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It’s fun to listen to the different accents of the Jockeys and try to determine where they’re from. Jockeys come from all over the world, but is there a dominant region that produces the best jockeys?
The best jockeys come from Latin America, and it accounts for the highest percentage of top Jockeys in the United States and across the globe. Panama, Mexico, and Puerto Rico are all well-represented amongst elite jockeys.
To be a successful Jockey takes a unique skill set. A rider must have a good work ethic, a light athletic body, a quick mind, and be fearless. Let’s look at some of these fantastic athletes and their country of origin.
The Best Jockeys are a Diverse Group
The Kentucky Derby is a microcosm of racehorse tracks worldwide. Every year numerous nationalities are represented riding the best three-year-old racehorses in the world.
For example, in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, there were four Puerto Ricans, three French, three Panamanians, three Americans, two Venezuelans, two Puerto Ricans, one Columbian, one Dominican Republican, and one Jamaican
The field of Jockeys is quite diverse but not unique; international Jockeys are riding horses at most tracks across the world. But Latinos have a knack for rising to the top.
Latino’s are the Best Jockeys in Horse Racing
The first Latino to ride in the triple crown was Joseph Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez rode Upset to a second-place finish in the 1922 Preakness Stakes. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Latinos put their stamp on horseracing.
In 1958 Ismael Valenzuela became the first Latin to win the Kentucky Derby. He also won the Preakness Stakes and ran second in the Belmont Stakes the same year. From 1958 to the present, there have only been two Triple Crown races without a Latino Jockey.
Some of the best horse jockeys come from Mexico
Across the United States, Mexico is well-represented at horse racing tracks. At some tracks, 80 percent of the people working in the industry are Mexican. This figure includes trainers, grooms, jockeys, and agents.
Angel and Ismael (Milo) Valenzuela Mexican brothers found early success
The advent of successful Latin riders can be traced to two brothers, Angel and Ismael (Milo) Valenzuela. They were born in Texas, raised in Mexico, and began their racing careers on bush league tracks in Arizona.
In 1952 the older brother, Angel, started riding in California at Hollywood Park. Milo followed his brother as a hot walker and a stable hand. (click here to read about hot walkers and stable hands) By the end of the year, Milo had not only begun riding but rode more winners than Angel.
In 1958 Milo won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and continued winning. He rode the legendary Kelso to twenty-two graded stakes wins and became the number 1 money winner in thoroughbred racing history.
In 1963 Milo won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award given to North America’s top thoroughbred Jockey. In 1968 he once again won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Before he retired, Milo had amassed over 2,500 wins. In 2008 he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
Victor Espinoza first Latino to win the Triple Crown.
Victor Espinoza is the first Latino to win the Triple Crown, thoroughbred racing’s most prestigious accomplishment. The feat requires winning a series of three races, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, against the best three-year-old horses in the world.
Since its’ inception in 1875, the Triple Crown has only been won 13 times. Mr. Esponoza won the Triple Crown aboard American Pharoah in 2015.
This accomplishment made the history books for two reasons; not only did he become the first Latino Jockey to win the award, but he is also the oldest rider to win the triple crown.
Also, in 2015, Espinoza notched another first when he won the Breeders Cup Classic riding American Pharoah, becoming the first Jockey in history to win the Triple Crown and the Breeder’s Cup Classic.
In 2018 it looked to many that Espinoza’s career might be over when he was severely injured during a fall riding Bobby Abu Dhabi at the Del Mar racetrack. However, against all the odds, he returned to racing at Santa Anita Park in 2019.
Espinoza has won over 3,200 races, been awarded the best Jockey award three times, the George Woolf Award, the Kentucky Derby three times, and the Preakness Stakes three times.
Victor is one of the most popular and successful Jockeys of all time, despite coming to the United States unable to speak the language and sleeping in tack rooms of Northern California tracks.
Panamanian’s are among the best jockeys
Manuel Ycaza won over 2,300 horse races
Panamanian Jockeys have a stellar history in American horse racing. Manuel Ycaza was the Latin trailblazer. He immigrated to the United States in 1956 after a successful racing career in Mexico City.
In 1964 he won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, which recognizes the countries best jockey. He won over 2,300 races and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1977.
Braulio Baeza is the first Central American to win the Kentucky Derby
Braulio Baeza is another Panamanian Hall of Fame jockey and one of the best jockeys of our time. In 1963, he became the first Central American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.
Baeza began his racing career in Panama, and in 1960, he rode his first race in the U.S. His inaugural race was on Keeneland’s opening day, 1960, and he won it.
Baeza was the leading money earner from 1965-1969. He won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1968 and the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey in 1972 and 1975.
He won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes three times. During his illustrious career, Baeza traveled to England and Canada to guide winners in some of their country’s most prestigious races. Braulio Baeza won over 4,000 races by the time he retired.
