Diaz Savoring Eclipse Nomination As First Puerto Rico-Based Finalist For Apprentice Jockey

by | 01.23.2020 | 12:24pm
Angel Diaz

Apprentice jockey Angel Díaz had a very good first year riding at Camarero Racetrack in Puerto Rico – so good he was one of the finalists for this year's Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey.

In a September interview, journalist Moncho Nuñez asked Angel which jockey he most admired and looked up to.

“Juan Carlos Díaz,” responded Angel, without hesitation. “He owns the track in Puerto Rico.”

Now, in one of the most hard-fought competitions for lead jockey at any track, Angel Díaz has upset his idol by a two-race margin and he has been catapulted into the limelight. Díaz's nomination marked the first time a jockey who rides exclusively at the Puerto Rican Camarero Racetrack, rather than at racetracks in the mainland U.S., has received this kind of recognition. For those who have been there, it's a testament to the excellence of horse racing in Puerto Rico as well as the success of the Puerto Rican jockey school, the Escuela Vocacional Hípica Augustin Mercado Reverón (EVH), which has plied tracks across North America with talented riders for decades.

In addition to Díaz, three of the six jockeys nominated for Eclipse Awards are Puerto Rican and graduates of EVH. This list includes Irad Ortiz, José Ortiz, and Julio Correa.

Díaz graduated from the Puerto Rican jockey school in December 2018. In his first year as an apprentice jockey, Díaz logged 244 wins at Camarero in 2019, making him the lead jockey at that racetrack. He earned the title of track leader from internationally-known veteran jockey Juan Carlos Díaz, who has held the title for most wins per year since 2001. In a fierce competition between Angel Díaz and Juan Carlos Díaz, Angel closed out the year with 244 wins over Juan Carlos's 242.

Díaz won 5 races in a row on October 31, and continued his winning streak the next day, winning the first five races. It was the first time in history of the Camarero Racetrack that an apprentice jockey won 10 consecutive races. In the interview following the race, Díaz attributed his success to the instructors at the jockey school: Wilfredo “Willie” Lozano, Emilia Salinas, and Camilo Hernández, and thanked them for training him to ride so well.

Puerto Rican jockeys excel at racetracks throughout the United States. Irad Ortiz, Jose Ortiz, John Velazquez, Julio Correa, Jorge Vargas, Carol Cedeño, and Evin Roman all called the island and EVH home.

November 2, 2019: Vino Rosso, ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr., wins the Longines Breeders' Cup Classic on Breeders' Cup World Championship Saturday at Santa Anita Park on November 2, 2019: in Arcadia, California. Carolyn Simancik/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

Since the academy opened its doors in 1960, EVH alumni have already won eight Eclipse Awards in the last 15 years, and they have received many additional prizes and much recognition. Given that approximately only 10 riders graduate from the academy each year, the fact that the jockeys are dominating riding awards and track titles in the U.S. is all the more impressive.

“It fills me with pride to say that three of the five best jockeys racing in U.S. are Puerto Rican,” said José Maymó Azize, governmental representative and head of equine administration in Puerto Rico.

The jockeys stand as role models not only for young Latinos, but also for all who follow sports. The public arena of the track serves as a platform for the Puerto Rican athlete to claim a space and shape, in a broader sense, perceptions of Latinos within contemporary American society.

The graduates of the Puerto Rican jockey school dominate racetrack geography, in Puerto Rico at the fiercely competitive Camarero Racetrack, as well as throughout the United States, ranging from Santa Anita to Gulfstream to Canterbury to Louisiana Downs.

Riders at Camarero show off their diplomas from EVH

To become a jockey, a student must enroll for two years at the EVH. To enroll, students must apply, make the required weight of 103 pounds, and participate in an interview with director Ana Velázquez and the instructors. If students are selected for the school, instruction is free of charge but lodging is not included. If the student needs to complete their high school degree, they attend jockey school 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then go to high school classes offered on site from 2 to 6 p.m. In addition to the jockey program, the school also offers programs of study to become grooms, exercise riders, trainers, and farriers.

Days begin at 6 a.m. with hard work in the barn. Students clean the stalls, water horses, and prepare them for the track. The school first teaches aspiring jockeys the skills of a groom so that are better prepared to understand all aspects of the horse racing world. Each week, the horses also take a turn at the swimming pool, located in the heart of the backside community, to stretch their muscles and to stay in shape. The first year, riders begin on the training track, located just inside the main track in the heart of the Camarero Racetrack. As students struggle to develop balance and strength on the training track, out of their peripheral vision they can see what comes next: famous jockeys, many of them former classmates, working well-known race horses on the main track.

