, horse racing was on the verge of a Golden Era. Three Triple Crown winners emerged during the 1970’s and interest in racing was at an all time high. The purse money began to increase and their was opportunity for jockeys from Mexico and Central America.
Pincay Comes to the United States
In 1966, trainer Fred W. Hooper and jockey agent Camilo Marin decided that they were going to take a chance on a young rider from Panama. The young man had enjoyed tremendous success on the Latin American racing circuits. He needed sponsorship to come to the United States. Hooper and Marin obliged. The rest, as they say, is history.
Laffit Pincay, Jr. arrived at Arlington Park in Chicago to face the same challenges as all immigrant workers. He was subjected to ridicule and outright racism. Pincay rose above all the obstacles and won eight of the first eleven races he competed in at Arlington Park. His winning ways continued, but it was his demeanor which gained him respect. Just four short years after arriving in the States, Pincay received the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1970. This award is given each year to a rider who’s personal conduct off the track matches or exceeds his skill on it.
Throughout his career the awards continued to come. In 1996, Pincay received the Mike Venezia Memorial Award for sportsmanship and citizenship. Five times he was given the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey of the Year. Pincay ultimately won 9,530 times during his career and became the all-time leading rider by wins until the record was broken by Russell Baze. His lifetime win percentage was 20%, an unbelievably high stat when you consider that Pincay rode in the biggest events racing had to offer.
Espinoza Wins the Triple Crown
Victor Espinoza is carrying on a fine trend. He hails from Tulancingo, Mexico and forever etched his name in horse racing history by winning the Triple Crown aboard American Pharoah in 2015. Espinoza grew up as the 11th of 12 children on a dairy farm. He learned to ride horses under the guidance of his older brother Jose. When he was just 17 years old, Espinoza paid for his tuition in jockey school by driving a bus in Mexico City. He began his riding career at the Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City.
Espinoza did not even speak English when he arrived in the United States, but his riding talent soon spoke for him. Espinoza was noticed by top trainers on the California racing circuit. One of these was Bob Baffert. It would be Baffert who would name Espinoza as the rider of American Pharoah. Together, horse and rider won all three Triple Crown events in 2015 to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. The pair also captured the Breeders’ Cup Classic, making American Pharoah the first ever Grand Slam champion in horse racing.
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