For the second straight year, the road to the Eclipse Award for champion apprentice jockey is winding its way through Maryland.
Julio Correa, a 25-year-old native of Caguas, Puerto Rico, notched seven wins in the last four racing days to enter the final weekend of Laurel Park's summer stand as its leading rider, having passed Trevor McCarthy, who has won four straight meets since returning to Maryland full-time last fall.
Correa holds a 29-26 advantage over McCarthy as he chases his first riding title, less than nine months into a professional career launched last fall at Parx and less than five since moving his tack Maryland's competitive jockey colony. His 157 mounts are also tops among Laurel's riders, while his $789,948 in purse earnings rank third.
“I'm really happy. This meet has been a surprise. It's really nice,” Correa said. “Thank God, it's been a good meet. Everybody has supported me, and I appreciate that. I've been working hard in the morning for a lot of good trainers, and they give me a chance.”
Correa, who officially began his apprenticeship in mid-February and currently rides with a five-pound weight allowance, may get his chance at a bigger prize. According to Equibase, his 80 wins were the most in the country among apprentice riders, 17 more than Gulfstream Park-based Cristian Torres.
Starting with future Hall of Famer Chris McCarron in 1974, Maryland-based riders have won 11 of the 45 Eclipse Awards for apprentice jockey including Weston Hamilton (2018) and Victor Carrasco (2013), both of whom are regulars on the Maryland circuit at Laurel and Pimlico Race Course.
“I don't have words for it. I just work hard every day. If it happens, it would be good for me and good for my career,” Correa said. “I just have to keep working hard and trying to do my best in every race.”
Correa attended the famed Escuela Vocacional Hipica jockey school in Puerto Rico, whose graduates include Hall of Famer John Velazquez, Eclipse Award-winning brothers Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz, Maryland's 2018 champion rider Jorge Vargas Jr., Carrasco and Jevian Toledo, the Maryland champion in 2015 and 2017. Carrasco and Toledo each share a hometown with Correa.
While spending a year working for veteran horsewoman Patricia Farro at Parx, Correa made his U.S. debut July 21, 2018 at Parx, an amateur race with a field that included riders Victor Rosales and Felix A. Pinero, both of whom also call Maryland home.
Correa rode his first professional race Nov. 20, 2018 at Parx, finishing sixth with This Might Be for trainer Jose Bobadilla. Winless in eight more mounts to end the calendar year, Correa registered his first win on his 29th try, aboard Rings of Jupiter Feb. 2 at Parx.
It was at Parx where Correa, who also had the odd mount at Penn National and Aqueduct over the winter, drew the attention of Mark Mace, a veteran agent whose client list over the years has included Hall of Famer Ramon Dominguez, Rosie Napravnik, Jeremy Rose, Alex Cintron and Carol Cedeno.
Mace brought Correa to Maryland and lined up morning work with trainers such as Pimlico-based Mark Reid, Laurel's Dale Capuano, Hamilton Smith and Kieron Magee, and James 'Chuck' Lawrence II at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. By mid-March, Correa was a regular name on the overnight.
Correa won his first race in Maryland March 22 at Laurel aboard Midnight Games for trainer Juan Vazquez, and it didn't take long to settle in. On March 29 he registered his first three-win day on a single card, also having won twice at Parx and once at Penn National Feb. 23.
Since then, Correa has added two more hat tricks – the most recent coming Aug. 8 at Laurel – and overall owns 18 multi-win days including back-to-back days May 25 and 26 during the Preakness Meet at Pimlico.
“I think he is a tremendously talented young man, I really do,” Reid said. “I remember his agent called me up and said, 'I'm watching a rider ride and he looks like an older rider when he sits on a horse. He doesn't look like a bug boy.' He said, 'This guy has a huge future. Would you consider riding him?'
“I've been kind of [opposed to] the higher weights here in Maryland. The 126 and 125 [pounds] for these little fillies to start, I think, is too high,” he added. “I was looking for an excuse to use the bug. Mark brought him around and he's a real personable kid, a nice boy. He looks like a New York rider, he really does.”
Correa put his horsemanship on display while guiding 3-year-old gelding Marco Island to a narrow victory Aug. 8 for Reid. Pressed in the early going up front before establishing a comfortable lead, Correa remained composed after losing the advantage in mid-stretch and urged his horse on again to get up by a nose.
“He can really finish. He finishes a horse not like a bug boy. He sits still. I was watching him turn for home on Marco Island; he's peeking under his shoulder as they're running up to him. I'm saying, 'Oh, no.' But he's just so calm and has everything under control,” Reid said. “If things go well and barring injuries and everything, I think he has a big future in the game.”
Reid praised Correa's work ethic, which includes a morning regimen that has him working horses both at Laurel and Pimlico, separated by 45 minutes on the highway – on a good traffic day.
“Normally, kids get to winning and they get a little cocky. This kid, he goes to Laurel in the morning, gets on a bunch, and when the break hits he's at Pimlico at my place. Then he hustles out of there and is right back to Laurel to start riding,” Reid said. “I have nothing at all but positives about him. I think he's a really good rider and it's my intention to keep right on riding him.”
At the current meet, Correa and Reid have clicked at a 27 percent win rate and a 73 percent in the money ratio with seven wins, eight seconds and four thirds from 26 tries, with $173,013 in purse earnings.
“The only issue with him is if we can hold him around here. I think come the fall, he has New York-type talent. I really believe that,” Reid said. “As long as we can have him, I've got to use him because he is a tremendous young rider.”
For his part, Correa is focusing on the short term. He has four days remaining until closing day Aug. 18 to maintain his lead over McCarthy, who ranks seventh in the country among all jockeys with 157 wins.
“Trevor, he is very quiet. He is a very nice rider. He's hard to beat,” Correa said. “My agent, he does a great job and I'm just trying to do the best I can.”
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