Tampa Bay Downs jockey Raul Mena was 19 when his mount failed to negotiate the turn in a race at Valparaiso Sporting Club in Chile, throwing him to the ground like a rag doll and placing his budding career in jeopardy.
Mena spent the next six weeks in a comatose state, while doctors and family members marveled he had survived an accident that resulted in broken vertebrae, busted ribs and a broken collarbone. Seven months went by before he was cleared to continue his career.
There were no second thoughts for Mena, who was determined to be a race-rider from the first time his father, Raul Mena, Sr., exposed him to the racetrack.
“It's the dream for a lot of young people in my country, and after my father helped me find a racetrack job as a groom when I was 14, I knew it was what I wanted to do,” said Mena, the Senor Tequila Mexican Grill Jockey of the Month at Tampa Bay Downs.
“My father taught me the way of the horses when I was growing up, and he still works on the racetrack,” said the Santiago, Chile product, who entered jockeys' school at 16. “I've always loved the horses. That's the passion all of us (jockeys) have, and you can't ride without it.”
Mena says his faith was unshaken by that 2011 accident; if anything, he feels it was strengthened. Maybe it's something only jockeys, or trapeze artists, or race-car drivers, can understand.
“God made a miracle in my life,” said the outgoing 26-year-old, who is married to exercise rider Jaqueline Cabral, herself a former jockey. “I put all my confidence in Him. He gives me the strength to keep going.”
Although he is seventh in the Oldsmar standings with 23 victories, Mena went through a 0-for-36 streak from March 1-17. Granted, Eddie Arcaro would have been hard-pressed to win on most of his mounts, but that kind of cold spell can be damaging to a young jockey's psyche.
From all accounts, Mena was unfazed. He has posted six victories since to claim the honor, including today's seventh race with 4-year-old Florida-bred colt Lord Barna for owner DiBello Racing and trainer Kathleen O'Connell.
“Raul believes in himself a lot, and he always wants to do better,” said trainer Victor Carrasco, Jr. “Whether it's working horses in the morning or riding races, he always tries, and he'll give me his ideas on how a horse can do better next time.
“He's always so positive,” Carrasco added. “Even when something goes wrong, he believes something good is coming.”
For his part, Mena knows his best recourse is to greet each day with the same positive attitude and willingness to work that have helped him reach this point in his career. “You have to keep working every day. It (losing races) is part of the business. Tomorrow is another day,” he said.
Certainly, a jockey needs a positive mindset to expect to win on an 88-1 shot, as Mena did March 30 aboard 3-year-old colt Cambre for jockey-turned-trainer David Flores. But that gate-to-wire victory on the turf might not have happened had Mena not heeded advice from the conditioner after finishing third on Higgins, a 101-1 shot trained by Flores, several weeks earlier.
“He told me after that race I was putting too much pressure on the horse's mouth, and that I had to stay more relaxed to get my horse to relax,” Mena said. “When I rode (Cambre), I remembered that. He felt real relaxed and easy on the backside and gave me a good trip all the way around.
“I'm thankful (Flores) gave me that opportunity.”
One can reasonably expect the Senor Tequila Jockey of the Month Award won't cause Mena to become less humble or respectful, nor less willing to listen to those who have spent decades in the sport. Mentored early in his career by countryman and Hall of Fame jockey Jose Santos, he is eager to soak up knowledge from such Tampa Bay Downs veterans as Jesus Castanon, Willie Martinez and Antonio Gallardo.
“(Castanon) is like a father figure to me,” said Mena, “and all those guys are willing to help me because I'm young and I'm learning. If you want to learn and improve, you have to listen. You probably won't go too far if you keep making the same mistakes. But if you have the passion to be a jockey, you can learn from everybody.”
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2020 Paulick Report.