The last-minute pick-up mount on Saturday at Santa Anita had jockey Geovanni Franco and agent Jim Giannone dreaming big. With Joel Rosario feeling under the weather, Franco was gifted the opportunity to ride Grade 1 winner Next Shares in the G2 San Gabriel Stakes.
“When my agent told me, I got really excited,” said Franco, 27. “He settled back second-to-last but then came home running so hard. I smooched to him in the turn and he just started running, then in the very last jump got his head down. He did like a double stride; his neck was coming up but he kept it low and reached for the wire.”
Next Shares won the three-way photo over Liam the Charmer and Cleopatra's Strike, and gave Franco his first win of the 2019 season. If the Mexican-born rider continues his current progression, said agent Giannone, he'll be one to watch over the coming year.
“He's only about 70 percent as good as I think he can be,” Giannone said. “He's still got some things to learn, to get better at, but he's on the right track and keeps working to improve himself every day.”
It wasn't always that way, however. Franco had a tough start to life as a street kid in Mexico City and dropped out of high school at age 16. Though his grandfather and some of his uncles had had horses in the past, all were gone by the time he was old enough to have gotten involved. One of his uncles by marriage happened to be a horseshoer, and Franco took to following the man through his work days.
Eventually the uncle gave him a job as his assistant, but the 5'5” Franco was just too small to be working underneath the horses every day. His uncle suggested that Franco try the other side of the horse – the top half.
Walking on to the racetrack for the first time, Franco distinctly remembered the smell.
“When it hit me, it was like… it didn't disgust me, it was a good smell,” he explained. “I was like, ‘oh yeah, that smells like horses.' The exercise riders looked so cool to me, riding around with their short irons and the horses' heads bowed. I wanted to be like them.”
Franco began his professional career in 2009, winning his first race in March at the Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City. By 2013 Franco had hooked up with Giannone and earned the leading rider title at Turf Paradise, but problems were just around the corner.
“I guess I believed (success) was just gonna happen no matter what,” Franco admitted, somewhat sheepishly. “I am a jockey, you know. (laughs) I was just young… I didn't pay as much attention to my career as I should have.”
His work ethic, never the most reliable of Franco's features, dwindled noticeably, and some bad advice from other riders had him not giving 100 percent when riding for trainers other than his main barn. Franco's attitude was poor as well, which Giannone attributed to the jockey getting “a big head,” which is a problem since jockeys' helmets are a very small size four.
“It was frustrating because I knew how smart he was,” said Giannone, explaining that Franco had been able to learn English in less than six months. “It helped when we hooked up with (Robertino) Diodoro, and (Franco) got a taste of what a good horse was. He started wanting it more… I think the real turning point was when we talked and I explained to him how he could be supporting his family (in Mexico) with his earnings, making sure they had the things he never did.
“In the beginning, I thought maybe there was something wrong with his back because he would stand hunched over and not look anyone in the eye. He'd lag behind me through the barns and I'd have to yell at him to get up here with me… Now, I have to yell at him to slow down so I can keep up, and everybody back there just seems to love him.”
Franco didn't shy away from admitting he'd gotten lazy, but it's clear that is no longer the case. He's hungry.
“It's nice and all to be the leading rider at Turf Paradise, but I was watching the races at the big tracks like Santa Anita and Churchill Downs and Saratoga and thinking… well, anybody would want to be there,” Franco said. “I wanted to ride at Santa Anita and to be a good jockey, and it was scary thinking that it might not happen because I didn't give it my best.”
He buckled down. Giannone described that Franco would walk around the track for the first nine months in Southern California with a stopwatch, working on his pacing, and how he learned to be able to admit to his mistakes in order to correct them.
Franco won the G2 Oaklawn Handicap with Inside Straight in 2017, and his first Grade 1 win came in early 2018 aboard Fault in the Santa Margarita.
The jockey still finds himself in awe of the kinds of horses racing every day at Santa Anita.
“I just didn't know how good horses could be,” he said.
On opening day at Santa Anita, Dec. 26, Franco recalled his ride in the G1 Malibu Stakes aboard frontrunner Calexman, who wound up sixth behind McKinzie.
“I smooched to my horse at the 2 ½, he's responding and opened up by a couple lengths, length and a half, and I really believed I could win it,” said Franco. “Then I see McKinzie coming, and then he goes right by me. I swear I never heard a horse doing that – he was so fast he was almost whistling, just breaking through the noise of the crowd. That was amazing. I didn't think of how I was losing or anything else, I was just watching him with my jaw dropped open and thinking ‘That is so cool!'
“I can't even imagine riding a horse like McKinzie… I'd like to be in those kinds of races on those kinds of horses.”
Next Shares certainly fit that bill, said Franco, but the jockey also works hard to be honest to every single horse he rides. It's easy to notice that he is one of those riders who pats his horse after every race, win or lose; it's one of the many lessons his “life coach” and friend Giannone has taught him.
“We are established now, so now we just keep getting better,” Franco said of the coming year. “I'm more religious now than I used to be, more of a believer, but it's like this movie I was watching… I think you just have to believe in something and that will get you through.
“Hope is for free, after all.”
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