Loathe To Love: An Interview With Jockey Cristina Bonilla

May 29, 2017 04:06pm
Bonilla
Photo: Don Stevens


The probabilities are very high, like nine times out of ten, when a person attends the horse races for the first time, that individual grows an instantaneous love for the sport. However, there is always that one-time the statistic fails, and surprisingly it applied to up and coming apprentice jockey, Cristina BonillaStill basking in the glow of her first win as a professional jockey less than three weeks ago at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana, Bonilla shares, not only that memorable and unforgettable experience, but the 30-year old also relates her whirlwind of a journey from loathing the sport the first time she laid eyes on it, to achieving one of her goals of becoming a rider and competing daily in the sport of thoroughbred racing.


Horse Racing Nation: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Cristina Bonilla: I was born in a town called Aurora in Illinois. I grew up in all parts of Chicago. We moved a lot.


HRN: What did you think of the first live horse race you saw, and do you recall where it was at?

CB: I'd been to a race once in my life, when I was about 20 years old I think. I went to Arlington and I left after one race cause I hated it.


HRN: Most jockeys I've talked to experienced their love for horses at a very early age, but obviously yours came later on?

CB: Five years later, I sat on my first horse. I was 25, working a 9 to 5 job in an office in a brokerage firm and one day I went to watch my boss play Polo in the suburbs. I was living downtown along the lake so it was a big transition of a day for me. I hated the country. I was a city girl. It was an experience I fell in love with after I got a leg up on one after my boss was done playing polo. I was confused, scared, nervous, excited and challenged all in one. I fell in love with that feeling. Especially the challenge. When I say I am going to do something and I know its a challenge, be ready 'cause I am going to do it. I didn't know I wanted to be a race rider. I was doing research on the computer for horse hobbies I can pick up after work or on the weekend. In the images, horse racing came up. I dug further and thought it would be fun. I did a lot of research and become more intrigued. I came across an article about women being challenged in the sport and it mentioned that no female has ever won the Kentucky Derby. I thought that was silly. Someone needs to change that and it was going to be me. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a race rider. Because I was going to leave Chicago and I was going to become the first female to win the Derby and I stubbornly will be. I got in contact with Anthony Gurino, he owned horses with Gary Gullo at Belmont Park. So, I packed my bags and I left. My life changed after that.


HRN: Was your family supportive of your decision to become a jockey?

CB: Very!!!


HRN: Tell us you first job at the track and who did you work for?

CB: My first job at the track was a hotwalker for Dominic Galluscio at Belmont Park.


HRN: How long did you gallop/exercise horses before you actually received your jockey's license? Who taught you to ride and what advice were you given at that time?

CB: I galloped for about 2 1/2 to 3 years before I got my license. I went through a ton of mentors throughout the process of learning! I hotwalked for 6 months and Dominic felt that I was learning too fast and told me I was ready to learn how to ride. So, he sent me to Ocala, Florida. I was in Ocala for the duration of my learning and in between those years, I went back to New York for a bit; Saratoga as well, Churchill and Gulfstream/Palm Meadows. When I went to Ocala, I didn't know how to saddle a horse. I didn't know a thing. So, Dominic's buddy, Jimmy Miranda, threw me in a round pen with a retired racehorse for a good month or two. I also did some dressage on the side with a lady named Debra Harbin; she taught me a lot about having a good seat and hands. After 9 months, I breezed my first horse. Ex-race rider, Jorge Guerra took me under his wing at that time. He taught me a lot. He taught me to never get beat out of the gate. He was one of the best gate riders. I was fortunate to learn a lot from him. Other mentors I learned a great deal from; Randy Romero, Mark White, Jacinto Vasquez, Rudy Delguidice, Brian Peck, Milton Hendry, Mike Cook, Jose Flores, Nicole Ford; forgive anyone who I missed. I was very fortunate to get with really amazing people. I learned well and I think that is why I learned so fast. I didn't start learning how to ride until I was about 27 years old. I am 30 years old now. I have come a long, long way in a short amount of time. It was a very tough journey. I know its going to get tougher, but I love the challenge.


HRN: As far as becoming a jockey, has it been harder or easier than what you thought it was going to be?

CB: I knew it was going to be hard. I didn't know a thing about horses or horse racing for that matter. I knew it was going to be a tough journey.


HRN: What's been the hardest part?

CB: I would say the fitness part. It sure takes time.


HRN: Your very first mount came on April 28th at Evangeline Downs on a horse named 'Willows and Saints'. How nervous were you in the jock's room before heading out to the walking ring and tell us a little bit about that ride.

CB: It may come to a shock to some or they probably wouldn't believe me, but I was not nervous at all. I was ready. I was ready for a while. It was my time and I was ready for it. When we loaded in the gate I didn't get nervous. I just had this ready feeling. I'm not getting any younger, it was time to get things going already. I could tell you, I sure was tired and my legs felt like noodles.