Laffit Pincay Jr. one of the greatest Jockeys of all-time
Laffit Pincay Jr. is arguably the greatest Jockey of all time. In 1999 he broke the legendary Bill Shoemaker’s world record of 8,833 wins to be the World’s winningest jockey. He finished his career with 9,530 career victories.
Laffit began racing in the United States in 1966 after a successful start in his native Panama. He quickly proved himself winning eight of his first eleven starts.
During Pincay’s long career, he won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1970 and the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey five times, more than any other jockey.
Pincay was 28 years old when he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. He led all Jockeys in wins in the United States seven times and won the Kentucky Derby once and the Belmont Stakes three consecutive times.
Laffit Pincay left his stamp in the racing books and on the present and future of Panama’s racing influence. His success planted dreams in the minds and hearts of many young Panamanians.
To help make those dreams a reality, he established the Laffit Pincay Jr. Riding Academy, a successful launching pad for prospective jockeys to learn and fine-tune their riding skills.
Luis Saez won $17 million in one season
Luis Saez is a native of Panama City, Panama, and a Laffit Pincay Jr. Riding Academy graduate. In 2009 he started racing in the United States and quickly found success.
By 2014 he had already ridden 1,000 horses to victory. In 2018 his mounts won $17 million in purse money. He ran second in the 2018 Preakness Stakes and posted his 2,000 career win later the same year. Luis Saez is one of the best jockeys riding today.
Luis’ cousin, Gabriel Saez, also a graduate of the Laffit Pincay Jr. Riding Academy, has also found success riding in the United States.
Puerto Rico has produced some of the best jockeys
Angel Cordero Jr won the Kentucky Derby three times
Puerto Rico has a vibrant horse racing history and is the home to one of the best jockeys of all time, Angel Cordero Jr. He won the Kentucky Derby twice within three years, and two years later, he got his third Derby win.
Cordero became only the eighth Jockey in the history of the Derby ever to win the event three times; he won the Preakness Stakes twice and the Belmont Stakes once. He is the first Puerto Rican ever to win all three of the Triple Crown races.
Cordero’s career ended when he suffered an injury in a riding accident in 1992. But before he stopped riding, he compiled more than 7,000 wins and earned the Eclipse Award as an outstanding jockey in North America three times. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1988.
John R. Velazquez is the leading money earner in horse racing
John R. Velazquez is another great Jockey from Puerto Rico. He began riding in the United States in 1990. By 2004 he was the United States Champion Jockey by earnings; he won this title again in 2005.
He currently ranks fourth in career purse earnings of $262 million. Velazquez won the Eclipse Award for both the 2004 and 2005 racing seasons. In 2014 he became the leading money-earning jockey in the sport’s history, making him one of the best jockeys during his racing days.
He has ridden 15 Breeders Cup winners, four Triple Crown winners, including the two winners of the Kentucky Derby. In 2018 Velazquez won his 6,000th race.
Venezuelan’s are among the best jockeys
Gustavo Ávila is a pioneer of Venezualan Jockeys
Venezuela has produced many of the world’s best jockeys. One of the pioneers is Gustavo Ávila from Caracas, Venezuela. In 1971 he won two legs of the Triple Crown aboard Canonero II, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
Canonero II was also from Venezuela and became a Latino star. During his trip from Venezuela, the horse lost 70 pounds while being quarantined. The weight loss probably tolled on the horse and cost him the triple crown. Avila is one of only four riders to win the Kentucky Derby and the Caribbean Derby.
Ramón A. Domínguez won 160 graded stakes race
Ramón A. Domínguez emigrated to the United States in 1996 from Venezuela. In 2001 and 2003, he was the winningest jockey in the U.S. In 2004 he had the highest winning percentage of all American Jockeys. Making him one of the best jockeys.
Ramon Dominguez won three consecutive Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey and led all North American riders in earnings in 2012. He also was the leading jockey in wins in 2001 and 2002. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s 2016 Hall of Fame class.
By the time Dominguez retired, he was just shy of 5,000 wins, including 160 graded races, 44 Grade 1 events, and three Breeders’ Cup races.
Javier Castellano owns the single-season purse record
Javier Castellano is one of the best Jockeys of all time. He has over 5,200 wins and is still riding. Javier Castellano began riding in Venezuela and moved to the United States to ride at race tracks in Florida in 1997. In 2001 he transferred to New York, which offered more opportunities.
In 2004 Castellano won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, becoming a regular in the winners’ circle. By 2016 he amassed seven career Breeder Cup victories, including consecutive wins from 2012-2015.
Castellon won the Preakness in 2006 and set a new record for purse earnings in 2013 with $26,213,507. He won four straight Eclipse Awards from 2013-2016 and led all Jockeys in earning for each of these years and breaking his own annual earnings record. In 2017 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.