Jockeys are often faced with split-second decisions on the track that can mean the difference between winning and losing. Gun for the lead, or lay back and close in the stretch? Save ground with a rail-skimming ride, or steer their mount to the outside for a clear path to the finish?
They’re also faced with tough off-the-track decisions as well. Rider and agent will meet frequently to decide between two horses when they’re entered in the same race. Also, there are career decisions to be made.
Stay in the East or Midwest, or come to the West Coast and give Santa Anita, Del Mar and Los Alamitos a try?
Ramon Vazquez, a 38-year-old native of Puerto Rico who began riding in the U.S. in 2011, has aced most of his difficult decisions so far. He’s ridden successfully at Oaklawn Park, Remington, Delaware Park, Prairie Meadows and Lone Star Park. And, when it came time to decide between moving his business to Kentucky and New York or Southern California, he and his agent, Bill Castle, put their heads together and decided to come west.
So far the move has worked out quite well. Vazquez, who began riding regularly in the Southland in April during the Santa Anita meet, has won two Los Alamitos riding titles and finished third behind Juan Hernandez and Umberto Rispoli in the jockey standings during this summer’s Del Mar meet.
“When we heard Flavien (Prat) and Rispoli were going to Kentucky, me and my agent talked and decided to come to California,” Vazquez said during a telephone interview this week. “It wasn’t an easy (decision), but it wasn’t hard either. I wanted to try something different and for a long time I was thinking California.”
The hard part was leaving his wife and three children back in Hot Springs, Arkansas, while he and Castle picked up and moved west.
“But my family supported me in the decision,” he said. “So that made it easier, that part. I’m enjoying being here. I really like it here. It’s hard (being away from family), but we can talk on FaceTime. I talk to them every day. So it’s hard a little bit, but when your family supports you in your decision, it’s more easy.”
In five short months, Vazquez has managed to gain the respect of leading local trainers like Peter Miller and John Sadler. Miller put Vazquez on his first Grade I winner in the U.S. – And Tell Me Nolies in the Del Mar Debutante – and he’s ridden two stakes winners for Sadler.
“He’s a good gate rider and he’s a very hard worker,” said Miller, who had Vazquez on four of his five winners at the recently concluded Los Alamitos meet. “Horses seem to run for him.
“I had ridden him some in the Midwest at Oaklawn and I know his agent. I didn’t know his riding all that well, but he’s probably a better gate rider than I thought.”
Said Sadler: “He came here at a good time when we had an opening when Prat left. He’s come here, done a good job, and I think he’s still improving. He gives you a good effort every time, just a solid professional. I’ve won a couple of stakes with him and he’ll be riding in two stakes for us this weekend.”
Vazquez began his career in Puerto Rico in 2002 and still holds two records in his native country. He won 285 races in one year and found the winner’s circle six times in one day.
On Sunday, he became the first jockey to win five races in one afternoon at Los Alamitos since the Orange County track began running thoroughbreds in the afternoon.
He says hard work is the key to his success.
“I love my job. I love the horses, and when I’m asked to work in the morning, I never say no. I wanna work. Wherever they need me to go, I go,” Vazquez said. “My goal is I wanna be the top rider here. I wanna finish 1-2 (in the jockey standings). I wanna find that one horse for the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup.”
Riding on the Southern California circuit is no easy job. Hernandez has established himself as “the man” since Prat departed, and there’s also top jockeys like Rispoli, Abel Cedillo, Mike Smith and Victor Espinoza to compete against.
“You want to compete against the top jockeys,” Vazquez said. “I’m so happy to be competing against the riders here. They make you work harder. You don’t give 100%, you give 200%.”
Asked what he’s expecting when Santa Anita opens its 18-day fall meet Friday, Vazquez was true to form.
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“I’m just gonna work hard and see what happens,” he said. “Hopefully the trainers and the owners will continue to support me. I know Juan Hernandez is hard to beat, but you never know.”
What is known is that Vazquez has adapted quite well to his new surroundings and the best may be yet to come.
“Hopefully he’s here to stay,” Miller said.
Signature win: And Tell Me Nolies in this summer’s Grade I Del Mar Debutante.
Lifetime wins: 3,471 (19%).
Quote: “My goal is I wanna be the top rider here. I wanna finish 1-2 (in the jockey standings).”