HRN: Okay, now let's talk about your first win. It came two weeks later May,11th on just your fifth career mount aboard a horse named 'Superstitious Swan', who won by 11-lengths. Take us through the entire race.

CB: I knew I was going to win that race. My plan was to take the lead, sit pretty and let the horse do the rest. I did exactly that and you saw what she did. I'd been galloping this horse and we get along very well. I knew she would do well. It was both our first win and it felt special. I was so excited, at one point I didn't know if I won for sure. I was tired going a mile and 70 yards and excited all at once. I know its a feeling that will never get old. It was special moment for us both and I can't wait to ride her again!!!


HRN: Jogging your horse back to the winner's circle to get your picture taken had to be an incredible feeling.

CB: I was high on life. Everything I worked for came down to the moment. It felt like a weight off my shoulders lifted. But I also know, that this is just the beginning and that is what makes it all more exciting. I will never get tired of that feeling. I don't think any race rider does.


HRN: I'm quite sure your fellow riders were waiting for you as you made your way back to the jockey's room and gave you the traditional "hazing" to welcome you into the winner's club.

CB: When I went to weigh in after the photo, the clerk of scales, Bobby, looked at and said, "Now, you're on your own." I knew what was coming, but I was so high on that win that it took me a second to soak up his information. When it clicked, I took off my helmet as quickly as possible and threw it. All I could think is how expensive that helmet is. The water was so cold I could barely breathe. I had a blast.


HRN: For those of us who have never been to Evangeline Downs, like myself, describe a little bit about what the track is like.

CB: Small and clicky. For the most part, everyone has been really great to me.


HRN: As you were working toward your goal of becoming a jockey, was there any particular racetrack in the country that you dreamed about riding at one day?

CB: Easy, Belmont!!!


HRN: Take me through a typical day. How do you prepare yourself for a race?

CB: When I get home from work in the morning, I have the same routine even if I wasn't riding. I let my dogs out, shower up, let them back in and relax for a half hour to an hour depending on other work. I am an artist as well, so a lot of my spare time right now is consumed with drawing for people. I have had a lot of business lately so as soon as I get home, that's what I do. I may go for a run before racing to get warmed up cause I don't ride a lot of races right now or I get on the equicizer. I watch the horses previous race(s). I talk to my agent, Jerry Bourque, to go over things I may need to know, any advice, etc. Before I leave the house, I chug a glass full of fruits and vegetables or I inhale a ton of fruit to get the energy I may need. I bring some with me to work. I am a very firm believer that an athlete needs a healthy diet to reach their peak. I think athletes who don't eat healthy, would be amazed at how much the body can improve by eating clean. Just by drinking soda, you decrease your athleticism by 20%. So, I would say my diet is one of the main ways I prepare myself for a race.


HRN: Tell us the best and worst of being a jockey?

CB: The best part about being a race rider is being one with your horse. When a horse is listening, trying for you, he's giving you all he has and you both are in sync, there's nothing greater than that feeling. I am blessed to not have to worry about my weight like most jockeys do. I would say that would be the worst part. I give the race riders who do have to worry about their weight, credit. It's not easy. In no way in hell is it easy. It's an incredible discipline. It most definitely is the worst part about being a race rider.


HRN: I'm a firm believer that jockeys are best conditioned athletes on the planet, do you feel that as a whole, jockeys are underappreciated in the sports world?

CB: I sure do.


HRN: What are some of the things Cristina Bonilla enjoys doing away from the track?

CB: I'm a home body. I love to stay in and watch movies.


HRN: If a young girl approached you about her wanting to become a jockey, what advice would you impart on her?

CB: To never lose sight of your dreams no matter the circumstances. People will doubt you and treat you bad, but take that as motivation and push forward. You get what you put in into this career. The sky is the limit and never settle for mediocre or find a new job. A dream is not worth pursuing if you're going to half-ass it. Go out there and give 150% percent. You are not here to make friends, you are here to ride and leave it at that. Most importantly, have a sense of humor, be stubborn and smile.


HRN: Thoroughbred horse racing is a beautiful thing that many of us want to see thrive. What do you think racetracks need to do to continually bring people out to the races and fall in love with this amazing sport?

CB: Get rid of the people who are given second chances when a post race test returns bad, etc. These animals are your bread and butter. More marketing strategies need to be rethought and executed.  I'm not sure how yet as I've just started in this business. I have only been in this business for 5 years. I'm still learning a lot. There has to be some ways we can draw more people into horse racing; people like me who had no idea what horse racing was 5 years ago. And ways to show people the loving side of horse racing that makes it such a wonderful sport.


HRN: Obviously you want to win every start, but there must be something above and beyond everything else. What are your career goals?

CB: To be the first female to win the Kentucky Derby and not just that race, to break history repeatedly and make the Hall of Fame. I want to be one of the best race riders in this game.


HRN: Cristina, thank you so much for taking time out to chat. On behalf of Horse Racing Nation and myself, we wish you all the best in the future.

CB: Thank you so much for having me. I am always so grateful for the opportunities that are beneficial to my success.



 

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