From left: Brian Pedroza, Keiber Coa, Chelsey Keiser and Eduardo Gallardo
Getting established in a veteran-dominated colony at Tampa Bay Downs seems like a minor task compared with the obstacles apprentice jockey Eduardo Gallardo faced at the start of his career in April of 2012.
The native of Oaxaca, Mexico had ridden 32 races in Louisiana without tasting victory when his daughter Perla was born three months prematurely, weighing 1 pound, 11 ounces. She had two holes in the chambers of her heart and virtually no vision in her left eye, leading doctors to recommend surgery by the time she was 3 months old.
Worried about Perla’s future, paying the bills and providing a steady income for his baby girl and fiancée, Alma Crisanto, Gallardo took a job galloping horses at Indiana Downs for trainer David Paulus, unsure when he would return to afternoon action.
Fortunately, his prayers for Perla were answered. Both operations were successful, the smaller chamber hole closed on its own and she was able to come home when she was 9 months old. “The doctors had told us with the heart defect she had, there was a 90 percent chance she wasn’t going to make it,” Gallardo said recently through an interpreter, jockey Jesse Garcia. “And her vision now is incredible. She picks up the tiniest thing.
“Everybody says she is like a little miracle.”
Almost four years later, the 25-year-old Gallardo has resumed his career in full. After spending the last two years as an exercise rider for top trainer Steve Asmussen at Oaklawn Park and Fair Grounds, Gallardo returned to race-riding last summer at Indiana Grand, where he rode 12 winners from 88 starters. He arrived at Tampa Bay Downs last month with his family, agent Jimmy McNerney and a 7-pound apprentice weight allowance designed to offset his lack of experience.
For Gallardo and other potential-laden young jockeys, such as Brian Pedroza, Keiber Coa and Chelsey Keiser, getting enough opportunities to make an impression can almost seem miraculous in itself. And Gallardo, perhaps frustrated by his paucity of chances at Tampa Bay Downs, has elected to shift his tack to Turfway Park in Kentucky to begin 2016.
“Trainers don’t use the young riders here much. They use the ones with experience that always do good,” said veteran Jorge Vargas, who has ridden almost 3,100 winners since starting his career in 1979. “All they can do is try not to get discouraged and work extra hard. The harder you work, the more mounts you’re going to get.”
At Tampa Bay Downs, the track’s top trainers angle to secure the services of leading jockey Antonio Gallardo (no relation to Eduardo), whose 33 victories account for more than 20 percent of the races run this season.
Throw in past Oldsmar track champions Daniel Centeno, Ronnie Allen, Jr., and Manoel Cruz, along with mainstays such as Jose Ferrer, Fernando De La Cruz, Scott Spieth, Dean Butler, Ademar Santos and Victor Lebron, and it’s tough for new faces to get more than two or three mounts on a 10-race card.
The burden is sometimes magnified for Pedroza and Coa, sons of accomplished jockeys they are often compared with. Keiser faces her own stumbling block: the unspoken but still present resistance from some horsemen in using women jockeys during the races.
About all the new wave of riders and their agents can do is show up at the barns on time, work as many horses as they’re asked and be prepared when the bell rings. Oh yeah, and stay positive, even after those days when a photo-finish loss is the result of pilot error.
Along with their struggles comes a hard-earned realization that talent and persistence can take them only so far. They’ll need luck, health, good connections and an ability to shake off constant adversity to forge successful careers.
“THE OLD SOUL”
Gallardo began riding in Quarter Horse match races in Oaxaca when he was 8. By the time he left his job in Mexico at a chicken farm and arrived in the United States eight years later, his only ambition was to be a jockey. He worked at Oaklawn as a hotwalker for a season, then worked on a farm in the Midwest learning to gallop Thoroughbreds.
By the time he turned 18 and headed to Indiana, Gallardo had amassed a wealth of experience.
“He is pretty seasoned for a ‘bug’ (apprentice) rider because he has so much foundation in him,” McNerney said. “He has been around racetracks his whole life, and he’s a quick learner. He is always studying the form and race replays and watching what certain riders do in different situations. The big thing is, horses run for him.”
Working horses for Asmussen was a major challenge. The veteran trainer was very particular about workouts, instructing Gallardo to breeze a horse a certain distance in a specific time. Gallardo welcomed the opportunity to fine-tune his skills, knowing it would pay off down the road.
“I learned a lot of things from (Asmussen),” Gallardo said. “If I messed something up, he would tell me to do it another way, but he never got on my case. He always told me ‘You’ll be a good jockey.’ I was never really in any hurry, because I knew if I took my time and learned as much as I could, good things were going to happen.”
