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Sports Talk : Latinos Share in Kentucky Derby Spotlight

May 03, 1990|Fernando Dominguez

Last year's Kentucky Derby victory by Patrick Valenzuela aboard Sunday Silence was the 12th for Latino jockeys in the history of the prestigious horse race.

That Valenzuela won wasn't totally surprising since his mount was the second choice at post-time to Easy Goer.

Whether another Latino jockey ends up in the winner's circle Saturday when the 116th running of the Derby is held at Churchill Downs in Louisville is anybody's guess. But other Latino horsemen--and their Thoroughbred--will be in the limelight even before the 1 1/4-mile event for 3-year-olds starts.

The colt is Florida-bred Mister Frisky, who until earlier this year had been burning the track in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where his owners, Jose and Marta Fernandez, live. Mister Frisky's trainer is Cuban-born Lazaro (Laz) Barrera, 65, who has been fine-tuning the horse for an attack on the Triple Crown races that begin with the Derby.

"There aren't too many horses that are going to scare him," Barrera, an Arcadia resident, said of his latest jewel. "Horses are like humans. Some you have to teach them things only once. Mister Frisky is among the intelligent and professional ones.

"He is a very calm horse who doesn't get worried. He sleeps all morning. He likes to be fresh and relaxed."

A victory by Mister Frisky, to be ridden by Gary Stevens, would be the third Derby title for Barrera, a feat accomplished by only four other trainers. He won in 1976 with another Puerto Rican-owned horse, Bold Forbes, and two years later with Triple Crown champion Affirmed.

He also has taken home the Eclipse Award four times as the leading trainer of the year, not a shabby resume for a guy who got into the sport as a $3.50-per-week horse walker 46 years ago at Oriental Park in Havana.

Barrera has been the most successful Latino trainer at the Derby. Only one other, Juan Arias, with Canonero II in 1971, has had a champion there.

Latinos have been well represented on the jockey honor roll, however, particularly in the last 20 years and especially by Puerto Rican Angel Cordero Jr.

With three wins so far, Cordero is tied with two others in fourth place for most victories in the Derby. He rode Cannonade to the wire first in 1974, followed with Bold Forbes two years later and took Spend A Buck to a five-length win in 1985.

In that 1985 race, Panamanian Laffit Pincay Jr., whose more than 7,000 career victories ranks second only to Bill Shoemaker, steered a 13-1 shot named Stephan's Odyssey to the second spot. It was the fourth runner-up finish for Pincay since he began riding there in 1970. He won the 1984 classic on Swale.

"That was a big thrill for me," Pincay explained recently between races at Santa Anita. "But I'm also proud of when I got second place with Sham and with General Assembly."

Those were exceptional performances. Sham had to contend with the legendary Secretariat in 1973, and in 1979, General Assembly was an 11-1 long-shot in the race that was won by Spectacular Bid.

Sandwiched between Cordero's victories in 1974 and 1976 was the first of two Derby titles for Jacinto Vasquez. The Panamanian rode favorite Foolish Pleasure in that one, and five years later repeated with a win on Genuine Risk.

The only other Latino to take two races was Ismael Valenzuela, Patrick's uncle, who won in 1958 on Tim Tam and a decade later on Forward Pass after Dancer's Image was disqualified for having been administered a prohibited medication.

Among those who also have left their mark in the Bluegrass State have been Panamanian Braulio Baeza on Chateaugay in 1963, the Venezuelan Gustavo Avila on Canonero II and Panamanian Jorge Velasquez on Pleasant Colony in 1981.

Barrera could add another feather to his cap if Mister Frisky wins Saturday. But even if he doesn't, the trainer and others such as Pincay and Cordero can bask in having already won in what is perhaps the world's most famous horse race.

"When you meet someone for the first time, the first thing they ask you is, 'Have you ever been in a Kentucky Derby? Have you ever won it?' " commented Pincay, a fixture in Southern California race tracks. "No other race means as much emotionally and no other has the tradition of the Kentucky Derby."

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