I like much this Belmont Park," Manuel Ycaza said on a cold, wet October afternoon in 1957 while seated in a borrowed box seat. "I like much its great rug of grass," he said while contemplating his scuffed black shoes with the soggy and frayed laces.
"There!" he said, pointing at the post parade, "are Arcaro, Atkinson and Shoemaker." He smiled. "Once, when I am oh so little I tell my mother that I shall one day be greater than the great Arcaro. But I am not yet ready for this Belmont Park. The people here, they do not know Manuel Ycaza. These Belmont jockeys, they are the velvet and I am the corduroy. Someday," he said, waving an index finger, "Ycaza will be here sitting on a horse, not in a box. And he will be with the velvet jockeys and all the people will know him and he will look at the rug of grass and be much happy."
Today, less than three years after Manuel Ycaza's romantically philosophical pronouncement, there are many people who believe he is the finest thing to come out of Panama since the hat. They know he is the best jockey. There are others, however, who believe that he is a little too rough, a little too tough, a little too blasé about the rules of racing. In response to this charge, Ycaza—who speaks English that sounds as if it had been translated from the Spanish by Hemingway—says: "When I ride a horse, it makes no difference if the horse is 1 to 9 or 99 to 1. Ycaza is all out to win, always."
There have been times, many times, when Manuel Ycaza has been a little too all out to win. He has been accused by his fellow jockeys, and found guilty by the stewards, of rough and careless riding; of pinching horses back and swerving in front of his field. He has, on occasion, turned horse races into rodeos. There are some jockeys who do not like Manuel Ycaza because at one time or another he has blocked them or herded them or bumped them while trying to beat them. Jockey Henry Moreno threatened one day in California to punch Ycaza in the nose after a bumping. Ycaza looked Moreno over slowly. "When you speak to Ycaza," he said, "speak softly," and Moreno's temper evaporated into the air.
June 12, 1960
At 22 (one half the age of Arcaro), Manuel Ycaza has become one of the darlings of the American racegoer. He has kicked and scraped and wiggled his way into their hearts—and their wallets as well. Ycaza has a certain flash that makes him different from other jockeys. "He dismounts," wrote Joe Val of the New York World-Telegram and Sun, "with gymnastic verve, helmet at a rakish tilt, his step jaunty." When he rides in the post parade the railbirds coo lovingly at Manuel, and Manuel smiles coyly back.
Not long ago Ycaza was sitting in the jockeys' recreation room at Aqueduct, fingering a bright red ping-pong paddle and explaining his position as a race rider. He held the paddle straight up in the air. "Imagine," he said, 'that this paddle is a hill—the hill of success. To come up the handle, it is easy for some. For some others it is not so easy. They slip on the handle and fall back down. Many spend all their lives going up and down the handle. I want to be up here, at the top of the round part, at the top of the hill. But the hill is steep. When you get to the top of the hill you have to work harder than those on the handle or you will slide down the hill and go boom!"
On the afternoon of March 1, 1958 at Hialeah Park in Florida, Manuel Ycaza was at the top of the hill and went boom in a matter of minutes. Riding Jewel's Reward in the Flamingo Stakes, the first $100,000 race of his young life, Ycaza bumped Jockey Bill Hartack and Tim Tarn repeatedly through the stretch. Manuel and Jewel's Reward went under the finish line the apparent winners by a head but were disqualified. The stewards slapped Ycaza with a 15-day suspension for rough riding. Ycaza sat out the 15 days, went to New York to ride and quickly earned two more suspensions which totaled 25 days. Both were for "rough riding." Between March and November, Ycaza was twice more set down—once for "careless riding," and once for "interference." On October 23 the Belmont Park stewards penalized him for 20 days after he had flagrantly cut diagonally across a field of racers. On the day that this last suspension of the year ended for Ycaza, he jumped aboard Al's O War in the first race at Tanforan. Before he had gone a sixteenth of a mile, Ycaza was in a serious spill (he was not at fault) and suffered a concussion, a shoulder separation and two broken ribs. Despite suspensions and injuries, however, he finished the year in seventh place among the top money-winning riders, with earnings of $1,024,714 in purses.
