Norberto Arroyo Jr. could always ride. His problems began when the races were over.
Now 35 years old, Arroyo is making a comeback after serving time in prison on drug charges stemming from an August 2009 arrest for cocaine possession in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. It wasn't his first brush with the law.
After being released from prison earlier this year, Arroyo, his wife Brenda and four children relocated from New York to Kentucky, and he began the process of trying to get his racing license reinstated. He received a conditional license from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in October and got back in the saddle at the start of the Turfway Park meeting that began Nov. 29.
From just 19 mounts, he's ridden seven winners, with two seconds and a third. Arroyo's two victories on Friday night put him atop the Turfway Park jockey standings and only two wins shy of 1,000 career winners. Thanks to agent Scott Ward, he's got a busy weekend, with nine scheduled mounts on Saturday and seven on Sunday.
Arroyo tells Daily Racing Form's Marty McGee that “everything is going in the right direction. I've got the tools back after being off over three years. I'm feeling as good as I used to.”
Arroyo was New York's winningest jockey in 2000 when he rode 188 winners, though he lost out to Tyler Baze in that year's Eclipse Award voting for outstanding apprentice. Baze has had his own problems with alcohol addiction and only recently returned to riding in Southern California after a year-long absence.
“It's not going to be like before where I let myself get into the wrong spots,” Arroyo told Daily Racing Form. “I've got a family that has been there for me. I'm not letting them down.”
If that sounds familiar, let's flash back to late July 2009, when the Albany Times-Union profiled Arroyo, who at the time was coming back from a six-month suspension imposed by the New Jersey Racing Commission.
“I'm taking things a lot more serious than I ever have,” Arroyo said in 2009. “I've had my problems in life, but this time I hit the bottom.”
Less than three weeks later, he was found in possession of 12 grams of cocaine during a traffic stop only blocks away from Saratoga racecourse.
A lot of people are hoping this comeback lasts a lot longer.
UPDATE: In Saturday's 10th race at Turfway Park, Arroyo reached the 1,000-win milestone aboard Mac the Man. Following is a press release from Turfway Park:
Jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. counted his 1,000th career win Saturday when Mac the Man made a sweeping move on the turn to get home first by 8 1/2 lengths in the 10th race at Turfway Park.
The winner's circle was crowded with family and fans wishing Arroyo well as he continues a budding comeback. The jockey's success on the racetrack periodically has been sidetracked by legal troubles, most recently a 30-month prison sentence for a drug conviction handed down in New York in 2010. He was released after one year and returned to riding this fall on the strength of a conditional license granted by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. It's an opportunity he recognizes and appreciates.
“Nobody has any idea what this means to me,” said Arroyo, married and the father of four. “These last three-and-a-half years have been very, very tough, not only on me but on my family. I put my kids through hell by making the mistake I made and going away. Nobody thought that I would get back, but when times seemed impossible, I never lost my faith in God, and I knew it was going to happen sometime. Right now what's happening is God's will, so let it be done.
“The horse racing industry is going to see an Arroyo they've never seen before. I finally learned my lesson. I learned it the hard way, but I learned it.”
Arroyo, a 35-year-old native of Puerto Rico, began riding in 1999, winning with his third mount, Iron Lady, on June 9 at Rockingham Park. He was runner-up for the Eclipse Award as Thoroughbred racing's leading apprentice in 2000 and was New York's leading rider that year.
Among Arroyo's 1,000 wins are 65 stakes races, 14 of them graded. Most of those trophies were earned in New York, but the biggest win of his career came at Turfway in 2003 aboard New York Hero in the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes (G2), now the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes. Altogether, from 7,317 mounts, Arroyo has accumulated purse earnings of more than $38 million.
Arroyo immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 11 years old. He played baseball and basketball in early high school but when he realized he would not gain the height to continue those sports, he shifted his attention to race riding. A cousin, Enrique Arroyo, now an East Coast-based trainer, was a leading rider in Puerto Rico in the mid-1980s and introduced him to the sport.
Arroyo intends to continue riding at Turfway through the track's winter meet, which ends March 30.
Mac the Man, a 2-year-old El Corredor colt, is trained by Jeff Greenhill for his wife, owner Sherri Greenhill. The win was his second in five starts, all on all-weather surfaces. Arroyo said the colt didn't look the best on form but warming up he knew he had the best horse.
“He's still learning how to run, really,” the jockey said. “Leaving the half-mile pole I started to get a little bit into him, just helping him pay attention. Then at the three-eighths pole I started smooching at him, and from the quarter-pole I didn't have to do much.”
Saturday's 10th race, an allowance test over 6 1/2 furlongs, was a prep for the Turfway Prevue Stakes on Jan. 5, itself the first of three preps for the Spiral Stakes in March.
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