Jose Angel Garcia keeps smiling when you suggest he is an average, middle-of-the-road jockey.
He doesn’t change expression when you point out his career win rate, 8.7 percent, won’t get him noticed by many top trainers and owners.
Like countless unheralded riders across North America, the 28-year-old believes all he needs to move to the next level is the right opportunity. The right barn, or the right horse, to provide a steady stream of winners and keep his agent busy politely turning down excess business.
Despite his journeyman status, though, Garcia does not suffer from a low profile on the Tampa Bay Downs backside, where winners and losers are often determined during training hours from 6-10 a.m.
Need a rider to help get a nervous filly comfortable in the gate? Garcia is your guy.
“He’s willing to take the extra time you need and show patience with a horse, and it usually pays off,” said trainer Michele Boyce.
Looking for a jockey who isn’t afraid to suggest an equipment change that might help a headstrong Thoroughbred? Contact Garcia.
“I like to get that kind of feedback from a rider when they come back to the barn,” said Sandra Adkins, Tampa Bay Downs assistant to trainer Gerry Aschinger. “You need that with young horses and horses that are still green.”
If you’re a trainer who doesn’t know Jose Angel Garcia from a Canadian Mountie, but your owner insists on riding one of the top guys on their horse in a graded stakes, and your horse needs a final tune-up before the race (and the big-name jockey isn’t in town yet). …
“If you call Jose and tell him you’re in a jam, he’s always there to help out. And he always shows up with a smile on his face,” said Gulfstream Park-based trainer David Fawkes.
Don Stetler, Fawkes’ assistant, happened to be listening in. And he felt compelled to get the final word on the Puerto Rico native.
“Jose is not just a fellow worker, or an employee,” Stetler said. “He’s my friend.”
HONORING HIS ROOTS
Jose Angel Garcia began his career like most jockeys in Puerto Rico, working as an exercise rider at the racetrack in his hometown of Canovanas. His primary duties consisted of getting on those horses his mentor, Carlos Pizarro, was too busy to work in the morning.
At 18, Garcia was a graduate of jockey school, eager to complete the next phase of his education on the path to afternoon glory. He studied Pizarro’s style, watching how he handled difficult horses and how he interacted with difficult horsemen.
And Garcia listened – not just for encouragement, but for advice on how to make it in the highly competitive world of Thoroughbred racing.
“Carlos always told me, ‘You work hard, and it will pay off.’ And I’d see him get on 10 or 12 horses every morning,” Garcia said.
Watching his friend and mentor rise through the ranks to become one of the top jockeys in Puerto Rico inspired Garcia to give up a good-paying job as an electrician and move to south Florida with his childhood sweetheart and wife, Delmaris, to pursue a career riding Thoroughbreds.
Last July, six years after beginning his own career, Garcia was plying his trade at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa., when he learned that Pizarro was hospitalized in Puerto Rico with a severe brain injury after a freak accident during training hours. A loose horse going the wrong way had slammed into Pizarro and his mount, a morning after he had won three races.
Pizarro died the following day. Garcia got up, jumped on horses and worked – because the most important lesson Pizarro had handed down was that the talents of a Shoemaker or a Cordero or a Day might be God-given, but the desire to work is up to the individual.
“He had a wife and two kids. I can’t even imagine what it was like,” said Garcia, who still retains the feeling of invincibility common to most jockeys who have never been seriously injured. “I had talked to him recently, and then he went to work and never came home.”
To Garcia and his rivals at Tampa Bay Downs, and at tracks across the globe, the inherent dangers of race-riding are the tradeoff for the excitement of competing on sleek, valuable horses bred to lay their hearts on the line.
Delmaris comes from a horse racing family; her mother and stepfather own horses. She watches all of Jose’s races, but her stomach is usually in knots until it’s over. Their 4-year-old daughter, Emily, is still too young to understand the risks of her father’s profession.
Delmaris supports Jose’s career 100 percent. She will text him after a race, sharing the key moments before it is time to prepare for his next assignment.
“Sometimes I’m a psychologist, sometimes I’m a nutritionist and other days I’m his exercise coach,” said Delmaris, who occasionally wonders how life would be different had Jose remained an electrician.
