Last Dec. 30, five days after her 22nd birthday, Vicky Aragon climbed aboard a 23-1 shot named Big Bounty in a cheap claiming race and began her career as a jockey at Santa Anita. She finished seventh in a 12-horse field.
Still, it was Santa Anita, where the best jockeys on the West Coast ride the best horses. When she left the track 20 months earlier, she was an exercise girl. She left carrying used boots and used whips and a pair of riding pants that Bill Shoemaker had given her, and she headed for Longacres, outside of Seattle. Aragon had heard it was a place where a girl jockey could get a shot.
The shot came, but not because she was a girl. It came the way shots usually come—she went out and created it—and in less than two seasons she had established herself as the best rider at Longacres. And now that she was back at Santa Anita, no one was saying she didn't belong.
"The first time I ever saw her was in September of 1985," said Gary Stevens, who won purses worth more than $11 million in 1986 and was Santa Anita's leading jockey. "I went up to Longacres for the Gary Stevens Classic. They had a day up there to honor me. They bet me off the board, and then she almost won the race. We had ourselves quite a duel coming down the stretch. It took everything I had to beat her.
"She rode very tough, all the way through. People say girl jocks don't finish well, but Vicky's strong. She finishes as strong as anyone on a horse.
"Ever since she's been here, it's the same thing. She doesn't get many rides yet, and the ones she does get are long shots, but if she's sitting on a live horse at the top of the stretch, she's going to be there at the end."
Getting live horses to sit on became a problem for Aragon at Santa Anita. So three weeks ago, after riding too many 50-1 shots, she headed north to Bay Meadows, near San Francisco, where she had ridden last fall and where she can pick and choose her mounts. But no one at Santa Anita doubts that she will eventually be back.
"All she needs to do is stay the same," said Stevens. "Obviously she has what it takes. She doesn't need to force things.
"Forget that she's a girl. I could always pick a girl out in a race—even my own wife, who was a jockey when I met her. I think maybe it's the way they sit. But I can't pick Vicky out. She looks as natural and relaxed as anybody out here. And she rides tight, she rides a fine line. She isn't going to give anybody breaks out on the track."
Keeping that in mind, let's go back five months, to Sunday, Sept. 21, the third race at Longacres. A very pedestrian 33-year-old jockey named Victor Mercado takes an equally pedestrian horse—possibly of the same age—to the outside as he is turning home. There is another horse and another rider in the space Victor wants. The other rider is Vicky Aragon, who, as Gary Stevens pointed out, doesn't give anybody anything on a racetrack. Especially space.
At this moment she is, by almost a 2-to-1 margin, the winningest rider at Longacres, an advantage she will hold the entire racing season, making her the first woman ever to win a riding championship at a major thoroughbred meeting. The people who have seen her are already saying she is the most aggressive and talented woman riding anywhere. Which you should not confuse with being sweet to Puerto Ricans.
Mercado rides her out toward the middle of the track, then moves to leave her there. His horse puts its head in front of Aragon's horse, and then half of its neck. Whipping righthanded, Aragon urges her horse close to even again, then leans over and begins to whip Mercado.
She hits him twice with looping shots across his legs. Mercado turns in his saddle, holding his own whip in the air, but by then, Aragon's horse—no doubt delighted by this new trend in whipping—has fallen off the pace and never gets close to Mercado again. Aragon finishes the race sixth, files a protest that is disallowed and then leaves the track without riding her last six scheduled mounts.
On Wednesday, the next day of racing at Longacres, a track official enters the jockeys' room at about 3:30 and hands Aragon a message from the stewards. The note says they want to see her. "I knew I was in trouble before he came in," she will say later. "I didn't think they were going to forget it happened."
Television cameras and reporters follow her to the stewards' room and are waiting when she comes out. Aragon is a celebrity in Seattle. She stands in front of the cameras, looking calm, and says she has been "unprofessional" and feels she has "a public duty to apologize in public" to Victor Mercado and the owners and trainers of all the horses she was supposed to have ridden on Sunday. You have to go all the way back to Willie Mays's warning children not to play with blasting caps to match the feeling in this announcement.
"The way I look at it," she said later, "I took a three-week vacation." The 4'11" Aragon was sitting on a couch when she said that—her feet hanging several inches off the floor—in the living room of a house owned by her fiancè, Joe Steiner. It was the first week of the suspension. Steiner was the second-leading jockey at Longacres, but even with 93 wins, he finished the year almost that many again behind her.
