Puerto Rican jockeys have been making a big impact on North American racing ever since Angel Cordero first threw his leg over a Thoroughbred. Following him were names like John Velazquez, Irad and Jose Ortiz, and Manny Franco, among others. This generation of jockeys had one thing in common: they all attended the state-sponsored jockey school that operates at Camarero Racetrack.
For Edgar Morales, however, attending the school just wasn't a possibility. His family lives in Aibonito, a mountainous city near the center of the island, while Camarero is in the northeast, at least an hour and a half drive away, and the family did not own a car.
Nonetheless, 20-year-old Morales is currently leading the jockey standings at Churchill Downs' Fall Meet, and he has vaulted to the top of the conversation for the Eclipse Awards' Outstanding Apprentice Jockey.
The only other apprentice to win a meet title at Churchill Downs was Julien Leparoux in the Spring of 2006.
A quiet and affable person, Morales' eyes light up when he talks about the possibility of winning the Eclipse Award.
“I don't know how you find out about something like that,” he said, laughing. “But it was one of our goals to try to see if we could win the Eclipse; it would help us to get more business.”
Ever practical, Morales is preparing to work even harder after losing the “bug,” or weight allowance granted to apprentice jockeys, on Nov. 17. His journeyman status doesn't seem to have affected his ability to win races beneath the Twin Spires: Morales recorded wins on both Saturday and Sunday last weekend, and his 17 total wins at the fall meet have him three ahead of his nearest competitor.
Former jockey-turned-agent Julio Espinoza isn't at all surprised at Morales' success. In fact, the agent represented Morales' older brother, Roberto, when he first came to Kentucky in 2011.
“He's come a long ways,” Espinoza said. “His brother sent him to me. He's one of the smartest riders I've ever had. He listens, first of all, and he's naturally intelligent anyways. He's polite, quiet. Everybody likes him, and that's a big key.”
Roberto Morales had the advantage of being able to attend the Puerto Rican jockey school and developed a good business in Louisiana, but circumstances had changed by the time his younger brother graduated high school at age 16.
Used to “racing” the family's Paso Finos with his friends, Edgar Morales wasn't a total stranger to horsemanship. When Roberto sent him a plane ticket to meet up in Louisiana, however, Edgar quickly realized Thoroughbreds were a whole different ball game.
Edgar Morales started from the bottom of the racetrack totem pole. He hotwalked horses for several months, then learned how to be groom through the rest of his first year in the U.S. Throughout this time Morales worked in the barn of trainer Karl Broberg, supervised by assistant trainer Abel Ramirez.
Near the end of the meeting at Evangeline Downs in 2016, Ramirez started putting Morales up on horses in the shed row at the barn. He learned how to jog the horses in the barn, then went out to the racetrack alongside a lead pony to learn how to gallop them. By the time the team arrived at Delta Downs, Morales was able to pass the test for his exercise rider's license.
Morales spent another year galloping for both Broberg and trainer Carl Deville in Louisiana, then traveled to Florida with Efren Loza, Jr. He spent a couple months in Miami before Loza shipped him and a pair of horses up to Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
“I was in the stall working on my horse when I heard someone call out, 'Hey Julio,'” Morales recalled. “I thought to myself, 'Julio? Maybe it's my brother's agent,' and I went out and introduced myself to him.”
With just the two horses to gallop and care for, Morales got done with his chores early in the mornings so that he and Espinoza would have time to walk around the barns, introducing the prospective jockey to the local trainers. Morales worked up to breezing horses for several of those trainers, and Espinoza followed up those breezes with specific pointers as well as afternoon lessons at his home aboard the Equicizer.
“He showed me how to use the whip because I'd never used one before,” said Morales. “We worked on how to push the horse, where to push my cross down on the horse's neck, and how to hold the horse straight when I'm using one hand on the reins.”
Morales' first win came in the fall of 2017 aboard Tom Van Berg trainee Star Dog, flying from last of the 12-horse field to hit the wire a half-length in front. It was only his fifth career starter.
“We came from behind, so it was really emotional,” Morales said.
Describing the traditional celebration of a jockey's first career win, when his fellow riders pelted him with cold buckets of water and held him down to pour baby powder and even eggs over top of him, Morales specifically recalled how difficult it was to get the chocolate sauce out of his hair.
Since that first win, Morales has compiled 104 victories from 978 starts; 96 of those wins came in 2018. He tied for second in the summer jockey standings at Ellis Park with 24 victories and won nine races during the Keeneland meeting.
His apprenticeship may be over, but Morales' talent and work ethic haven't wavered. Of course, that come-from-behind feeling of his first win is still the young jockey's favorite part of the game.
“The hard part is making weight, first, and then figuring out where and when to make your move,” Morales said. “The best is when you start passing people and you know you're going to win.”
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