“You have to understand the sport to know why these guys do it,” said Delmaris, who hangs out with the wives and girlfriends of other Tampa Bay Downs jockeys such as Daniel Centeno, Pablo Morales and Huber Villa-Gomez.
“Being a jockey is tough. When we’re in Tampa, we usually live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “We don’t have a stable home, because he has to go somewhere else to ride when the meet ends.
“It’s not an easy sport, but it’s a way to live. It’s a lifestyle,” Delmaris added. “When he isn’t doing well, it’s a lot harder. But I accept it because it’s what he loves to do.”
Garcia explains his passion in simple terms. “You’re a 100-pound guy riding an animal that weighs 1,000 pounds,” he said. “For me, I think it is the adrenaline rush I feel when I’m on a really good horse and I ask it to run and we pass the wire in front. That’s the best feeling you can have.”
MAKING A NAME, DAY BY DAY
Garcia has been smoking-hot in February. That is a relative term, of course, for the dozens of jockeys outside the top tier at Tampa Bay Downs, those men and women who on most days must be content with picking up the long shots not assigned to Centeno, Antonio Gallardo, Ronnie Allen, Jr., Rosemary Homeister, Jr., and Fernando De La Cruz.
Garcia has ridden three winners since Feb. 4, almost half his total of eight for the meeting. Although he has been here since the start of the season, he has received only 93 mounts, an average of 2.1 a day.
That puts Garcia in the same boat with just about everybody else. It’s a significant drop-off from Homeister’s total of 191 mounts to the sixth-place jockey, Morales, with 118.
Making the situation more problematic is that most of the trainers and owners of the better horses maneuver constantly to land the top jockeys in the standings for their horses.
“The problem with Tampa – I see it every year – is that there are just so many jockeys,” said assistant trainer Adkins. “They want to be somewhere it’s warm, and it’s a little easier (competition) here than Gulfstream (in south Florida).
“But it’s hard to look at the statistics here and draw any conclusions about jockeys without knowing what horses they’re getting on,” Adkins said. “They might be riding a 60-1 shot, and if they help it improve to third or fourth place, they’re doing a good job.
“I know Jose is a good rider. He’s consistent, and if he’s getting on a good horse, he’ll give you a good ride.”
In mid-January, Adkins assigned Garcia to ride a first-time starter she entered in a $25,000, one-mile maiden claiming race that had been taken off the turf. Both had high hopes for the horse, a 5-year-old gelding named Spark Kit, but he was rank throughout much of the race and faded to fourth after threatening midway.
After the race, Garcia told Adkins that Spark Kit had been hard to handle. The next morning, he suggested the horse might be more focused and easier to control with a different bit than the basic, mild D-Ring snaffle they had been using.
“Jose thought if he had a little more bit, he could control him a little better and get him to settle,” Adkins said. Before Spark Kit’s next breeze, Adkins fitted him with a standard Ring Bit designed, as Adkins puts it, to give the jockey “more brakes.”
“Jose worked him twice with the new bit, and he was perfect,” Adkins said. “When another horse would go by him and Spark Kit would get strong, Jose could reel him in. It worked great.”
On Feb. 5, the renewed confidence of horse, trainer and rider came together for a wire-to-wire victory. Adkins believes Garcia’s input after Spark Kit’s first race was instrumental in getting him to win.
Boyce is another who appreciates Garcia’s keen insights. “I wouldn’t mind taking him back to Chicago with me,” she said, perhaps half-jokingly.
Since early January, Garcia had been working Boyce’s 3-year-old City Zip filly, Narfooska, for her career debut. Bettors made her 17-1, and halfway through the race, it appeared they were correct in their assessment.
But with a furlong left in the five-and-a-half-furlong sprint, a confident Garcia asked his filly for her best. Narfooska responded by flashing past the leaders and drawing off to a two-length victory.
In the winner’s circle, an ebullient Garcia, his face splattered with wet sand, celebrated with Boyce, who credited the victory in large measure to Garcia’s attention to detail during the filly’s training.
“Most of the work is done in the morning, when the foundation is put in. The afternoons are the frosting on the cake,” Boyce said.
“Jose has a very good work ethic, which is important. He has a good set of hands, and he can tell you a lot about a horse when he gets off them. And he is very good about following instructions.
