The sport of kings has turned peasants into royalty.
Many of today's top thoroughbred jockeys in the United States are men from Spanish-speaking countries, seeking opportunity for a better way of life.
If they are successful, that better way of life is the payoff, literally and figuratively. Top jockeys in the United States can make millions annually, and some do, with many of them from Central America and South America. They come from very humble beginnings to live this American Dream.
"The sky is the limit," said former jockey Anthony Schweiker, the publicity manager at Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens. "If they don't have the financial means to go to a university, this is their way out. It's like an inner-city kid here in the U.S. playing basketball as his way out."
For several decades, the Latin community has been the leader in producing jockeys – top jockeys. Five Latino jockeys have been inducted into the National Museum of Racing, including riders from Chile and Panama. There will be more.
According to Equibase.com, the premier source for premium thoroughbred racing, the top 10 jockeys, based on earnings by the horses they rode (mounts) in the United States in 2010, include the following Latinos: Ramón A. Domínguez (1,474 starts, $16,911,880); John R. Velázquez (1,192 starts, $16,743,328 horses' earnings); Joel Rosario (1,335 starts, $15,897,538); Rafael Bejarano (1,292 starts, $14,225,120); Javier Castellano (1,243 starts, $13,037,706); Martín García (933 starts, $10,151,584); José Lezcano (1,054 starts, $9,277,682).
From a horse's earning, an owner usually gets 60 percent of the purse. Generally, the jockey's cut is 10 percent of the owner's take. At Calder, the track runs 120 days, about four to five days a week during an eight-month stretch. The purses each day total approximately $180,000. Each jockey is paid based on the performance of the horse in a race, even those finishing last. A good jockey will ride five to seven races a day.
Calder is more of a starting point for those jockeys, especially Latin Americans. They strive to ride in California and New York, two of the bigger states in terms of purses.
"The top of the food chain is New York," Schweiker said. "It's like the Frank Sinatra song says, 'If you make it there, you can make it anywhere.'"
Velázquez, a Puerto Rican jockey, made it there. One of the best, he also rode recent Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. Velázquez, 39, is expected to earn more than $4 million in 2011. Mexico City's Víctor Espinoza, 39, who ranked 27th in mounts' earnings in 2010, will make $2.8 million.
Domínguez, 34, began riding horses at 16 in his native Venezuela in show jumping, before turning to riding thoroughbreds. He immigrated to the United States, where he began riding at Florida's Hialeah Park Race Track in 1996. In 2001, he became the winningest jockey in America and repeated that effort in 2003.
Dominican jockey Joel Rosario, 26, who earns more than $5.5 million a year, is currently the best of the best. Raised on a farm where he regularly road horses, Rosario attended jockey school for six months. He obtained his professional license at 14 and began riding at Hipódromo V Centenario in Santo Domingo, where he earned his first win in July 2000. In 2006, he immigrated to the United States, where he raced in California. In 2010, he rode Make Music For Me at the Kentucky Derby, finishing fourth.
From their earnings, jockeys pay 25 percent to their agents and about 10 percent to their equipment manager. They also have business expenses and medical insurance. As an independent contractor participating in a dangerous profession, insurance rates can be high.
Horse riding, raising and racing are very prominent in South American countries, but money is better for jockeys in the United States, giving them a lucrative reason to saddle up within more northern borders.
"So many of these kids [from Latin countries] grow up on horseback," said Laura Kornmeyer Schoeller, an American jockey living in Hollywood, Fla.
So that makes them good?
"Well, the first thing is they tend to be smaller framed, light weight," Schoeller added.
Trainers look for jockeys who weigh less than 113 pounds to saddle up. They range in height from 5-1 to 5-5.
"Second, they grow up with horses in their backyards, riding bareback their whole lives," Schoeller continued, "and then there is big money here – the big races, the Triple Crown and Breeder's Cup races."
Each purse for 14 races during two-days of The Breeder's Cup Championships ranges from $500,000-$5-million ($25.5 million combined). That's the second most total behind the Dubai World Cup Night, which features six races annually at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, United Arab Emirates with combined purses reaching $21 million in 2008.
Horse racing is a huge international industry, watched in almost every nation. In 2008, gambling on thoroughbred racing generated $115 billion worldwide – $13.6 billion in the United States. The gross purses, according to jockeyclub.com, reached $1.1 billion. In 2010, wagering reached $11.4 billion in America which includes off-track betting, and gross purses totaled $1.03 billion.
There are more than 1,300 jockeys competing in North America, which features about 80 race tracks in the United States. Of those, Calder is considered a gateway to Latin America for jockeys coming to America. South Florida is a transient community with a strong Hispanic population, making for an easier cultural transition.
Noted jockeys who began their U.S. careers at Calder include Domínguez, Lezcano (Panama), Javier Castellano (Venezuela), Shaun Bridgmohan (Jamaica), Abel Castellano (Venezuela), Eddie Castro (Panama), Jorge Chávez (Peru), Eibar Coa (Venezuela), Manoel Cruz (Brazil), René Douglas (Panama), Edgar Prado (Peru), Pedro Rodríguez (Cuba), José Santos (Chile), Luis Sáez (Panama), Jeffrey Sánchez (Puerto Rico), Alex Solis (Panama) and Cornelio Velásquez (Panama).
Last year, there were nearly 47,000 races in the United States with approximately 1,080 at Calder. Currently, a large number of leading jockeys in the United States are from Mexico and Puerto Rico including Mexico's José Alvarez and Juan Leyva who are riding at Calder.
Paco López, another Mexican who started at Calder three years ago, is now a rising star. Growing up very poor, López is your typical rags to riches story. Many top jockeys in California are also from Mexico. For those jockeys who are on the bottom of the pay scale, it's $20,000-30,000 a year, supplemented by working another job, but still that's more than they can make in their homeland.
Jockeys know they can get rich from racing, but they also can get killed. It is dangerous.
Anna Waller of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of North Carolina co-authored a four-year study of jockey injuries. She reported that more than 100 jockeys were killed in the United States between 1950-1987. A bigger number stemming from the research was for every 1,000 jockeys riding in one year, more than 600 will have medically treated injuries. Nearly 20 percent were serious head or neck problems. That study reported 6,545 injuries from 1993–1996.
"You are going to get injured doing this," Schweiker said. "You'll break a bone if not multiple bones. The question isn't will you get injured. The question is when and how. It's just part of the job."
He continued: "As dangerous as it is, and it's a lot of hard work, but it's a fun job, and jockeys tend to ride a long time."
Where the amount of male jockeys from Latin countries is very high, involvement from their countrywomen is few and far between. It is a male dominated profession, but women are making strides, just not from Spanish-speaking countries. Most of the female jockeys are American or English.
"I don't know if they are as liberated as the U.S.," said Schoeller, who's been competing at Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens. "There are so many female jockeys in the U.S. You would be surprised. I haven't met any [Latin female jockeys] yet. There were a couple that passed through Calder and didn't stick around. It's very hard to work your way in here in Florida as a female rider.
"I raced in Venezuela back in 1990. There were four girls invited to Venezuela to help promote the girl riders," she added. "They work hard in the mornings but never get the chance in the afternoon. Now that's back in 1990. I don't know about now."
There are more today, but the numbers are still small. Someday, it could be the sport of kings and queens.
Jim Varsallone is a sports writer for the Miami Herald.