When he launched his professional riding career eight months ago, Cristian Torres just wanted to win some races. His dedication and success over that time has put the 22-year-old in position to win something much more.
Based year-round in South Florida, riding at Gulfstream Park and Gulfstream Park West, Torres heads into the final weeks of 2019 as a leading contender for the Eclipse Award as North America's champion apprentice jockey.
According to Equibase statistics, Torres had 120 wins and $3.39 million in purse earnings through Dec. 16 and figures to be among the three finalists selected by voters for leading apprentice. The 49th annual Eclipse Awards ceremony will be hosted by Gulfstream Park for the eighth straight year Jan. 23, 2020.
Julio Correa, who began his apprenticeship in February at Parx but spent most of the year in Maryland before moving his tack to Aqueduct this month, was tops in the country with 124 wins and had $3.42 million in purses earned.
Kazushi Kimura, based at Woodbine in Ontario, Canada, had $3.7 million in purse earnings when his apprenticeship ended Oct. 26, to go along with 117 wins. Angel I. Diaz, riding exclusively in Puerto Rico, had 224 wins.
“It would be a dream come true just to be nominated for the Eclipse Award,” Torres said. “It's a dream that every jockey wants to be part of and it means everything. I started in April and just to be nominated would be incredible. Sometimes I can't believe it. But, here we are so we're just going to keep working hard and go for it.”
Torres was raised around horses in Puerto Rico before coming to the U.S. and attending high school in Orlando, ultimately returning to his native country to attend the famed Escuela Vocacional Hipica jockey school that boasts such alumni as Hall of Famer John Velazquez, Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz.
“I always wanted to be a jockey since I was a kid. In Puerto Rico I was around horses growing up always and I always wanted to ride,” Torres said. “I went to the jockey school as an exercise rider. I came over here and decided to gallop for a while and then decided to work on my skills and everything and start riding.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which battered Puerto Rico, Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands in September 2017, Torres made his way back to the mainland and began working for Canadian Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse at his Ocala training center.
“I galloped for a year and a half for Mark Casse. I was at Belmont, Saratoga, Churchill Downs and then I decided to come down here and stay, work on my weight and start riding,” Torres said. “The hard work paid off.”
Torres' brother, Leandro Torres Jr., continues to work at the Ocala farm and he credits his older sibling for being a huge influence in his career.
“My big brother is a rider and my father has two cousins that were jockeys, but other than that I don't have any family in the racing industry,” Torres said. “Leandro has been my teacher, my everything.”
Represented by agent Kevin Meyocks, Torres began riding professionally April 6 at Gulfstream, and it was there where he won his first race April 21, scoring a front-running $14.60 upset aboard Ralph Nicks-trained 3-year-old colt Dempsey in a one-mile maiden claimer.
By the time Gulfstream's spring meet ended, Torres ranked fifth in both wins (31) and purses earned ($742,610), and followed up by finishing with the second-highest purse earnings ($1.62 million) and tying Miguel Vasquez for second-most wins (53) at its summer stand.
Torres carried his momentum to Gulfstream Park West's Fall Turf Festival meet, where once again he ranked second in purse earnings ($793,797) and tied Emisael Jaramillo for second-most wins (32) despite missing the final weekend after needing 11 stitches in his lower lip following a Nov. 22 spill.
“I [had it in] my mind that I was going to work hard every day but I never expected things would be going so good. Thank God, the summer was great and the Championship Meet has been great so far,” Torres said. “I just have to keep working hard and keep going forward.”
Torres had six wins and ranked among the top riders in mounts through the first eight days of Gulfstream's 2019-2020 Championship Meet, going up against some of the biggest names in the sport: Velazquez, fellow Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, the Ortiz brothers, Julien Leparoux, Tyler Gaffalione and Paco Lopez – all Eclipse Award winners – as well as three-time meet champion Luis Saez.
“It's a dream for every rider to win an Eclipse Award. I'm just going to keep working hard and see what happens,” Torres said. “It's unbelievable. I've been here since the summer and now all the big guys come down and it's great.
“It's great to ride with them and learn from them, watching all the races. Being on the track with them, I see everything and I learn from it,” he added. “I feel great. I'm very, very blessed.”
Live racing returns to Gulfstream Park Wednesday, Dec. 18 with a 10-race program that begins at 12:35 p.m.
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