By Edmy Ayala
You probably don’t know this, but Puerto Rico has given the United States some of the best jockeys in the history of professional horse raices. And to add to your shock, John Velázquez, a Hall of Fame jockey born, raised and educated on the island, became the first rider in history to reach the figure of $ 300 million in money accumulated by his ride in 2014.
And the sport on the island has a very rich and interesting 136 year old history.
But, let us go back a bit…
Horse racing on the flat (yes, there is more than one type of horse race) is a sport of running horses at speed, mainly Thoroughbreds with a rider astrid. Thoroughbreds are horses of pure breed, especially of a breed originating from English mares and Arab stallions and widely used as racehorses.
Although knowledge of the very first horse race is lost in prehistory, four-hitch chariot and mounted races were held in the Olympic Games of Greece over the period 700–40 BCE, informal horse races has been taking place in Puerto Rico since the 16th century. So, yes, it’s an old sport.
Everything began with the arrival of the first horses to Puerto Rico brought by the Spanish conquerors. During the colonial period, in the cobbled streets of Old San Juan horse races were held in celebration of saints. It was there, in the capital, where the Puerto Ricans’ love for horse races was born.
By 1911, the first thoroughbreds arrived in Puerto Rico, Meteoro and Covadonga. These imports added quality to the show and it resulted in an increase in bets. This brought the need to regulate the play and on November 13, 1913, the law that created the Horse Racing Commission was approved to take charge of overseeing the sport.
Organized island races
At the end of the 19th century, the races began to be held in a semi-organized form. During the first decade of the 20th century, a racecourse was inaugurated in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. A few years later, there were three different main racecourses on the Island (Las Casas, Quintana and Las Monjas).
It was not until January 1957 that the El Comandante racetrack was inaugurated, in Carolina, P.R., at that time it became the only one on the island until the construction of El Comandante Racetrack, in Canóvanas, now known as our Camarero Racetrack and the only operating racecourse in the country.
Even though today the sport isn’t as popular as it once was, it is still celebrated by many die hard fans that live and breath the horse racing lifestyle.
The Vocational Equestrian Agustín Mercado Reverón School (Escuela Vocacional Hípica), the only one of its kind on the island, is located in the Hipódromo Camarero in Canóvanas Puerto Rico. Its mission is to prepare students to become riders, gallopers, stable boys, blacksmiths and trainers; and it does it all for free.
What kind of jockeys graduate from this school? Kentucky Derby winning type. Such as John Velázquez and the Ortiz Brothers. One legend and two of the sports rising stars, all three are leaders on the New York tracks.
During the first three months in the school, the students learn the theory of the sport, mainly equine science and anatomy. During this period, they clean, groom, bathe and walk the horses. Then they train the balance ability. After that, the racecourse awaits!
Many don’t make the cut, but some of those who do go on to become legends, locally and internationally.
“From Puerto Rico to the World”
Maybe it is because Puerto Rico is among the main generators of these agile athletes. Many riders who get their start in Puerto Rico decide to try their luck in the United States standing out in their performances
Jockey stars like Eddie Belmonte, the first Puerto Rican jockey to compete in the Kentucky Derby and Ángel Tomas Cordero Jr., the first Puerto Rican to be inducted into the United States’ Racing Hall of Fame, and Angel Cordero Jr. Belmonte, who gave Puerto Rico the first triumph in American Triple Crown races when he won the Preakness of 1970 on top of Personality, among many others who have proven themselves on the track.
John R. Velazquez is a 47 year old American jockey in Thoroughbred horse racing who began his career as a jockey in Puerto Rico. He began riding in mainland US in 1990. By 2004 and 2005 he was the United States Champion Jockey by earnings and both years was given the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey.
He was inducted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2012, rode his 5,000th winner in 2013, and became the leading money-earning jockey in the history of the sport in 2014. (Brilliant, I know!)
In 2017, a crowd of 158,070 watched John Velázquez and Always Dreaming win the Kentucky Derby, making it the seventh biggest attendance in the history of the racetrack. The track reported a wagering total of $209.2 million from all the sources on all the races on the Kentucky Derby Day program. He enjoys $386,299,599 in lifetime earnings.
Always Dreaming, ridden by John Velazquez, won in 2017 the 143rd Kentucky Derby at Louisville’s Churchill Down
As of the sports young Puerto Rican rising stars…
The Ortiz brothers
José Ortiz, 24, and Irad Ortiz Jr., 25, are a pair of brothers born, raised and educated in Puerto Rico who have gone to become leading riders and winners on the New York tracks. They are also third generation jockeys. Their grandfather, also named Irad Ortiz, was a jockey, and so is their uncle, Ivan Ortiz.
Irad Jr. has been a leading rider in the New York Thoroughbred horse racing circuit since 2012. He won his first Breeders’ Cup race on Lady Eli in 2014, and his first American Classic on Creator in the 2016 Belmont Stakes. He has amassed $127,282,015 in lifetime earnings.
José also came to the New York tracks in 2012. By 2016, he was the leading jockey in North America by number of wins, including his first win at the Breeders’ Cup. In 2017, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey after he led the earnings list and won his first Triple Crown race, the 2017 Belmont Stakes. He has $111,240,550 in lifetime earnings.
All three of them graduated from the two-year program at Escuela Vocacional Hípica, the state-run jockey academy, which operates out of a basement at the Hipódromo track in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico.
Locally, between seven thousand and eight thousand people work everyday to keep the sport alive. Wanna bet?
What can we say? Puerto Rico does breed excellence!
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