Lots of guys go to the racetrack and get taken to the cleaners. But nobody has ever done it quite like Carlos León did. On Feb. 21 the 30-year-old North Miami clothes presser ducked work and—unbeknownst to his boss—headed for Gulfstream Park, where he climbed aboard a 25-1 claimer named Stormy Lord and won the day's third race. It was León's first victory as a jockey. It was also his first mount.
The Peruvian-born León has the energy of Danny De Vito loaded into his small, wiry frame, yet his boss at A Cleaner World likes to call him Arnold—after Arnold Schwarzenegger. (That's dry cleaner humor for you.) Asked about his 14 years in the cleaning business, León says he likes to steam T-shirts best. "They take me maybe 20 seconds," he says. And worst? "Wedding dresses," he answers glumly. "They take maybe 20 minutes."
It took León 29 years to answer his true calling. "He always wanted to be a jockey," says his father, Francisco, "but he got very heavy." Carlos didn't want to be a jockey enough not to cat. Two years ago he weighed 165 pounds. "I liked big lunches, big dinners, big portions," says the 5'2" Carlos. "My father got me to diet and exercise, and now I'm down to 102."
Francisco was once a jockey himself, enjoying moderate success on the tracks of Peru until he broke his neck in a spill. During his 2½-year convalescence in Lima he resolved to bring his wife and three children to the U.S. In 1971, he made the move alone. His family followed four years later, once he had established himself as a jockey in New York and Florida. Francisco's final race, a victory, was at Gulfstream Park in 1984.
Late in 1992 Carlos began breezing horses at Hialeah in the morning, while pressing blouses in the afternoon. Four months ago Francisco hooked Carlos up with Luis Olivares, trainer of Stormy Lord. Carlos has been working horses for Olivares ever since. In early February, Olivares asked León if he would like to ride the 4-year-old gelding on Presidents' Day. "Sure," said León. But first he had to get off work. He figured his boss, Forrest White, wouldn't want him hanging out at the races. So León fibbed. "I have a doctor's appointment."
"But it's a holiday," said White. "Nothing's open."
"Uh, yes, but my doctor's office is."
White relented, and León promised he'd be in later.
The novice jockey's mount was a nag of uncertain quality. Stormy Lord had finished dead last in his two previous races, losing by a combined 38¾ lengths. Francisco counseled his son. "Go straight ahead to separate your horse from the pack," he said, "and if another horse cuts in front of you, stay right behind him. With three-eighths of a mile left, let him go."
That is more or less what Carlos did. Though barred from carrying a whip as a first-time rider, he had Stormy Lord vying for the lead right out of the gate, then held his pace and kept his cool. He took command over favorite Majic Fountain coming out of the turn and won handily by a length and a half over the six furlongs. Stormy Lord paid $53.40 to win.
On the way back from the winner's circle, where León had been greeted by his wife, Evelyn, and their three children, a valet doused him with a bucket of ice water—the traditional initiation rite for jockeys breaking their maiden. But León hardly broke stride. "I've got to go to work," he explained.