In their second year of training, students move to the main track and offer to exercise racehorses for famous trainers such as Alexis Rivera, Máximo Gómez, and Luis Rodriguez. The horses wait impatiently in stalls until the student exercise rider approaches his or her mount, often with little prior knowledge of the animal, and take the horse to the track. While the proposition of exercising energetic and demanding race horses with little prior knowledge of the animal's habits is a daunting one, it also provides students with a platform to develop relationships with trainers whose horses they hope to ride in races once they graduate from the jockey school.

Luis Rivera, a recent graduate of the jockey academy, says that the success of his friends, graduates of the EVH, inspires him. Students also take inspiration from the instructors, all three of them successful jockeys. Recently retired jockey Wilfred “Willie” Lozano, whose father Wilfredo Lozano was also a jockey, rode and won in the Camarero Racetrack in Puerto Rico. He also won over 1,000 races at racetracks in the U.S. Camilo Hernández distributed his successful riding career between Puerto Rico's Camarero Racetrack and tracks in the U.S. Emilia Salinas was one of the pioneer female jockeys in Puerto Rican racing, scoring important victories on the track while she demanded a space for women within the racing world.

The passion for horse racing these instructors share is only rivaled by their care of and support for their students.  It is a rare balance they have mastered as they cultivate the next generation of successful jockeys. The wealth and depth of experiences these instructors impart to their students, coupled with their extensive knowledge of racing technique and of racing communities around the globe, are some of the main reasons the students are so successful.

Angel Díaz, however, did not begin his riding career so successfully. When he was a student, it was recommended that he might make a better exercise rider, as he was warned that he might not possess the balance and skill needed to become a jockey. Díaz was a hard worker and was known for his strong work ethic; as a second-year student he would exercise 10 or12 horses a day for various trainers.

“I just kept working,” Díaz said. “If you want something, then you have to really work for it, it isn't going to be easy.”

Even with a strong sense of determination, Díaz faced busy and demanding days. He had to be at the jockey school by 6 a.m., work with the horses, ride, and attend classes. When school ended, Díaz worked at a pizzeria until late at night. He slept a few hours, got up, and drove the hour trip to return to the jockey school by 6 a.m.

As the students prepared to graduate in December 2018, many of Díaz's peers already had agents or were entertaining several agents' offers.

“Nobody wanted to work with me,” Díaz said. “Everybody else had a representative, but nobody paid any attention to me.”

It was a young agent, just starting out, who finally agreed to work with Díaz.

“Jason Rodríguez gave me a chance,” said Díaz.

Once represented by Rodríguez, Díaz would continue to work hard to win a race.

“I kept coming in second,” said Díaz, who began as an apprentice jockey on January 1. “All my classmates were winning their first race, and I still hadn't. I just kept working at it and working at the track for various stables to try and get more mounts.”

On Jan. 27, his relentless effort produced his first win aboard Mangiarela, a filly trained by Manuel Fernández of Ideal Stables.

Diaz, aka “El Terror” at work

By August, Díaz was recognized as the best apprentice jockey at Camarero. Journalist Joe Bruno published articles with headlines such as “Five Wins for Apprentice Angel Díaz,” and Owner Jaime Toro of Bulls Farm Stable had riding pants made for Angel with the fitting nickname “El Terror.” Journalist Moncho Nuñez interviewed Angel and give him the nickname “The Revolution” for his excellent riding.

The competition for leading rider at Camarero was between veteran jockey Juan Carlos Díaz and apprentice rider Angel Díaz.

“Everybody was counting each race, it was that close,” Angel said. “Juan Carlos is a friend and he offered me lots of advice as I learned to ride. I trained with his son Jean Carlos at the jockey school, so I got to know Juan Carlos personally since his son and I were friends. We always remained friends, always greeted each other. We didn't talk about the results or the race count. I just kept working hard, I always stayed humble. I did my best for every trainer and owner and I was thankful I got horses to ride.”

The year ended with a narrow victory for Angel Díaz, 244 wins over Juan Carlos' 242. Then came the news that Angel had been nominated as an Eclipse Award finalist for best apprentice jockey.

“I didn't believe it,” Angel said. “When the first person told me I'd been nominated I laughed, I'd had a good year but I never dreamed of being nominated. Nobody who rode only at Camarero had ever been nominated. I thought he was kidding. Then a second person told me, and a third. I went to the webpage to see it for myself.

“I still haven't found words for what this means to me. I'm coming to Gulfstream Park for the first time for the awards ceremony. I'm excited to see another race track and honored by the nomination. But I need to leave the next day as I've got to be at Camarero. I've got races to ride.”

Dr. E. Gabrielle Kuenzli is an associate professor and sports historian at the University of South Carolina, where her research focus is on Latino jockeys. She is the author of Acting Inca: National Belonging in Twentieth-Century Bolivia.

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