The living room was on the second floor, and Steiner came through holding a hammer, apparently on his way to do some home repairs. He jumped from the floor to a table to the sill of an open window and then out the window. I have no idea why. Just don't ever believe jockeys are like everybody else.
"This guy bothers me a lot," Aragon said of Mercado. "He's sneaky, and he's always messing with my horses—little things to spook them or get them off stride. He's never called me dirty names—some of them do that—but he's just sneaky. I don't like him. He bumped me on purpose, rode me out into the middle of the track. That's dangerous. It doesn't take much to ruin a horse. So I got upset and hit him. Then I realized what I'd done, and I got more upset than I was, and I hit him again. Then I left the track and made it that much worse."
The three-week suspension was Aragon's longest at Longacres last year. She had two others, each a week long, for careless riding. There were also some fines. In August she and a jockey named Marty Wentz got into a whip fight during a race, and it cost them $400 each. "He swung at me and missed, I got him twice," she said. "Now there's somebody I don't get along with."
Then there was a brief fistfight with a jockey named Frank Best. "He came into the jocks' room after a race and pushed a paperback book in my face. It was over something stupid; he had no beef at all," she said. "He went for a hole, I shut the door. I never asked for a shot from anybody on the track, and I don't give anything away. So he comes in and starts cussing me out, and then he pushed the book in my face. I thought he was my friend. His face was right there, so I punched him. There was a guard in the room, and he broke it up."
Finally there were a couple of $50 fines for making a frivolous foul claim and for misusing her whip. Aragon tends to whip the front end of the horse as she finishes, and she got up too high on the neck with it that day, close to the head. "What I try to do is give the horse something when he needs it," she said. "A class horse will do it himself, but a cheap horse falls apart when he tires. I feel like I'm holding him together at the end. I keep his head up and keep him focused. I give him some of my energy."
She sat up on the couch, demonstrating with imaginary reins. Then she sat back, suddenly shy. "It's harder to do without a horse," she said. "See, for me riding is not just a job. Some of these guys just come out and put in the time, but I want more than that. Money aside, I want to win.... Yeah, I've got a talent. I don't know what it is exactly, but I can tell things about a horse. I can tell how much to hold him without altering his stride. I can get him to relax.
"Part of that is me feeling him, part of it is him feeling me. You can't get a horse to relax if you're tense yourself. He knows. And you've got to be able to tell when a horse is acting up a little because he feels good and when he's just screwing around. There's something between me and the horse. I want the horse to like me, so I reward him when he does something right—a simple pat is enough. And I'm the one that decides when he's doing something wrong."
The conversation turned to the reasons for her success. "I hear people say I've got soft hands, and I don't really know what that means," she said. "I do know that all the touch in the world isn't going to do you any good if you can't think. When horses get tired, they drift. And you've got to anticipate where they're going to be when you want to go through." She stopped for a minute, thinking that over, then said, "What it comes down to is that anybody can win with the best horse. What makes you good is if you can take the second-or third-best horse and win."
Winning, however, has never been the problem for Aragon. She arrived at Longacres in April 1985. She had been an exercise rider at Santa Anita for about two and a half years, and before that had lived with her parents in Europe. Her first job was taking care of horses on the island of Sardinia. She moved to England and took a similar job in a racing stable, and went from there to a riding and livery stable.
Aragon's father retired from the Navy in 1981, and the family settled in Southern California, where she found a job on a ranch in Riverside. "No one in my family ever thought it was a handicap being a girl," she said. "My mother and father always assumed I could do what I set out to do."
When she got to Longacres, she knew almost no one. "All I knew," she said, "was that I'd learned all I could by exercising horses in the morning and that I had to get in some races. You take a chance sometimes, if you know what you want.
"I went there and looked around for some rides. Nobody wanted to put me on a horse, so I took some work as an exercise rider again. It's important to have the trainers see you on a horse. They've got to see you ride."
Aragon began looking for a mount in mid-April of '85, and on May 15 she rode a horse named Otta Miss and finished sixth. She got her first win eight races later, on June 6, when Junior Coffey, a trainer who used to be an NFL running back, put her on a horse named Sir Jeppi. She rode 73 winners in the next four months, and by the end of the summer there were a lot of trainers who wanted to use her.
"This is such a competitive business," Coffey said. "There's lots of trainers who won't put a girl on their horses, but then they see Vicky's talent and they want her, too. Everybody at Long-acres wants her now. That might encourage other girls to try the same thing, but the same trainers using Vicky are going to be telling them they don't use girls. I don't go out of my way to use them myself. You see, in this business you've got to win or you become obsolete. You do what works, and these days that's Vicky. There's a lot of classy riders come through this track on their way to someplace bigger—some of the leading jockeys in the country. And she's as good as any of them."
