One of the fun parts of writing a blog on the sport of horse racing is being around at the launching of a career.
I’ve had the honor to introduce many people in the bay area to some of the young blood in the game. A few days after Kyle Frey won his first race I introduced him on Bay Area Backstretch. Most people know by now, he went on the win the Eclipse award for best apprentice last year. Earlier this year, I wrote on apprentice Irving Orozco and before he left for Santa Anita a few weeks ago, Orozco was in the top 5 during the summer fair circuit.
So back in July, I noticed another new name in the jocks listing, Arnold Perez. The apprentice from southern California was in Sacramento, listed to ride three horses sent up for him. I spoke with him briefly and found out he was attempting to win his very first race.
One horse he rode was Lightning McQue and Perez led till deep stretch and a guy named Russell Baze went flying by and beat him by a length. Perez’ reaction afterward? “ I thought I had it. Oh well next time,” he said with a smile.
Perez had a second and third in those three Sacramento mounts and when he left, I kept track of his progress.
Over the next month, he rode just two horses at Del Mar and 16 more at Fairplex, where he had a second and three third place finishes. The second place finish was by a nose and again, it was aboard Lightning McQue.
So last week I found out he was coming up again, this time to ride the entire meet at the Big Fresno Fair. I couldn’t pass up a chance to head to Fresno and catch up with him. Even though its only been a few months, I was surprised in the difference in the 21-year-old.
The shy, kid in the candy store Arnold was gone. This was a much more confident and poised young man.
In a sport where speed is king, Perez explained that he has taken the slow road and it appears to have suited him just fine.
“We always wanted to take it one day at a time.” he said. “We wanted to wait until I felt really comfortable out there. It would have benefited me if I had been riding every day, but right now I'm happy with how everything is going, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The “we” he spoke of was a connection he has with southern California based trainer Martin Valenzuela Jr. and his family. They have managed Arnold’s career to date, basically having him ride horses they train or are familiar with. "They have been like family to me. Martin and his son (Martin Valenzuela III) have really helped me out a lot."
After talking with Perez, I started to understand that the slow pace his career has gone, was more of a deliberate patience.
Perez only wanted to become a jockey at the age of 16 when he found a love for the game by attending the races with his dad. With no racing in his background, he attended the Frank Garza jockey school. It took him nearly two years to complete his training, because he only went on weekends, so he could continue to attend school and get his diploma.
“It was hard going only on weekends because I’d learn stuff and then a week later come back and feel like it was new again,” he said. “But I really wanted to finish high school.”
Once he graduated from the school at the age of 18, he still resisted the temptation to ride and continued to work horses and get the feel for riding. He continued to get on horses in the mornings and even went to Indiana to get more experience.
Finally, at the age of 20, he rode his first horse in June of this year. Since then, he has ridden sparingly at Hollywood Park, Sacramento, Del Mar and Fairplex Park and his stat line read; 24 mounts with two seconds and four thirds. But more important to him than his stats, is his ability.
“Riding on the small track at Fairplex really helped me,” he said. “Riding on the tight turns makes it so much easier on these mile tracks. There, you have to really be aware of your position and where the other horses are. It was really good for me. I feel very confident now and I’m ready to start riding more and for different trainers.”
So the wait continued through the first four days of the Fresno meet. He was was 0-for-10 but his attitude never changed.
On his fourth mount of the meet, he had his horse, Peek a Boo Baby, two lengths in front midway through the stretch, before fading to fourth. His reaction of “oh well, we will try again next time” showed I was more disappointed than he was.Or at least that's the way he came across.
Finally, a special holiday racing card on Monday provided Perez with the race he had been waiting for.
In career mount number 36, Arnold Perez became a winning jockey when he guided Seafire to a 1 ½ length win as the 3-1 second choice in a $2,500 claiming race.It was obvious by the crowd reaction and the jockey colony that awaited him , that the young rider has fit in nicely in the bay area. And it was obvious that the path he has taken, has also fit him nicely.
“I never thought I’d be winning my first race in Fresno instead of down south, but wherever, I will take it,” he said with a smile.
So nearly five years after he first went to jockey school, Perez was in the winner's circle. To some people it may have seemed like an eternity, but to him, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.