Veteran trainer Dennis Ward sees the Asmussen influence on Gallardo and predicts big things for him.
“He definitely has it all. He can sit on a horse quiet, he gets away from the gate good and he is as strong as anyone here,” Ward said. “He places a horse perfect, and when he gets one on the lead he can walk it to the wire. He doesn’t say much, but when you tell him something, you know he pays attention.”
At the end of every day, Gallardo, who has never seen his own father, feels fulfilled knowing he has given his best effort toward making a good life for his family. He is committed to improving his English skills to better communicate with horsemen, racing officials and media while sharpening his moves in the saddle.
“It’s harder here than he expected,” Jesse Garcia said. “But he is used to working hard every day. He knows there is always something to learn, and everything that has happened in his career has given him more time to get polished.”
“BURNING ON THE INSIDE”
At times, it is easy to forget Brian Pedroza is 24 years old. He carries himself with a confidence usually reserved for much older riders, and it is not unusual for trainers to employ him in major races at other tracks and at big 2-year-olds-in-training and yearling sales.
The son of jockeys Martin Pedroza and Kimberly Davis is enjoying the best season of his six-year career, riding first-string at Delaware Park for top trainers Tom Proctor and Anthony Pecoraro and also getting on a bunch for Jamie Ness. He was aboard Proctor’s Hip Hop N Jazz for a third-place finish in the Grade III, $300,000 Delaware Oaks this year, and last weekend, he rode trainer David Hinsley’s 5-year-old mare You Bought Her to a third-place finish in the Grade III Sugar Swirl Stakes at Gulfstream.
The sky seems the limit for Pedroza, but he is the first to admit there are times he’s found it challenging to keep both feet on the ground. “I just picked up riding so easy, I thought I was the greatest. A lot of trainers didn’t like my attitude,” he said.
When he heard that Ness had questioned his hunger, Pedroza knew he needed to prove himself to pick up more business in the afternoon. “He is the first person I see every morning,” Pedroza said.
Ness is willing to support Pedroza and his climb up the ranks as long as his emotional growth keeps pace with his improving skills and consistency. “He’s a young kid who has some maturing to do. I think he is more talented than his statistics say he is,” Ness said. “If he puts his mind to it and wants to become a professional jockey, he’s got a good future. I think he’s on the right path.”
Pedroza talks several times a week with his father, who rides in southern California and has won more than 3,700 races, including 11 Grade I stakes. He spent summers with him until he was 16 and has absorbed more information from him about being a jockey than many riders will ever pick up. But even as he is starting to get rolling, racetrack folks keep asking when results will match potential.
“With Brian, and with Keiber, I think they’re starting to realize ‘Oh God, this ain’t that easy,’ ” Ness said. “The reasons their dads were so good is they had the drive and the hunger to get good. They’re both good kids. Brian texts me every day, and he has always worked hard for me.”
Still, Pedroza marches to his own beat. He began the current meeting with Mike Moran as his agent, then decided to handle his own business, as he did at Delaware. “I just have a few outfits I’m riding for here,” he explained. Whether that game plan is sustainable remains to be seen. For now, Pedroza is keen to impress trainers by showing up at their barns with a fire he believes he has inherited from his father.
“I don’t mean to sound cocky, but I feel like I’m smart out on the track,” Pedroza said. “I make good decisions. It’s not all about looking good out there; it’s about using your brain, thinking who to follow and who not to follow and saving ground. Not moving too soon. There are just so many things.
“My first three years riding, a lot of times I would just go out of the gate and my mind would go blank. I’d just ride the race. There would be no thinking going on all. Finally I was able to start breathing during a race and start thinking strategically.”
Pedroza acts like a rider in a hurry to move on to the next big thing. With his ability to get horses to relax and his skills at judging pace and saving a strong finishing kick, insiders aren’t betting against him.
“Brian works hard and doesn’t miss a morning. He has a lot of confidence,” Ward said. “There is no ‘hold-back’ with him. He works for Proctor, so you figure one of these days he is going to break out.”
Before he does, though, he knows he needs to tap the brakes every now and then.
“I don’t know half as much as some of these other guys do. I learn something new every day, and I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes. That’s why it has taken me so long to get rolling. But it will come.”
“KEIBER, WITH A ‘K’ ”
Keiber Coa had been enrolled in the Laffit Pincay Jockey School in Panama City, Panama for a week when his father, outstanding jockey Eibar Coa, suffered a career-ending injury at Gulfstream Park in February of 2011.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, when it was feared he might be permanently paralyzed, the elder Coa hoped his teenage son would decide on another path. But Keiber had already made up his mind to keep going and began working even harder.
