OLDSMAR, FL. – A tumor in his jaw forced Ricardo Mejias to leave jockeys school in Puerto Rico, worried his career wouldn’t get off the ground.
Confusion about immigration requirements sent Ryan Curatolo home to France, three months after finishing second in 2011 Eclipse Award voting for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey.
One case sounds potentially life-threatening, the other barely more than an inconvenience.
But their circumstances forced Mejias and Curatolo to reexamine their motivations for becoming jockeys – and the answers led both to Tampa Bay Downs, where they are making positive impressions in manners as different as their homelands.
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Watching a race from an owner’s box is a sweet perk for a jockey agent.
It can also be nerve-wracking if you persuaded the owner to give your rider a shot on a horse with six different jockeys in her last six races – especially if your rider is a relatively unknown 20-year-old apprentice.
That was the dilemma agent Angel Landrau faced sitting next to owner-trainer Gerald Bennett as they watched the baby-faced Mejias warm up 3-year-old filly Prothoe before Saturday’s sixth race.
“I had asked him about giving Ricky a shot, because he keeps getting better and better and he has the advantage of getting weight off,” said Landrau, also the agent for journeyman Walter De La Cruz. “I told (Bennett) not to worry. I had a lot of confidence.”
Bennett agreed to use Mejias, but asked Landrau to stay with him during the race. “He told me, ‘Sit with me upstairs, because if this horse doesn’t run good, I’m going to throw you down the balcony,’ ” Landrau said.
Bennett was joking, of course, but Mejias rendered the point moot. After stalking the pace in the early stages of the seven-furlong starter/optional claiming event, Mejias angled Prothoe outside and in the clear on the turn before driving her to a one-length victory at odds of 12-1.
Impressing an established trainer such as Bennett was another step forward for Mejias, who rode his first winner in March at Camarero in Puerto Rico before coming to Parx Racing in Philadelphia.
Now establishing himself at Tampa Bay Downs, Mejias has won with 46 of 295 starters in his brief career – an impressive 15.6-percent rate – and is tied for fifth in the standings with seven victories.
“I watched him ride in Cleveland (at Thistledown) during the summer, and he was doing a good job winning races and getting some long shots to finish in the money,” Bennett said. “He doesn’t make too many mistakes. He’s young, aggressive and he wants to win races.”
Aggressive is an apt description of Mejias’ style. But at Tampa Bay Downs, with its colony of grizzled veterans – including Daniel Centeno, Willie Martinez, Scott Spieth and Ronnie Allen, Jr. – Mejias and Curatolo are learning safety is always a top priority.
It’s a point of emphasis when they watch replays together in the jockeys’ room, or when they are called in by the stewards. Racing can be one of the most dangerous sports, and the last thing guys who have been riding 20 years need is some hotshot looking to make a name for himself with less than 100 percent attention to clean, safe riding.
“Willie Martinez told me last week that just winning a race isn’t going to make you better,” Mejias said. “You have to watch the replays and prepare yourself before every race.”
For an apprentice, even one who has started to win fairly consistently like Mejias, it is all part of a steep learning curve.
When using an apprentice jockey (also known as a bug boy), horsemen seek to get a break in the weight their horse must carry. Apprentices are allowed 10 pounds until they have ridden five winners; 7 pounds until they have ridden an additional 35 winners; and 5 pounds until a year from the date of their fifth winning mount.
Upon winning the first race of the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs meet – his 40th career victory – Mejias’ weight allowance went from 7 to 5 pounds, still considerable to trainers.
“Take a 10-pound bag of sugar, put it under your arm and try to outrun somebody, and you’ll see what extra weight means,” Bennett said. “With the allowance, you’re probably talking about a three or four-length advantage (all else being equal).”
Two years ago, Mejias didn’t know if he’d even be riding, let alone winning races. After attending jockey school in Puerto Rico for a year, he was forced to put his dreams on hold to undergo surgery to remove a non-cancerous tumor in his jaw.
In December of 2010, doctors went in beneath Mejias’ ear to remove the tumor, leaving a 4-inch scar on his neck. Unable to ride afterward, he worked at Camarero as a jockeys’-room valet, riding the mechanical Equicizer between duties.
Another operation followed in May of 2011 in which bone was grafted from his hip to replace part of his jaw, forcing Mejias to do little except watch races and think about riding.
Despite his misfortune, Mejias never lost sight of his ambition. “I told my mother, ‘I’m not going to let this get me down. I’m going to follow my dream, go back to school and become a jockey,’ ” Mejias said.
Even when he was laid up, he knew nothing could come close to the thrill of competing on the racetrack.
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While Mejias was sitting out most of 2011 in Puerto Rico, Ryan Curatolo, also 20, was making a major impression in New York.
The native of Marseille, France won 115 races, mostly on the New York circuit, and finished second in Eclipse Award voting for Outstanding Apprentice behind Kyle Frey.
In November of 2011, Curatolo went to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup, finishing seventh on Pure Gossip in the $1-million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Churchill Downs.
Curatolo lost his apprentice status in January of 2012. Two months later, he won the Grade III Cicada Stakes at Aqueduct on Agave Kiss, but he had to return to France three weeks later to renew his immigration papers.
Curatolo worked out at a gym to stay in shape, but when he got back to Monmouth last summer, he found opportunities few and far between. Not only was he no longer an apprentice, outfits he had ridden for had made other commitments.
