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Goncalves on the Move at Fair Grounds

As of the beginning of February, jockey Leandro Goncalves (pronounced gon-SALV-es) was still the only rider at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots this season that could boast of a five-win day since the meeting began on Nov. 22.  However, the 31-year-old Brazilian-born reins master is not the boasting type.  He’s a soft-spoken hardworking athlete who lets his horsemanship do the talking for him, as he did when he won two races Saturday, including the $60,000 Happy Ticket Stakes aboard Ten Broeck Farm’s Warm Breeze for conditioner Grant Forster.

“Normally, I like to come from off the pace,” Goncalves said of Saturday’s stakes win, “but (Warm Breeze) broke really sharp and I had to take advantage of it.  She was going very fast but she was doing it easily.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, Goncalves was back at the track before daylight Sunday morning to work eight horses in the fog before training hours ended.

“It’s a seven-days-a-week job,” said Goncalves, who has been among the top five in the local rider standings since the season began, “but I’ve worked hard all my life and as long as I keep at it I think things will keep working out for me.  I’ve been pretty much on my own my whole life since I was a 9-year-old.”

That’s because Goncalves had a very unfortunate childhood that included a strong sense of abandonment in his formative years.

Goncalves had started riding horses bareback at age 7 herding livestock in Brazil on a ranch where his father was employed as a farm worker.  As a 9-year-old, he started riding quarter horses for a trainer who wanted to take advantage of his light weight, won the first race he ever rode in and has been riding ever since.  However, while he was living with the trainers he was riding for, his parents got divorced, his mother moved back to Sao Paulo (where he was born) and contact with his family became restricted to monthly calls from his father.

Suddenly, those calls ceased and he had no idea why, until at age 16, when he became eligible to get in to Brazil’s jockey school he needed his parents’ signatures.  For a long time he was unable to find them, but eventually he found his grandmother’s address on his birth certificate, found his mother living there and also that his father had died six years earlier.

After becoming the leading apprentice at Brazil’s jockey school, in 2004 Goncalves decided to try riding in England even though he spoke no English.

“In England, I not only had to learn English, but I also had to learn to groom, gallop and basically to do everything – right turns, left turns and learn to ride on grass.  But it helped me to grow, too.  It was a day-by-day learning process.

Since coming to the United States, Goncalves tried various places briefly until eventually settling on the Kentucky circuit with side trips to Indiana on Kentucky’s dark days.  In recent winters, the Fair Grounds meeting has been filling in the winter months.  In 2011, Goncalves had his best year of his career finishing as the third leading rider in the nation and in 2012 he was the seventh leading rider in the national standings.

Trainer Garry Simms was one of the first to discover the talents of Goncalves on the Kentucky circuit and “he basically became kind of a father figure to me – like he was my dad,” Goncalves said.

However, Goncalves also has become something of a staple in the barn of trainer Tom Amoss.

“Leandro has that quality that makes my job so much easier,” said Amoss.  “He can teach you things about your horse and he can teach your horses the things you want them to learn.  Besides that, he is a real gentleman and a very good rider.  What more can you ask for?”

“I have a home in Louisville, now,” said Goncalves, “and a 12-year-old son in Brazil who came to New Orleans to visit me last month.  I pretty much try to be friends with everybody, but I also always appreciated the older riders who always tried to help me along the way. 

“I never want to stop learning,” Goncalves concluded, “and like most other riders, I want to ride in the Kentucky Derby some day and win it.  That’s one of the things I am really looking forward to, and as long as I keep on learning new things every day, I may get that done some day.  At least I can keep dreaming about it.”



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