Jockey Abel Cedillo's first Grade 1 win, achieved Sept. 28 aboard Mongolian Groom in the Awesome Again Stakes, wasn't just a milestone for the 30-year-old from Guatemala. The victory also brought about a sense of validation for his agent, Tom Knust, who brought the rider to the Southern California circuit this summer.
Knust has handled the books of high-profile riders like Kent Desormeaux, Pat Valenzuela, and Mario Gutierrez, but he took a chance on Cedillo because he kept seeing him on the simulcast feed from Golden Gate Fields.
“On that synthetic surface up there, you have to have a lot of patience,” Knust explained. “Abel had that, and he was a very good judge of pace and a strong finisher. I just liked how he would get his horses in a rhythm, and then he was always very smart with where he was in the turn to give them the best shot to win the race.”
Cedillo was well-established in Northern California, with over 1,000 wins since he started there in 2010. But when Knust sent word via trainer Jonathan Wong that he'd be interested in meeting with Cedillo, the rider jumped at the opportunity to fly down for a meeting.
“My dream is to ride big races like the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup and for that, I thought this is a good place to come,” said Cedillo.
He and the agent hit it off right away, and they shook hands on a deal. Cedillo finished out the meeting at Golden Gate, then moved his tack down for the start of Del Mar's summer season. After a bit of a slow start, Cedillo picked up momentum and finished out that meeting with 25 wins, good enough for third in the jockey standings.
Currently, Cedillo is tied with Drayden Van Dyke at seven wins to top the standings at Santa Anita Park.
“I knew he could ride, I knew he had the ability, but you never know until they show it here,” Knust said. “Sometimes it takes them longer to get going, but he had the support of a lot of trainers down here, and (trainer) Jonathan Wong deserves credit for putting him on good horses in the Bay Area and giving him the chance to succeed and be where he's at right now.”
Though Knust might prefer to divert the credit to others, his experience in the Thoroughbred game plays a big role in his riders' success.
He didn't grow up with horses, however. A Vietnam veteran, Knust was shot in 1967 and required more than a year and a half of rehabilitation. While PTSD often went undiagnosed in military veterans back then, Knust found that working with horses on the racetrack was especially helpful to his mental recovery from the physical injury.
“It just gave me purpose,” he explained succinctly.
Eventually Knust got his own trainer's license, and later attended the University of Arizona's Racetrack Industry Program. From there, Knust worked his way into the racing secretary position at Santa Anita.
When the Stronach Group purchased the track in 1998 and overhauled the existing management, Knust decided to try his hand at being a jockey's agent. Twenty years later, the vocation still suits him.
Two of the most important things that make a jockey successful are a good attitude and a strong work ethic, the veteran agent explained. In Cedillo, Knust has found a rider with both those qualities.
“The first thing I noticed was what a good person he was,” Knust said. “He works every day, breezing seven to nine each morning, and never complains. He rides a 30-1 shot just as hard as the favorite… He made the decision that he wanted to be here and work hard, and he's even looking for a house for his wife and 3-year-old son.”
Cedillo dreams about riding in the big races, and Knust expects to be able to line up four or five mounts in the Breeders' Cup next month. The victory with Mongolian Groom, whose connections are now expected to supplement their horse to the Classic, is particularly exciting.
“It wasn't just the race that was impressive,” said Knust. “Look at the gallop out, way in front of the field. He came out of the race in good shape and with so much energy, so you'd have to think he will move forward from that effort.”
Last Sunday Cedillo also piloted Paradise Woods to a “Win and You're In” victory in the G2 Zenyatta, and he is expected retain that mount for the Distaff. In September, he won the G2 Pocahontas at Churchill Downs with Lazy Daisy and finished second in the G1 Chandelier with Comical, so he has a choice to make for the Juvenile Fillies.
“It's just been a case of being in the right place at the right time and being able to take advantage of a good opportunity,” Knust said. “He knows it's a game of streaks, but the hope is that we can average out to be successful.”
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