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Riding Into the Void

With Hall of Fame jockeys recently retired, three apprentices have come into the public eye

July 12, 2006|Eric Sondheimer | Times Staff Writer

Martin Garcia, Juan Ochoa and Saul Arias are fearless, hard-working apprentice jockeys in their 20s. They're in Southern California to compete in a sport that's searching for successors to a generation of riders that once captivated followers of thoroughbred racing.

Garcia, 21, from Veracruz, Mexico; Ochoa, 23, from Duarte, and Arias, 27, from Bogota, Colombia, have made positive impressions during the Hollywood Park meeting, making good use of five- and seven-pound weight allowances given to apprentices.

On June 18 and again July 9, they combined to win five of the nine races at Hollywood Park.

"All of them have talent," trainer Ronald Ellis said.

Garcia, in particular, is causing excitement. In May, he was the leading rider at Golden Gate Fields, becoming the first jockey to topple Hall of Famer Russell Baze at a Northern California track since 1980, other than when Baze was injured.

In an encouraging year for apprentices, Garcia also ranks third in the nation among all jockeys with 182 victories.

Julien Leparoux, a 22-year-old apprentice from France, leads the nation in victories with 259, 167 of them at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. Rosie Napravnik, an 18-year-old female jockey, topped the rider standings at Laurel Park in Maryland.

The emergence of promising young jockeys couldn't happen at a more opportune time.

In the last four years, Hall of Famers Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Gary Stevens, Jerry Bailey and Pat Day all have retired.

Racing still has Edgar Prado, Patrick Valenzuela, Garrett Gomez, Kent Desormeaux, Alex Solis and John Velazquez, but there's plenty of room for newcomers, and these three apprentices are harboring big dreams.

*

Garcia, 5 feet 2 and 105 pounds, grew up on a farm in Veracruz, where he took care of donkeys and horses. He moved to Pleasanton, Calif., three years ago, knowing little English, and got a job as a cook at a deli.

The deli's owner, Terri Terry, owned a show horse, and Garcia kept asking to ride it. His persistence paid off, and he got to ride the horse ... bareback.

"He was absolutely amazing," Terry said. "He would get the horse to do what he wanted and even went over a couple of jumps."

Terry introduced Garcia to a trainer, who got him a job exercising horses at Pleasanton.

He won his first race Aug. 17, 2005, at the Bay Meadows Fair, then won 109 races at the winter-spring Golden Gate Fields meeting, where Baze had won 26 riding titles.

And, Garcia kept working two days a week at Terry's deli.

"I like to work, and that's how I have fun," he said. "The days I have off, I like to come to the deli."

Garcia made an indelible impression on trainers in the Bay Area.

"If he continues to improve, he would be able to be a dependable journey rider anywhere," trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said.

Garcia has been injured twice, suffering a concussion in one spill and breaking his hand in another. He dismisses the injuries.

"If you like what you do, you don't care what happens to you," he said.

Garcia arrived two weeks into the Hollywood Park meeting and has been steadily moving up the jockey standings. He holds down third place with 36 victories in 233 starts and $1,135,992 in earnings.

He also has worked to improve his English, watching cartoons, listening to music and paying attention to discussions at the track. He believes communication skills are important, but he has never had any problem understanding horses.

"I feel comfortable with what I do," he said. "You try to make the horse and you think the same. When you want to make one move, the horse will go with you. You try to talk to them and do different things."

Garcia watched on television as 18-year-old jockey Fernando Jara guided Jazil to victory in the Belmont Stakes last month, and it served as inspiration

"That guy did a beautiful job," he said. "When it was time to move, he moved. In this job, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, you want to be there someday. That's the dream of every jockey."

And Garcia would gladly celebrate by making a pastrami on rye for the winning owner.

*

There was never any doubt what Ochoa would do. His parents have been working at racetracks for more than 30 years.

"I remember when I was 6 or 7, going to Santa Anita and watching Pincay, McCarron, Delahoussaye and all the great riders," he said. "I guess it was in my blood that I wanted to be one of those guys."

Every weekend, after attending classes at Duarte High all week, he headed to the track to watch, listen and learn.

But his mother, Gloria, the stable forewoman for trainer Jerry Fanning, refused to let him ride until he turned 21. Even then, she was hesitant.

"It's a real dangerous sport, especially for moms," Ochoa said.

After he finished second on his first mount last year at Santa Anita on a Fanning horse, she was there to hug him and offer support.

He has been adamant about being prepared for every mount. If he's not studying the Daily Racing Form, he's watching video of past performances.

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