“He is a very good workout rider – he has the proverbial clock in his head,” Boyce added. “If you say ‘I’d like this horse to do a half-mile in 50 (seconds),’ he’s going to come very close, if not hit it on the head.”
After Narfooska’s victory, Boyce was beaming. It was hard to tell who she was happier for – the horse or the jockey that never gets noticed, unless he wins or screws up.
STAYING POSTIVE COMES NATURALLY
Garcia and his agent, Phil Wasiluk, make the rounds of the barns every morning, taking horses to the track and trying to drum up future business. Through his soft-spoken, friendly personality, Garcia spreads cheer in an environment where it sometimes is in short supply.
“He is always positive,” Adkins said. “I’ll see him come back from a race when he absolutely got stomped, and he’ll smile and say hi.”
Wasiluk, who is in his first year as an agent, also handles the bookings for Keiber Coa and apprentice jockey Janelle Campbell. He often leaves Garcia on his own, checking in periodically for updates.
“How do I sell Jose? Mostly he sells himself,” Wasiluk said. “He watches every race and seems to know all the horses here at the track. Trainers trust him because they know they can pick his brain about a horse.
“He could be one of the top agents on the grounds after he stops riding.”
When he was based in south Florida, Garcia hooked up with Fawkes, best known as the conditioner of 2010 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Big Drama, as well as such other graded-stakes winners as Duke of Mischief, Apriority and Bahamian Squall.
At one time or another, Garcia worked each of the above for Fawkes, only to surrender his seat for a major race. While that is nothing new in racing – owners believe, justifiably, they have enough invested in their animals to get a top jockey – Garcia always rolls with the punches.
“Would he have liked to have ridden them? Of course,” said Stetler, the assistant to Fawkes. “But he never complained. Jose likes to get on horses. He comes to the barns to work, and he gives you 100 percent every time.”
“Jose is very persistent,” said Fawkes. “He always did a good job with our top horses. If you ask him to be aggressive with a horse, he’ll do it, and if you ask him to sit back and wait, he’ll do that. And he has a strong finish.”
Hearing those attributes begs two questions: Why, since his arrival in Miami in 2008, has Garcia won on such a low percentage of his mounts? And what’s it going to take for his career to take off?
“You can be the best rider in the world, and if you’re always riding bad horses, no one is going to know it,” said Centeno, a five-time Tampa Bay Downs jockey champion. “Jose always tries hard, and he never gives up. He has a good head and knows everything about every horse in a race. He can ride with me and with anyone else in this room.”
So often, the debate comes down to “too many jockeys and not enough fast horses to go around.” Good luck ever meeting a jockey willing to admit they are run-of-the-mill in their profession; all are waiting for that one big horse to elevate their profile and put them in demand.
“I just need one opportunity to prove myself,” Garcia says, matter-of-factly. “What I need are trainers who I have never ridden for to trust in me and give me one opportunity.
“I think what helps you move up in this business is working hard, and that’s what I do every day. I think it will pay off. I just have to wait for the right moment.”
One of Garcia’s good friends, trainer Marcial Navarro, offers another take. He suggests that Garcia needs to step outside the comfort zone of the Tampa Bay Downs and Presque Isle Downs circuit, maybe head to the mid-Atlantic or Indiana Grand this summer, announce his arrival and prove what he can do.
“He’ll do well at Monmouth, Delaware or Indiana. The map is big, and to take it to the next level, he needs to try something else. His daughter is still young. This is the time he should go.
“I wouldn’t be surprised any day if he breaks through the glass. He just needs to believe in himself more,” Navarro said. “He has to believe he can be better than anyone here. That’s when he’s going to take off.”
It’s not the first time Garcia has heard such advice, and it won’t be the last. He hasn’t decided yet where to relocate after the current Oldsmar meeting, although right now he is between a return to Presque Isle or south Florida, where he has ridden in previous summers.
But when it comes to a choice between unbridled ambition and what’s most important, Garcia’s mind is already made up.
“You can be ambitious. But I think family comes first,” Garcia said. “I always bring Delmaris and Emily with me wherever I ride, and I think that works out better for me. Family is the only thing you’re going to have when you finish your career.”