In August '85, Aragon fell off a horse and hurt her back. "It wasn't even in the race," she said. "We'd finished, my mind was somewhere else, and I reached down to pat the horse and suddenly there wasn't any horse there."
Injuries, of course, are part of the job description. You cannot sit in a metal starting gate 800 or 900 times a year on an 1,100-pound animal with bad nerves and not get mashed fingers and knees and feet. And if you ride, eventually you are going to fall.
And if the injuries are serious enough to keep you off the horses, someone else is going to ride them, and it's hard to get them back after you've healed. Trainers use other riders, and loyalties, as Coffey pointed out, are confined to what works. So Aragon rode hurt for the month of September. She left the track, still hurt, and took five weeks off to mend, then headed down to Bay Meadows.
The horses and the money are better in Northern California than they are at Long-acres, but she kept winning. Thirty-seven times in three months. One day she had three wins and a place out of four races. She went back to Longacres last April.
"There are a certain number of people in any field that turn out to be a flash in the pan," Coffey said. "And the main argument about Vicky was that she wouldn't be the same rider when she lost her bug [the five-pound apprentice allowance]."
Aragon lost her apprenticeship and weight allowance on July 20 of last year. On Aug. 1 she served a kind of notice, winning six races in one day.
"It didn't change anything," she said. "If anything, things got better."
There were people around the track, though, who noticed a change. "I heard her agent complaining that she was telling him which horses to get for her," a Longacres official said. "She'd want to ride some 20-to-1 shot instead of the favorite, because a friend of hers was the trainer. She wouldn't listen to anybody. People said things.
"But then, some of what you hear is true, and some of it isn't. Earlier in the year a couple of the better jockeys at the track came in after a race complaining that she'd cut them off, saying she was going to kill somebody. Then we looked at the films, and she'd just outridden them. She'd taken a hole that was there, and they were embarrassed.
"There's a lot of pressure being the leading jockey, and she's young and it showed. She rode more than anybody else, so she had more opportunities to get suspended or fined. Still, that's a lot of suspensions and fines."
Aragon said, "Listen, a couple of riders have a personal beef with me, they call me a——. I don't appreciate that. I don't care what any of these guys thinks or says. It's a long season, and you're going to rub the wrong way against somebody. Little cliques are formed, riders will give their friends a shot in a race. I don't care about that. I don't want favors. I don't care about macho. I don't want them to change; I don't want them trying to change me. This is more than a job. If I had to go out there and just put in the time, if I wasn't learning, I think I'd quit and find something else to do."
Which, of course, is easier to say when you've got a future than when you don't. Aragon's future, however, would seem to depend on how well she rides that fine line Gary Stevens mentioned—that line between wanting to win a race and needing to whip another jockey. The quality that earns Aragon suspensions virtually everywhere she goes is the same quality that lifts her above ordinary riders, riders who can never find for themselves what she already has, because it is not inside them.
I am thinking now of Victor Mercado, but there will be someone like him wherever she goes.
Thirty-three years old, the program said, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Of the 30 or so jockeys riding regularly at Longacres, he was close to the bottom in wins—17 for the whole year, only one of them in a stakes.
He had been at Longacres seven years, and if he was on the way to someplace better, there was no sign of it then. It wasn't that he lacked heart—Mercado is as aggressive as anybody—but jockeys like Vicky Aragon find something in the horse and in the race itself that he cannot touch.
Still, riding is more than a job to Mercado. It has to be, because he hardly makes any money.
"The first time she hit me," he said, "I don't pay no attention. Then she do it again. I say, 'Hey, what the matter with you?' I don't have no trouble with her before; I don't call her no names. Then I bump her and I never been printed so much in seven years. She been in a bad temperament when it happen. People write I pick on her; it make me embarrassed to hear that.
"She is very dedicated, and that is a beautiful thing in a lady. And she is very good. She win three, four times a day. I like to win that much in a week."
I look again at the film of the race. The jockeys are almost together around the turn, lying fourth and fifth. They ask their horses for something; the horses don't have it to give. He rides her out into the middle of the track, and somehow the race gets away from her. She feels it getting away, she feels the insult.
She goes after him with the whip. He turns in his saddle for half a second, holding his own whip in the air, as if to fight back, but then, as quickly as it happened, he leaves it. He is more used to insults, and turns his face back to the homestretch and resumes the chasing of horses he can never catch.