‘Bright Futures’: Apprentices Espinoza, Figeroa On The Rise In California

by | 07.27.2018 | 12:51pm
Heriberto Figueroa and Asa Espinoza

A year ago, 19-year-old Evin Roman was the talk of the Southern California Thoroughbred racing circuit. The native of Puerto Rico and graduate of the celebrated jockey school there became the first apprentice to be atop the jockey standings at Santa Anita since Gordon Glisson in 1949 when he tied Flavien Prat for the 2017 spring/summer title.

Roman would finish second to Prat at the subsequent Del Mar summer and fall meetings, but sweep three Los Alamitos titles and the Santa Anita fall meet en route to being voted an Eclipse Award as the year's top apprentice in North America.

Roman lost the “bug” – weight allowance as an apprentice – in March. But following in his path are two apprentices that are winning races and creating a stir similar to what Roman did a year ago.

Eighteen year olds Asa (pronounced AH-sa) Espinoza, the nephew of Hall of Fame rider Victor Espinoza, and Heriberto Figueroa, like Roman a native of Puerto Rico and honors graduate of the Escuela Vocacional Hipica, are the new sensations. And if they don't put up the kind of numbers that Roman did, well, it's their own fault for coming along at the same time.

“Evin had the advantage that he was the only apprentice at the talent level trainers were looking for,” said Brian Beach, agent for both Asa and his uncle Victor. “With these two (apprentices), there's competition and trainers have a choice. They affect each other's business.”

But weep not for the teenagers.

They're close friends. Figueroa, who had his driver's license when Espinoza did not, drove the carpool to Los Alamitos, where they were co-riding champions of the recently completed short meeting. And they're both apparently on the fast track to success for years to come.

“We're really good friends, we help each other out,” Figueroa said.

At the start of the Del Mar racing week on Wednesday, Espinoza had 42 wins from 290 starts. His horses had accounted for purse earnings of more than $1.17 million dollars. Figueroa had 31 wins from 177 starts and $643,206 in purse earnings.

And they're both doing what they've always wanted to do.

Asa's father, and Victor's brother, Leo, is a former jockey and trainer who is currently managing the family farm in Mexico. Asa was born in Arcadia, raised in Mexico, and returned to the U.S. for part of his senior year at Arcadia High, but dropped out to start riding professionally soon after turning 18 on December 30 of last year.

He rode his first race in February at Santa Anita, finishing third aboard 50-1 shot Misty Slew for trainer Vann Belvoir.

“In the jockey's room before the race people kept asking, 'Are you nervous,'” Asa recalled. “I was excited, but not nervous.”

He won his first race on February 23 at Santa Anita, a 1 ¾-length score aboard South Texas Lingo for Vladimir Cerin. “(South Texas Lingo) broke big and I was in a stalking position,” Asa said. “That was the horse's last race. After that, they retired him.”

Cerin had eye surgery on the day of the race. “I didn't see it, but they played the video for me and I heard it,” said Cerin, who has been impressed with Espinoza and has ridden him several times.

“You see him and he's got a big smile on his face all the time,” Cerin said. “That (attitude) is communicated to the horses and they run for him.”

By racing rules, the single year of apprentice status commences with a rider's fifth win, which Espinoza achieved on April 6th. From win five to win 40, apprentice riders are allowed a seven-pound break in weights, thereafter, five. Espinoza's win on Chasin Lucas for Mark Glatt in the first race here on Saturday, July 21, was No. 40 for him.

“His progress has been amazingly fast,” said Beach. “It's difficult to have your first mounts at Santa Anita and learn on the job and sometimes make mistakes at a major track as opposed to some of the smaller ones.

“But Asa has done very well.”

Figueroa, who is 22 days older than Espinoza, was the top graduate of the Puerto Rico jockey school – one year after Roman achieved the honor – and has followed Roman's path to Southern California. Ex-jockey-turned-agent Nelson Arroyo has provided key guidance and tutelage.

A contact in Puerto Rico sent Arroyo a tape of Figueroa riding and urged him to assess it for himself. “I said I'm not really looking for an apprentice.  But I saw him ride and immediately called the guy back and said 'I've got to have him,'” Arroyo recalled.

The established path for young riders out of Puerto Rico was to Florida and New York. Figueroa was tentatively ticketed along it, but Arroyo – as veteran agent Tony Matos had done with Roman – negotiated a detour to California.

The deal was finalized with Figueroa's mother, Wendy, after she got assurances from Arroyo, a father of five, that he would treat Heriberto “like one of his own.”

Figueroa won his fifth race, starting his one year apprenticeship, on March 15at Gulfstream Park on a horse for trainer Luis Cordero.

In Arroyo's opinion, the apprentice renaissance triggered by Roman and continued by Espinoza and Figueroa is far from over. “I guarantee you every kid at the academy in Puerto Rico was very aware of Roman and following him,” Arroyo said. “You're going to see more coming to California year after year. You look at the jockey colony and there are four or five riders that aren't likely to be around in five years.

“The Southern California jockey room is changing and there's a lot of opportunity for young riders right now.”

That's a good thing, said trainer Peter Miller.

“Out with the old, in with the new, it's the cycle of life,” Miller said. “We need the next generation. I ride them both and I think they're both very good. They're good out of the gate, they finish well and they switch sticks smoothly.

“I think both of them have bright futures.”

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