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'Win a Race for Me Tomorrow' : A Young Jockey Remembers His Father's Last Wish and First Victory

January 14, 1988|MITCH POLIN | Times Staff Writer

In most cases, winning a maiden claiming race would not be memorable for apprentice jockey Aaron Gryder.

But the 17-year-old Gryder says he will never forget his winning ride aboard Tom's Sweetie in the second race during the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita race track in Arcadia.

The night before, Gryder's father, Dale, had driven from his home in West Covina toward Northern California to pick up a car to sell. The 42-year-old Gryder never arrived, suffering a fatal accident triggered by a heart attack.

Gryder remembers the final words his father spoke to him before leaving that night:

"He knew he wasn't going to be there so the last thing he said was 'win a race for me tomorrow,' and I wanted to do it for him. A lot of people at the track were surprised to see me there the next day. They thought I would take a few days off. But this is where my father wanted me to be."

He said his father's death may have been his biggest inspiration for winning the jockey title at the Hollywood Park meeting that followed Oak Tree in November and December.

"I feel like everything I have done after he died has been for my father," Gryder said. "Every time I win a race I think of him."

The 5-4, 100-pound Gryder finished the Hollywood Park season with 31 wins, 31 seconds and 23 thirds in 182 mounts to place ahead of renowned riders Laffit Pincay, Angel Cordero, Willie Shoemaker and Jorge Velasquez. Gryder finished second in the nation last year among apprentices behind Maryland-based Kent Desormeaux.

Gryder admits he has struggled during the first two weeks of the Santa Anita meeting, where he entered this week in eighth place in jockey standings with five wins. He also has 11 seconds and seven thirds in 73 mounts.

However, despite his personal tragedy and the challenge of competing against many of the top jockeys in the nation, Gryder exudes a feeling of confidence:

"I have a great agent (Vince DeGregory) and I've been getting good horses. I just haven't had good luck. I'm positive things will change."

So does fellow jockey Patrick Valenzuela, a successful rider on the Southern California circuit after starting as an apprentice at Santa Anita.

"When you're as good as Aaron, you don't have to be concerned," Valenzuela said. "It's important that the trainers and owners stick with him because he's such a level-headed rider and he's got a lot of talent."

Gryder's ability did not surface overnight.

Born in West Covina, where he now lives with his mother, Gryder developed a strong interest in racing early.

"Maybe it was because my grandparents used to go to the track all the time," Gryder said. "It was in kindergarten when I decided that I wanted to be in horse racing."

Because of his small size, becoming a jockey seemed logical. Only he knows it would not have happened without having connections.

"I met the right people along the way and one of them was Rudy Campas, who rode for 26 years," Gryder said. "He told me to stay with him for a year (at his ranch in Riverside) and he would teach me how to ride."

Gryder, who had lived with his parents in Northern California since he was 6, moved in with Campas at age 13 for three years. "He showed me everything about being a jockey."

In between, Gryder also had a brief stint as an actor. At 15 he said he was a jockey in a pineapple commercial.

"I was at the Pomona (meeting) and a friend told me they were trying out actors for this commercial," he said. "So I went down and tried out and was chosen."

At 16, Gryder received an apprenticeship that lasts for one year after his first five wins. With a successful start at Agua Caliente track in Tijuana, it did not take long to get his first five wins. Three months after starting his apprenticeship, Gryder moved over to Santa Anita last March and has been competing with the top riders.

Gryder rode well enough to finish fifth in the Oak Tree meeting. It was at the recent meeting at Hollywood Park when Gryder made his biggest impression. Besides winning the jockey title, he won his first two $100,000-plus stakes races.

His biggest win was aboard Asteroid Field in the $200,000 Matriarch Stakes, but he said his victory on Caro's Love in the $100,000 On Trust Handicap on Thanksgiving Day was more memorable.

"It was my first stakes win and I won four races that day, so it was kind of special," he said.

Gryder has not been riding the last few days because of a five-day suspension for allowing his mount, Valiant Cougar, to impede Lucky Harold H. in the stretch Jan. 3. Valiant Cougar won but was disqualified and placed second.

When he returns from the suspension Saturday, Gryder will have about five weeks remaining before his apprenticeship ends.

That will also signal the end of Gryder's 5-pound riding allowance that apprentices receive. Gryder realizes that his task will be more difficult after his apprenticeship is over.

It is enough to drive many first-time journeymen to smaller, less competitive tracks. But Gryder has his mind set on staying at Santa Anita and the Southern California circuit.

"It's going to be a challenge and I'm not sure how good or bad I'll do, but I'm just going to work as hard as I can," he said. "I'm going to stick around as long as I'm getting the mounts. It's definitely where I want to stay."

Gryder also knows it's where his father would have wanted him to ride.

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