MEXICO CITY — The 64 years that Arturo Ruiz Garcia has spent with the horses at the Hippodrome of the Americas have been enough to teach him that disappointment is the safest bet.
All the pre-dawn training, the vitamins and corn-oil concoctions, the Sore No More liniment rubdowns, give no guarantees. “You don’t know what it’s like to be with a horse for a month, day and night, and then it wakes up colicky on race day,” the 76-year-old trainer said.
Then again, bad luck is no sure thing, either. There was the time in the early 1990s when Ruiz’s blazing pony won 40 races. “Still a record here,” he said. Or when his skinny teenage jockey, Victor Espinoza, won the first race he ran — and then kept on winning.
“It takes a year to go from apprentice to jockey, minimum,” Ruiz said. “Victor did it in six months.”
For his old colleagues at the Mexico City racetrack where he got his start, Espinoza’s victory atop California Chrome at the Belmont Stakes this weekend would have been a validation for them all — the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, the first Mexican jockey to achieve the feat. But as it so often goes at the track, it was not to be.
To make it in the lucrative world of U.S. thoroughbred racing is a dream for many Latin American and Caribbean jockeys. And in recent years, they have come to dominate the sport. The three Kentucky Derby winners before Espinoza were all from Latin America: Joel Rosario from the Dominican Republic, Mario Gutierrez from Mexico and John Velasquez from Puerto Rico.
Of the 11 riders in the Belmont Stakes, there were two Jamaicans, two Puerto Ricans, a Venezuelan, Espinoza and Rosario, who rode Tonalist to victory.
“It’s all in the body. Americans are taller and heavier, we are shorter and lighter,” said Ricardo Mar, director of operations at the Hippodrome.
“We are like little Chihuahuas,” said his colleague, Jacob Morett.
Although horse culture is ingrained in rural Mexico, racing is not as popular here as other sports, such as soccer or boxing. The Hippodrome, which opened in 1943, is the country’s only racetrack, situated downtown on 50 acres of military-owned land. For the country’s biggest race, which happened on May 31, about 8,000 people showed up. Most weekends, attendance is far lower. “People don’t know the sport well,” Morett said. “They consider it elitist.”
But most Mexican jockeys grow up poor in rural areas, the jockeys and trainers here said, learning to ride while doing ranch work. Espinoza is one of 10 siblings from central Hidalgo state. He began by training quarter horses with his siblings and drove a bus in Mexico City before starting his career at the Hippodrome. While he has earned millions of dollars racing in the United States, a great jockey in Mexico makes about $30,000 a year, said Ruiz, his former trainer.
“If you are riding well, it’s enough to live,” said Jose Angel Ambrosio, a 20-year-old jockey who has been racing here for five years. He said he rides as many as nine races a day, resting long enough to change shirts and hop on a new horse. To maintain his 112-pound riding weight, he said, “there are days I don’t eat.” He hopes someday to follow Espinoza’s example and ride in the United States.
“That’s my dream,” he said.
Ruiz will be staying in Mexico. He wakes up each morning at 4:30 to leave for his small brick-walled office in the stables that smell of hay and bleach. He pats the horses and chats with his jockeys as they trot out onto the track before the sun has risen. “This is a hobby,” he said as he stood along the rail. “But a beautiful one.”
There are no million-dollar purses here, no glamorous women in elaborate hats. But Ruiz has had moments to cherish. “I’ve had some very good horses,” he said. And he has made his own luck:
“With horse racing, like boxing, if you are born poor, but you have some fighting spirit, you can succeed.”
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.