Braulio Baeza is no bum," said Braulio Baeza one day last July while driving home in his burgundy-colored Thunderbird after a successful day at the races. "He is no liar and no fool. There are two things that he wants from his career. The first is to win the 1962 Kentucky Derby and become the hero of his Panama. The second is to become the most successful jockey that ever lived."
Braulio Baeza may have both his wishes fulfilled some day, but right now he is only one ripple in the Latin American wave of jockeys that is dominating the young 1962 racing season. Since Jan. 1 Latin jockeys have won 11 of 22 stakes races run on major U.S. tracks, and the nation's horseplayers are currently picking winners from names like Baeza, Ycaza, Hinojosa, Gomez, Gustines, Espinosa, Valenzuela and Yanez.
With the big money races still almost a month away, Latin jockeys already have accounted for more than half a million dollars in purses, and by the time this season ends they surely will have won more than $8 million. Five of the nation's outstanding stables—Cain Hoy, Greentree, C. V. Whitney, Fred W. Hooper and Gustave Ring—are now employing Latin riders almost exclusively. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the 87-year-old trainer, says, "The Latins are going to take it all over in five or 10 years. They're natural horsemen. They're bright and they're strong. Mark my words, there'll be more Latin riders around here than Americans before too long." Even Johnny Longden, the gnarled granddaddy on horseback, has said half facetiously and half wistfully, "I'm gonna change my name."
The chances are that Sunny Jim is dead right; the present Latin look of the jockey list may become permanent. U.S. youngsters are no longer attracted to the racetracks. One reason is that they do not want to work at the menial tasks necessary in the development of jockeys. Another is the fact that the American standard of living produces fewer and fewer small-sized boys. On the other hand, large numbers of Latin American youngsters are born and raised hungry, both in the literal sense and from the viewpoint of opportunities. The Latin jockey brings with him a driving impulse to beat the Yanqui every time and a knowledge of horses acquired early in life. By U.S. default, then, and because horse racing offers a quick course to wealth and fame beyond their reach in other fields, the Baezas and Ycazas are here to stay—and at the top.
They promise a colorful future for horse racing. Unlike most American jockeys, the Latins climax their riding performances with showmanship. Avelino Gomez rides into the winner's enclosure like a conquistador. After shaking his whip to the crowd, he swings his right leg from his irons and turns his body so that he is sitting at a right angle to the horse's head. Then, by pushing his hand down hard on the saddle, he catapults himself high into the air and freezes himself at attention while drifting to the ground. Baeza will always be remembered for his performance last June when he won the Belmont Stakes with the 65-to-1 shot, Sherluck. He plucked carnations from the winner's wreath and flicked them gently to the cheering crowd.
The rise of the Latins can be traced back to 1946, when a 17-year-old youngster from a Mexican family of 22 came to this country to ride. His name was Angel Valenzuela. Although born in McNary, Texas, Angel was taken as a child to Porvenir, Mexico (near Juarez) and learned to handle horses at his father's combination farm and ranch (at other times his father ran a poolroom, butcher shop and store—all without success). There were some cow ponies on the farm, and Angel cared for them and rode them. Soon he began riding at bush league tracks, and by 1952 he was good enough to try California's Hollywood Park.
Shortly after Angel got to California, his brother Ismael (Milo), age 18, arrived there also. Milo had learned everything that Angel had learned, picking up experience during five years of riding at bush league tracks, where he walked "hots" and mucked out stalls. By the end of 1952 Milo was riding more winners than Angel, and horsemen began to talk mostly of him. Today both are successful, but Milo is outstanding. He has won a Kentucky Derby and Preakness (both with Tim Tarn in 1958), a Garden State (with Warfare in 1959), and in 1956 he beat both Nashua and Swaps on two different horses (Porterhouse over Swaps and Mister Gus over Nashua). In the jockeys' rooms the conversations about Milo are usually flattering. Elsewhere the talk is something different. He has been arrested several times for driving while intoxicated, and his habit of arguing with horse owners in public places has not endeared him to them.
Once, in telling of his father's death, Milo said, "He broke the record for having one disease. He had it 32 years and doctors don't know how he lived. He wanted to die in Mexico, so he never saw me ride. But he cooked poison ivy and would drink it to live. He died of that disease, but he broke the record with it." Before Milo dies he may break many of racing's records.
While the Valenzuelas were the first to draw the attention of racing insiders to the Latin Americans, Manuel Ycaza, age 23, was the first to draw the attention of the fans. Since coming to this country from Panama in 1958, Ycaza has ridden 800 winners who have earned $6 million. One of nine children of a Panama City bus driver, Ycaza is probably the most colorful of all the Latins. He is skilled, romantic, debonair and, at times, reckless. In the last six years stewards have suspended him for fouls for more than one full year (376 racing days). He tries terribly hard not to foul, but in his eagerness to win he often does.
Braulio Baeza, at 21, has won five major races and eight minor ones in the last two weeks. He is already booked to ride one of the favorites, Admiral's Voyage, in the Kentucky Derby. Both his father and grandfather were jockeys in Panama. He came to the U.S. in 1960 after riding 309 winners in 112 days in Panama. Fred Hooper gave him a horse to work out at Hialeah. He asked Baeza to go a half mile in 50 seconds. Hooper then timed the horse in 49 seconds. When Baeza brought the horse back, Hooper asked him how fast he thought he had gone. "Forty-nine," said Baeza. "Hired," said Hooper.
A Cuban who may be the best of all
The oldest of the Latins is 33-year-old Avelino Gomez, a hatchet-faced native of Cuba. Gomez is now riding here for the second time. In 1951 he rode Curandero to victory in the $100,000 Washington Park Handicap. With his $10,000 cut of the purse he began building a large house in Havana which he named The Curandero. After refusing to answer a U.S. Army draft call in 1951, Gomez shifted to Canada, where he became a hit at the Fort Erie and Woodbine tracks near Toronto. He earned enough money there to build a bar in Havana and, naturally, called it The Toronto Bar. Gomez was the leading rider in Canada for five years, and American jockeys who rode against him there rate him the equal of Eddie Arcaro or Willie Shoemaker. Avelino is riding here on a special permit pending the outcome of a bill now before the House Judiciary Committee that may clear him of draft evasion and make it possible for him to become a U.S. citizen eventually.
Herberto Hinojosa, the 25-year-old son of a Mexican mother with Indian blood and a Castilian father, began riding when he was 8—tied onto a quarter horse to keep him aboard. At 16 he turned up at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. "In 1956," he says, "I lead all the riders at Ruidoso Downs, but when I get my neck and my leg and my arm and four ribs broken I begin to think maybe I am in the wrong place. If I am going to be broken up, it may as well be at a big track. Maybe I don't win so many on the big time, but at least I will be alive." In five years Hinojosa became a first-rate rider. He was the leading jockey at the recent Tropical Park meeting. Heliodoro Gustines, a Panamanian now riding at Hialeah; Victor Espinosa, a Mexican riding at Charles Town; and Robert Yanez, also of Mexican descent, are others about to make the top ranks.
These days American jockeys like Shoemaker, Arcaro, Longden and Bill Hartack no longer bother to look back over their shoulders. They know all too well who is coming up behind them.