Following the conclusion of Christmas present opening, jockeys and horseracing fans celebrated the Santa Anita track’s opening day last Wednesday.
David Flores was the most notable winner of the day, winning all three stakes races and winning and placing in two maiden special weight races.
Of the ten races, the Malibu Stake had the biggest purse, with $250,000.
This year is coined “Year of the Jockey” at Santa Anita, something David Arroyos, marketing manager for some of the jockeys, believes is due to the fact that the jockeys are not as well known as other professional athletes, despite the fact that jockeys stay in the sport longer—Garrett Gomez has been racing for 20 years—and the horses’ careers have gotten shorter over the years.
“For the first time ever, we introduced all of our riders in the winner’s circle following the fourth race and they were all very well received,” said Santa Anita publicity director Mike Willman.
Although the jockeys are the focus of this season, jockey Victor Espinoza believes racing is due 80 percent to the horse and 20 percent to the jockey.
At the end of last season, Gomez and Espinoza tied for first place with 83 wins each and both had victories on opening day.
Gomez won first on Buck in an allowance race and again in a maiden claiming race riding Home of the Bold. Three years after a two year break from racing due to substance abuse rehabilitation, Gomez said his break was helpful.
“If I hadn’t left and learned the things I learned I wouldn’t be in the same place today,” said Gomez.
Espinoza, who has been racing since 1992, said, “As long as I win one race I’m good,” and he won first with Spring at Last in an allowance optional claiming race.
Though Espinoza had never ridden Spring at Last before, he said he can tell if he has the best horse in the race as soon as he gets on the horse, walks it to the track and warms up the horse.
Another change on opening day was a synthetic track that looks like dirt but is made of wax and other materials that will be easier on the horses legs, said Arroyos.
“We were all wondering what the track was going to be like because we hadn’t had a chance to race on it,” said Gomez.
“It did play faster than we anticipated, but the track has “tamed down” the past few days and is performing well,” said Willman.
The main winners for the Friday through Sunday races were Rafael Bejarano with four wins and Mike Smith with three wins including the $150,000 Grade II San Gabriel Handicap on Sunday.
As far as expectations for the rest of the season, Espinoza and Gomez said it is hard to tell because of the many variables of the horses, track surface, and other jockeys.
“I don’t put expectations on anything anymore,” said Gomez. “If a horse wakes up on the wrong side of the bed a longshot could win.”