Tampa Bay Downs jockey Andres Ulloa got a taste of the big time in 2016 when he traveled to Santa Anita to watch his older brother, Gonzalo Ulloa Perez, ride Chilean-bred Kitcat in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
Although Kitcat finished near the back of the pack, Andres soaked up the splendor and majesty of Breeders' Cup weekend, leaving southern California with the determination to achieve success in the United States.
The 22-year-old Ulloa, who won about 80 races at Club Hipico de Santiago in Chile's capital, has yet to become a household name among Tampa Bay Downs horsemen and fans, riding only two winners. He and trainer Pedro Sobarzo, who is also from Chile, joke about Ulloa's anonymity, even in the Oldsmar racing office.
“I put in two entries and said Ulloa is going to ride both,” Sobarzo said, “and the (entry clerk) said ‘Who?' I said ‘No, not who – ooh-YO-a.' I had to point to his name (in the condition book) before they knew who I meant.”
The Ulloa name is much better known in Santiago, where Andres grew up as the youngest of eight brothers, six of whom became jockeys. Gonzalo and Hernan ride in Chile, while Mauricio and Eduardo have retired, although the latter works as an exercise rider in New York.
Brother Oscar, 28, is currently riding at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. The brothers' late father, Hernan Ulloa, was also a successful jockey.
Andres won his first race stateside in October at Gulfstream Park West aboard the 2-year-old gelding Jackism for trainer Dennis Ward. His Tampa Bay Downs victories came on Dec. 2 aboard Sobarzo's gelding Pep the Champ, a 19-1 shot, and on Jan. 3 with the 6-year-old gelding Malekith for trainer Luis Carvajal, Jr.
That's not enough to get better known outside the Ulloa household, but Carvajal – the trainer of TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint runner-up and Eclipse Award finalist Imperial Hint – is impressed by what he's seen of the youngster.
“I don't know him very well, but I like his style of riding. He has good hands and a good saddle (way of sitting on a horse),” said Carvajal, himself from Chile. “He is very professional in his approach, and you can tell he loves what he's doing.
“I've been using him a little more in the mornings to work horses, and I think he has a great future because he loves to work.”
Whether or not he rides any races, Ulloa embraces each day as a learning opportunity, the chance to see where he needs to improve to make a career in the United States. He works as many as 6-to-8 horses in the mornings, eager to make an impression.
“I want to get experience,” said Ulloa, who worked as an exercise rider for New York trainers Barclay Tagg and Mark Hennig in 2015. “I feel good here and it's exciting to get paid for what I like, but I know I have a lot to learn.
“I just need more chances. I'm hungry to win races,” he said.
The 75-year-old Sobarzo, who also rode briefly in Chile, helps Ulloa absorb knowledge from each race by reviewing replays and explaining what he could have done differently. One major point of emphasis: the need to engage a horse from the outset in a racing environment where early speed is often more of a factor.
“In Chile, riders love to come from behind, and Andres is a strong finisher. Here, you need to be sharp in the gate, and even if you are on a come-from-behind horse, you need to break well,” Sobarzo said. “He learns something new every day.”
Ulloa pays attention to every bit of insight. Like all Chilean jockeys, he idolizes Jose Santos, the Hall of Famer, who helped him through the licensing procedure in south Florida.
While at the Breeders' Cup, Ulloa marveled at the skill and powerful grace of Gary Stevens; here, he watches such Oldsmar veterans as six-time leading jockey Daniel Centeno and two-time champion and Preakness winner Jesus Castanon, knowing the only way their magic might rub off is through his own extreme dedication and desire.
“It's my dream in life to be a jockey,” said Ulloa, whose girlfriend of the last year, Joanna, is a hot-walker at Gulfstream. “My brothers have been successful, and I want to make them proud of me and have people know who I am.”
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