WIFE, DAUGHTER MAKE STRUGGLES WORTHWHILE
Jose and Delmaris attended Luis Hernaiz Veronne High School in Canovanas together, and they married at 19, shortly before Jose rode his first race at Camarero Race Park. After Emily was born in 2010, Delmaris took a job as a sales manager at a women’s clothing and accessories store in Miami, but she gave up her job when Garcia moved his tack to Oldsmar for the 2012-2013 Tampa Bay Downs season.
Through the ups and downs of his still-fledgling career, Delmaris has been Jose’s biggest supporter. There have been numerous challenges. The day after his second career stakes victory – in the fall of 2013 at Laurel, aboard Monster Sleeping in the $127,500 Maryland Million Ladies Stakes – they packed up the car and drove 17 hours with Emily to ride a horse at Calder the next day.
They arrived in time for Garcia to ride Balino to a fourth-place finish.
The key to maintaining a healthy relationship, Delmaris says, is communication. When Jose gets home after a zero-for-5 afternoon and lets down his guard, she knows her job is to pick up the pieces.
“We know you can’t win every time, but he gets frustrated like everybody else, especially if he was on a couple of horses he thought had a real good chance to win,” she said. “I can see it in his face. I just try to stay positive all the time and help him see the positives in everything.”
Of course, Jose can always turn to Emily’s smiling, angelic face to forget a tough day at the track. She accompanies him on fishing excursions, and they frolic in the park with their Chihuahua, Scrappy.
If he finishes early, he’ll pick Emily up from her pre-kindergarten class. And he brings her a Shopkin toy every time he wins a race.
“She is a daddy’s girl,” Delmaris noted.
On off days, the Garcias socialize with their friends from the riding colony – Centeno, Morales, Erick Rodriguez and Villa-Gomez, who was released from the hospital several days ago after suffering a fractured L1 vertebra in a spill on Feb. 6.
The families might throw steaks or fish on the grill, with the men talking sports and telling tall tales of their riding exploits, the women chatting about fashion and movies and the children playing games.
Just normal, every-day people who choose to put their lives on the line to satisfy an innate urge to find a personal Pegasus. And if Jose has his way, the talk will eventually swing back around to the horses.
“He is just so into it,” Morales said. “Other guys will be watching a TV show in the room, and he’ll be watching all the races from other tracks, seeing what horse he wants to ride next.
“He knows what other jockeys are doing and which horses are running everywhere. He is a horse racing freak.”
At 5-feet-7, Garcia is somewhat tall for a jockey, and his frame is sturdy. His physique requires that he sacrifice about 15 percent of his essence to ride Thoroughbreds. He would probably weigh about 135 pounds naturally; the sport’s scale of weights system requires he get down to 115 or 116 by race time.
Part of Garcia’s daily ritual involves visiting the sweat box in the jockeys’ quarters before the afternoon card. Alternating between sitting in the box with a towel around his waist and brief periods of cooling off, he is able to reduce as much as 3-3 ½ pounds, getting down to 115 or 116 by post time.
“When you start riding and don’t know how to go about losing weight, you feel like you’re going to die in there,” Garcia said. “Once you know what you’re doing and understand your body and how to start sweating, it’s easy. I can go in there and start sweating and shave, and when I’m done shaving and cool off a little, I’ve lost a pound and a half.”
Delmaris worries about Jose’s well-being when it comes to diet. Dinner is often his only meal; he subsists mostly on coffee and a variety of vitamins. “We have to be very careful about what he eats, and he goes to the doctor for regular exams and to check his blood,” she said.
Garcia’s devotion to this usually unspoken aspect of their craft is a marvel to Morales.
“We all love winning. I want to be the best I can be,” Morales said. “But Jose’s passion goes deeper. When I see what he is willing to go through reducing and still not win that much, I know he must really love the business.”
For Garcia, no two days, no two horses, no two barns are alike. He loves meeting new people and unlocking the mystery of equine athletes. That, more than anything, explains his boundless enthusiasm.
“I like to ride horses that are 99-1, too, because it’s an opportunity to improve them,” Garcia said. “I learn something from every race and from every rider. In this job, you never stop learning.”