"I thought about starting in 1985 at Santa Anita as a bug (apprentice rider)," Aragon said. "But I didn't want to be just another bug rider there.
I wanted to establish myself someplace else before I went back to try."
Her first win, at Longacres on June 6, 1985, came with a gelding named Sir Jeppi, who was her ninth mount. Despite riding only six months that year, Aragon won 102 races, which ranked her sixth on the apprentice list. Losing her weight allowance this past July, she had 160 wins, which places her third this year among apprentices, behind Allen Stacy in Maryland and Californian Corey Black.
Freckle-faced, with coal-black hair at the top of her 5-foot, 100-pound frame, Aragon seemed to almost be hiding behind her coffee cup in the Bay Meadows track kitchen one morning. But her appearance is misleading. Witnesses, please; OK, start with jockeys Marty Wentz and Victor Mercado, and close out the testimony with the stewards at Longacres.
In the summer, Aragon drew a two-week suspension and was put on probation for a whipping incident involving Wentz. Then, during a race in September, her mount was carried out at the five-sixteenths pole by the horse that Mercado had positioned on the rail.
With the whip in her right hand, Aragon reached over and tried to whack Mercado. She missed. But the next two times, she didn't. A claim of foul by Aragon against Mercado for interference was disallowed, and Aragon stormed out of the track, canceling six more mounts that she had on the card.
After reviewing the incident, and because Aragon was already on probation, the stewards handed her a severe 21-day suspension. Despite missing five weeks of action, then, Aragon still led the meet by almost doubling the win total of the next jockey in the standings, who happened to be fiance Steiner.
"Sometimes I wish I was like Joe," Aragon said. "He's mellow and cool. When something like that happens, I wind up gritting my teeth."
At the time of the 21-day suspension, Aragon made a public apology to Mercado, but even in retrospect, she still feels the other jockey was culpable.
"I had trouble with the same person before," Aragon said. "If I didn't hit him, he would have hit me first. It was obvious what he was trying to do. He was trying to intimidate me, and thought he could get away with it because he didn't think I would retaliate. These things happened because of jealousy. They didn't want to admit to themselves that I could have won all those races."
Aragon won six races in one day once at Longacres and also won six stakes, her favorite being the victory with Cruisin' Too Su in the Betsy Ross. Cruisin' Too Su was an $8,000 claim by trainer Junior Coffey, who had also put Aragon on the first winner of her career. After Cruisin' Too Su was claimed, Aragon got the mount as the horse progressed into stakes company, and she said that it was Coffey's first stakes win in about 10 years.
Aragon was the first woman to ride a stakes winner at Longacres since 1975. At Bay Meadows this fall, however, Aragon's win percentage has dropped from .20 to about .06. Neither she nor her agent, Steve Steamer, characterizes this development as a slump.
"We got here two months after the meet started," Steamer said. "And we told everybody right away that we were heading for Santa Anita at Christmas. That was the honest thing to do. So we wound up riding a lot of 30-1 and 40-1 shots. But she's been hitting the board with a lot of them."
Indeed, Aragon had 50 second- and third-place finishes at Bay Meadows out of about 160 mounts.
Not giving up on a horse might be the reason. If there is a generality trainers make about female riders, it is that they break horses well but have trouble finishing.
"I'm very fit and I don't tire," Aragon says. "I don't let up, and down the stretch the other jockeys can hear me coming a mile away, because I think that gets the horse pumped up, too. Twice I've hooked Russell Baze's horses coming to the wire and beat him."
Aragon says she has learned the most about determination from watching Baze, who is in the process of winning his 13th straight riding title at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields.
After Christmas--and a 22nd birthday party--with her parents, George and Winnie Meiser, in Van Nuys, Aragon will try to find the mount at Santa Anita that could break Kim Rice's record. Santa Anita has five racing days before the end of the year.
Eighteen years after Diane Crump started it all, though, the open-door policy for female riders is limited.
"Vicky has beaten me at Bay Meadows," trainer David LaCroix said at Hollywood Park recently. "But still, I don't think she can do it. I'd rather use somebody else."
Vicky Aragon has beaten a lot of people this year--with her whip and with the horses that she's hustled to the finish line.