“I had lost my bug, and that meant I had to rebuild my business,” Curatolo said. He won only 29 races in 2012, but is off to a decent start at Tampa Bay Downs, with four victories and 11 in-the-money efforts from 17 starters.
Curatolo came to Oldsmar at the urging of top trainer Christophe Clement and scored aboard the conditioner’s 3-year-old Empire Maker filly Clarinda in an impressive maiden special weight triumph Dec. 26.
“When I was a bug boy at Belmont, (Clement) said I should go to Tampa because they have a lot of good races on the grass,” Curatolo said.
Clarinda’s victory actually came on the main track, going seven furlongs. “It’s always better when you ride those kind of horses (like Clarinda). Those big trainers do a great job getting them ready to win, and you just have to put the horse in the right position and try to do something,” Curatolo said.
Curatolo’s agent, Sonny Hughes, credited the rider with smarts and patience for his winning effort. The 4-5 favorite, Clarinda was boxed inside from the turn to midstretch, but Curatolo refused to make a bad situation worse, biding his time before swinging wide for her stretch run.
“The only chance (Luis) Garcia (jockey on the runner-up, Bonjour Belle) had was to keep Ryan pinned on the rail,” Hughes said. “But Ryan didn’t panic and waited until he was able to get her outside and come on.
“That’s the way you evaluate a young rider – do they stay patient and relaxed, or do they get nervous and start doing silly stuff? Ryan has a good, solid foundation from being able to ride in New York as long as he did.
“His learning curve was shortened because of the wisdom that was imparted to him competing against quality riders like Ramon Dominguez,” Hughes added.
From all accounts, Curatolo avoided the glitz and self-seeking flatterers in New York, putting his job ahead of the endless trappings of success. In time, he also learned to ignore the catcalls and criticism that are part and parcel of the Big Apple racing scene.
“I got a chance to know Ryan this summer at Monmouth, and he is a very professional, polite, respectful young man with a natural passion for his job,” Hughes said.
Wisdom, skill, good manners and desire are poor subsitutes for mounts, but Curatolo believes his business is on the upswing at Tampa Bay Downs. More important, he believes this is what he is cut out to do.
“I have good communication with my agent, but you have to sell yourself,” Curatolo said. “When you’re winning, everybody wants to ride you. When things slow down, you still have to show up in the morning, work horses, keep yourself focused and do your homework.
“If I get on two horses or 10 every day, it’s the same for me. I’m here to keep learning. I’m going to try my best to win, and if I can’t win, I’m going to try my best for second.”
Curatolo is determined to not lose sight of the formula that made him so popular in New York in 2011. “When you win so many races, it is easy to forget how you got there,” he said, “but you have to keep your feet on the ground.
“I don’t try to prove anything to people. I know what I can do, so I just have to prove it to myself. I didn’t go crazy because I won a lot of races in New York,” Curatolo added. “I have a great job, but it is a job where anything can happen in a minute.”
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For riders like Mejias and Curatolo, the question often becomes what they will accomplish after losing the “bug.”
Last year’s leading apprentice at Tampa Bay Downs, Erik Barbaran, had a decent showing last summer at Suffolk in his first meet as a journeyman, winning 20 races.
Still only 20, Barbaran is working this winter in Ocala for his father Horacio Barbaran, riding ship-ins instead of basing his tack at the track. He is 0-for-13 at the meet and barely remembered by railbirds who watched him win 27 races here last season.
“This meet is tough,” said the elder Barbaran. “Erik has been in the country only one year (from Peru). I know he can become a good jockey. Next spring, I will go to Boston to help him, and I think he’ll be strong.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Angel Serpa was an Eclipse finalist for Outstanding Apprentice in 2010, winning 105 races, and his haul last season included 158 victories and a win in the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes aboard 28-1 shot Roman Tiger.
Why no drop-off in Serpa’s business? The explanation is simple, according to his agent, Al Dellape.
“The deal is, if you can maintain the stock you’re on and get a chance to ride them back – and then you win on them – you’re going to continue to go on,” Dellape said.
“If you have a kid who is on the precocious side, and a trainer is getting 7 or 5 pounds off, it’s almost like stealing. He has a good thing going for him,” Dellape said. “And if a kid gets a shot back after he loses the bug and keeps winning, he’ll do a good business.”
On the racetrack, though, success depends on more than a “Just win, baby” mantra – especially since even the greatest jockeys lose about 80 percent of their races.
Trainers such as Bennett appreciate a rider who learns as much from a photo-finish loss as an easy victory; someone who can put the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in the past right away.
He believes he has found such a jockey in Mejias.
“If they have a good work ethic, hang around the right people and stay with good outfits, they will usually keep having success after they lose the bug,” Bennett said. “In this sport, the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Mejias has displayed a strong sense of the pace of races, a trait often in short supply among apprentices. “A lot of kids like to send their horses hard from the gate, then they have nothing to finish with,” agent Landrau said.
“Ricky is very patient and knows where he is on the track. He has a good future, and I think he can ride anywhere if he gets a break.”
And for now, it looks like the breaks will keep coming at Tampa Bay Downs as trainers such as Bennett and Robert Raymond send business his way.
“We’ll ride (Mejias) some more,” Bennett said. “He seems like a bright young kid who wants to work and gallop horses in the mornings, and it looks like he can get out of the gate and get close, or whatever your instructions are. He looks like he will keep moving forward.”