Six months ago, Angel A. Rodriguez was a fresh-faced 16-year-old with a dream. He had just graduated from the Academia Técnica de Formación de Jinetes Laffit Pincay Jr. at the Hipódromo Presidente Remón in Panama City, Panama – the riding school renamed by racetrack operator Codere in 2009 to honor the legendary jockey who launched his career in Panama. The school, which has evolved over the years to include educational classes for math, science, geography and English, has been the training ground for the likes of Hall of Famer riders Pincay, Manny Ycaza, Braulio Baeza, Jacinto Vasquez, Jorge Velasquez and Alex Solis.
Like those jockeys and others who came before him, Rodriguez had aspirations upon graduation last Dec. 8. Little did he realize how quickly some of them would come true.
Last Sunday, Rodriguez checked off one of the boxes on his wish list with a victory in the Clásico Presidente de la Republica – Panama's most prestigious horse race – aboard longshot Coltimus Prime, a Canadian-bred 6-year-old by Milwaukee Brew whose only previous stakes triumph came 15 races earlier in the 2014 Prince of Wales – the middle jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown – at Fort Erie.
The win came for Panama City native Rene Douglas, a graduate of the jockey academy whose own highly successful riding career was cut short in 2009 when he was severely injured in a spill at Arlington Park in Chicago. Douglas, confined to a wheelchair after being paralyzed from the chest down as a result of the accident, has transitioned to a new career as bloodstock agent and owner. He acquired Coltimus Prime earlier this year from Jayson Horner and Michael Weingarten's Cabernet Racing Stable in hopes of winning the Clásico in front of a hometown crowd.
Coltimus Prime was ridden by Wigberto Ramos in his lone prep in Panama.
Douglas had watched Rodriguez ride, was impressed by the skills the teenager demonstrated, and decided to give him a chance in the big race. He said he gave little in the way of instructions before the Clásico.
Rodriguez rode like a polished veteran, allowing Coltimus Prime to settle well off the pace while a trio of front-runners – including the favorite, California Music – rattled off fast early fractions in the 2,100-meters (about 1.3 miles) race.
He swung to the outside on the turn for home, took command in mid-stretch and drew off for the win.
The first thought that crossed his mind as Coltimus Prime hit the wire in front, Rodriguez said, was, “Thanks to God.”
“I am so fortunate,” the now 17-year-old said through a translator. “I felt confident I would get a mount in this race, but didn't really expect to win – not this soon.”
The victory was not just the biggest of his brief career – it set a milestone as his 60th career win, which formally completes his apprenticeship. He now races without the five-pound apprentice allowance.
“I'm now a professional,” a beaming Rodriguez said with pride.
Success has come quickly for the jockey since graduation day. He finished second aboard his initial mount, then won in his very next start. Since that day, he's shot toward the top of the jockey standings and is currently second by wins among all jockeys at Presidente Remon. He is winning at a 17 percent clip.
Though he said his favorite jockey is Camillo Pitty (a rider Andy Beyer once-described as horse racing's Roy Hobbs, the baseball character from The Natural), Rodriguez spends time watching plenty of American racing. He said he wants to someday compete with the likes of fellow Latin American jockeys John Velazquez, Javier Castellano and Irad and Jose Ortiz.
“My dream is to ride at Saratoga,” Rodriguez said with a bashful smile.
Don't bet against that happening. Sometimes dreams come true.
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