Last year Manuel Ycaza was still violating the rules of race riding and was set down for a total of 45 days (as compared to 80 in 1958) but his attitude and approach to racing had changed. "I learn to control my temper," he said. "I do not let any big thing or any little thing get on the top of my head. When I first come around this country I do not understand the language too well. But I keep trying to learn. I read a lot, mostly books on law. I keep trying to improve myself. At first I only know a little bit. I want to know more. I take to reading papers, books, magazines, everything. In 1959 I go to work for Mr. Guggenheim [Capt. Harry F. Guggenheim, owner of the Cain Hoy Stable]. He is nice to me and helps me and gives me confidence. He and Trainer Stephens [Woody Stephens] and me have a good year last year. We work together as one head, not three heads going in different directions. Last year was a good year. This year will be a better year." (Right now Cain Hoy is at the top of the owners' list with earnings of $274,612. Last year the stable earned $742,081, to lead the nation.)
Harry Guggenheim, of course, has helped Manuel Ycaza a great deal. Guggenheim, who was once the American ambassador to Cuba, speaks Spanish fluently, and he and Ycaza are often seen in marvelous paddock conversations, the captain using voice alone and Manuel using voice and hands in tandem. In 15 races worth $50,000 or over, which Ycaza rode for Cain Hoy last year, he brought back a piece of the purse 11 times.
In the young season of 1960 Ycaza has already won two $100,000 races with Cain Hoy's Bald Eagle and has three times ridden the winners of four races in a single afternoon at Aqueduct.
"Bald Eagle," says Manuel, "he is my favorite horse. I know all the times just what he is going to do. When he first came to this country in 1958, he is a sprinter. But he works at himself and Mr. Stephens works with him and he digs in and he gets better. He is like all people should be, for he tries all the times. Some people say to me, 'Manuel, why do you try to keep off the pace so much and win the races in the stretch?' I say because riding a race is like this. Say you have five pounds of food to last for a week and you eat it all up in the first four days. Then you will have nothing left for the last three days. It is like riding a horse. You cannot use him all up early or you will have nothing left for the stretch."
Manuel Ycaza is a young man who might well be able to excel in many other sports besides racing, although his riding and his reading prevent him from doing much else outside of playing an occasional game of soft-ball. "One day last year," he says with glee, "I am given a camera for a present. I go out onto the golf course with four friends who is playing. But I am not playing, I am running around with a pair of thin Mexican shoes, taking pictures. My agent George O'Bryan says, 'Manuel, play a hole.' I pick up a club and the hole, she is supposed to take five strokes to do good. I get this big club and I swing and hit two good shots. Then I hit another shot and it goes far and falls into the hole and everyone is saying, 'Eagle, eagle.' I dust off my hands and say, 'O.K. you guys, that is enough for today.' "
Rich in the heart
"People say to me," he continued, "that I must be rich by now. I say, 'No, to be rich is not to have only money. To be rich is to be warm in here, in the heart. If you have five friends, you are the millionaire.' Sometimes the reporters they ask me hard questions but I do not mind if they ask me in a nice way. If they ask me in a bad way, to get me in trouble, I will be respectful but they do not fool me. If they speak to me in a nice way I will go to China for them."
Many people wonder why Manuel reads about the law on the one hand and so often breaks the law of the race track on the other. "In Panama," he says, "it was my career to be the lawyer but I learn to ride the horses while I am just so small. I do good with the horses and for three years in a row I am named the outstanding athlate in all of Panama. But in my heart there is this private dream of which I tell no one. Perhaps it is to go back to the law, perhaps it is to be the great jockey. Maybe it is to be the outstanding athlete in Panama four times and to be the important athlete in this country just one time. In my days I have found my happinesses and my sadnesses and there is much time left for each.
"There is one day last year when I have the great day," he said. "My mother and father come up from Panama to see me ride Bald Eagle in the Gallant Fox Handicap and Bald Eagle wins and my mother is happy. But she is happiest not because I win, but because I ride back alive. That is what makes my mother happy, to see her boy ride back alive.
"Each time I win the races I cut out the stories in the papers and put them in a scrapbook. When the big book is filled I send it home, and my mother she reads the big book about Manuel and she smiles and she smiles and then she sits in a big chair and cries and wishes that Manuel were back home with her."