If there were a People's Choice award for jockeys, Jorge Chavez would have amassed a large collection of trophies by now. New York racing fans have long admired the aggressive style of the rider they fondly call Chop Chop for his distinctive and liberal use of the whip.
Yet even though Chavez has been the top race-winning rider in New York during the 1990s, the sport's Establishment has viewed him warily. Some trainers and owners have been reluctant to put Chavez on their best horses because of his reputation for hitting his mounts so hard.
But that prejudice finally started to erode during the last year. Chavez was the regular rider for major stakes horses such as Behrens, Val's Prince, Affirmed Success, Beautiful Pleasure and Artax, and he piloted the latter two to victories in the Breeders' Cup. Last week he won the Eclipse Award as the outstanding rider of 1999, beating out Jerry Bailey, one of the darlings of the Establishment. At age 39, Chavez finally has joined the sport's elite.
Ever since he came from Peru to Florida in 1988, Chavez has been regarded as a great talent and a fierce competitor--perhaps too fierce. In his first year he served 85 days of suspensions. Because he was a newcomer, he says, his rival jockeys were trying to intimidate him, and he was fighting back.
When he arrived in New York, he wasn't quite so combative. "I'd learned that if someone pushes you, you don't have to push back," Chavez said. But his style was still exceptionally aggressive.
The New York riding colony is amply populated by riders known for their patience, and they made perfect foils for a rival who loved to gun his mounts from the gate and seize the early lead. But what distinguished Chavez even more than his adroit use of horses' speed was his use of the whip. Because he is small even by jockeys standards--4 feet 10 inches--he stretches to reach back and hit his mount, and it's not a particularly fluid or graceful procedure. He'll deliver a flurry of short, sharp strokes that his agent, Richard DePass, compares to the cook in a Japanese steak house wielding his knife. Hence, Chop Chop.
An agent for a rival jockey made this observation: "Most people at the track have a prejudice that nobody who rides like that can be good. In the parlance of the track, Chavez is a whoop-de-doer, and he's certainly not as pretty on a horse as Jerry Bailey or Pat Day. He's a bull in a china shop; he's got no finesse. But every time you look up he's beating you. Like a lot of other people, I've come to the realization that he really is good; he's got his own style and it's effective."
Chavez brings his aggressive style and attitude into every race; he's not the type of rider who saves his "A" game for the big stakes and approaches run-of-the-mill races with caution. He has endeared himself to both fans and owners by riding horses hard even to get a second- or third-place finish. Yet the image stuck that he was a blue-collar rider, the guy you would want at Aqueduct in December but not at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Chavez still has never won a Triple Crown race, and he had never won a Breeders' Cup event until 1999.
Chavez had one solid supporter among the upper-echelon horsemen, Behrens's trainer James Bond, but he needed more. So last winter he left New York for the winter to ride at Gulfstream Park, where he was able to make more contacts with major stables. (It didn't hurt that he dominated the jockey standings against competitors such as Bailey and Day.) He and DePass made an effort to refine the image of a rider who punishes a horse excessively. "I slash and I brush the horse with the whip," Chavez insisted. "But I never hurt the horse." DePass said: "They say he's brutal with the whip, but he's a misunderstood rider."
His success in 1999 showed the racing world that there are a lot of dimensions to Chavez's skill besides the whip. He rode the filly Beautiful Pleasure with finesse; he managed to cure Artax of his habit of breaking tardily. His skills finally got the ultimate recognition when jockey Gary Stevens opened the envelope at the Eclipse Award banquet in Beverly Hills and announced: "The winner is Chop Chop!"
"When they said I was the winner," said the jockey known for his ferocity, "I was very emotional. My tears started to come. This touched me in my heart."
But there is a practical aspect to the award, too, one that his agent was quick to recognize. "The Eclipse opens the door to get on more good horses," DePass said. "Now he's established that he can handle good horses and the big races don't shake him up. If you're looking for a rider for the Derby horse, who are you going to call?"
When Chavez rode his first race as the reigning Eclipse Award champion, it was not the Derby, but an $8,000 claiming race at Gulfstream Park, where his mount was a plodder with a 1-for-31 record over the last two years. Chavez urged Zipper's Choice from the gate and positioned him behind the dueling pacesetters, but Zipper's Choice had trouble keeping up. Chavez never let him rest; he kept pushing and shoving all the way to keep the horse in striking distance, and when he angled into the stretch he went to work in earnest. He reached back and cracked Zipper's Choice with the whip in rapid-fire fashion. He pushed and shoved some more, then did it again: Chop! Chop! The 8-to-1 shot responded and surged past the leaders, giving Chavez the type of victory that made fans appreciate him long before the Eclipse Award voters did.