“My dad told me ‘It’s your choice,’ and I had all my focus on it and was so excited about starting the school that I kept going,” said Keiber, whose father attended his graduation ceremony later that year and has continued an amazing recovery. “In a way, it was the only thing I had left. I had always wanted to be a baseball player, but I wasn’t big enough.”
While he was at the school, and during his first year on the racetrack, Coa endured the inevitable comparisons with his father, who won more than 4,000 races, including the 2010 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint aboard Big Drama. “I want to make my own name, but I know I have a long way to go,” the 23-year-old said.
Coa’s progress toward his goals has been slowed twice by injuries this year. In March at Tampa Bay Downs, he broke his collarbone in a three-horse spill. And at the end of the Delaware meeting, he incurred a hairline fracture of his pelvis when a horse reared and landed on him.
Coa managed to return to action locally on Kentucky Derby weekend, and he was back in the saddle here six weeks after being injured at Delaware. “I missed almost four months of working, but I had a lot of success at Delaware, too. I can’t be too upset because injuries are part of the game and you always have to be ready for it,” he said. “I was lucky the one at Delaware wasn’t as bad as we first thought, because if I hadn’t come back until January or February, a lot of business would have been given out.”
Agent Phil Wasiluk believes Coa has the ability to enjoy a long, productive career. “A big reason he is doing well is that he never doesn’t give his best effort,” Wasiluk said. “I give him a lot of credit for getting himself ready to ride here. A lot of guys would have been sitting around the house moping, and he busted his butt so he could come back quicker.”
With his low-key personality, Coa is rarely noticed unless he wins. Ward, for one, would like to see him cultivate a hard edge. “His dad was more aggressive than he is, riding and talking to people. Keiber maybe needs to be more aggressive around people to sell himself more.”
For now, Coa will leave the selling to Wasiluk while waiting for his big break. “When you are succeeding in this business, it makes you want to work harder, and when you’re not winning you can’t get discouraged,” Keiber said. “A lot of times in this business, you have to be in the right place at the right time to get to ride the right horse. Until it happens, you have to hang in tough and hope for the best.”
“A HEALTHY ADDICTION”
Chelsey Keiser has learned that veteran jockeys are eager to help move her career forward – to a point.
“One guy told me to sneak up the rail, that I needed to save ground better,” she said. “So I snuck up the rail and beat him. He said ‘You have enough advice from me. I’m done helping you.’ ”
Keiser delivers the anecdote with cheerful laughter. The episode hasn’t stopped the energetic 23-year-old from approaching more experienced riders for their insights, nor just being a sponge in the jockeys’ room. “I’m not scared to ask a question, especially if someone says ‘Hey, you need to work on this,’ ” she said. “I’m like, OK, I’m going to try it, and if I can make it work for me, I’m going to do that.
“Most of the jockeys here have ridden a lot more races than I have, and I appreciate their help because it makes a difference. It’s cool being able to learn from them. Everybody wants to win, but we also want each other to ride well and be aware of where the other riders are on the track.”
Growing up in North Star, Ohio, horses were always a part of Keiser’s life. She competed in barrel racing as a youngster, but when she began exercising horses on the family farm at 14, she made up her mind to become a jockey. “There is something addictive about racing Thoroughbreds. When you win a race, it’s the best feeling in the world and you want to do it again, and when you get beat you’ve got to do it again because you want to win.”
Keiser has the ability to transmit her joy and love of horses to the public. Her first career victory came at Laurel aboard the gelding Smileforthecamera, leading the announcer to proclaim: “Chelsey Keiser gets to smile for the camera for the first time!” It was fun and it was cute, but the competitor in her wants to be known for more than her smile and her good looks.
Keiser and her agent, retired jockey Therese Powers, will joke about the need for Keiser not to swing her hips when she walks and to exude power, but it’s not totally a joke. “I want you to look at a race and not be able to pick me out, because I look just as good (riding) as everybody else,” she said. ‘It’s a challenge, and I’m taking it head-on. I’m not afraid to go against the odds.”
Keiser’s business had started to pick up at Monmouth Park last summer when she suffered a broken collarbone that kept her out of action for almost four months. She returned to action with a flourish, winning her first two races back, one at Indiana Grand and one at Mountaineer. She wasted no time making an impression locally by winning the first race on the Nov. 28 Opening Day card aboard the 4-year-old gelding Category for owner Wendy L. Brown and trainer Luis Dominguez.
But along with Gallardo, Pedroza and Coa, she has found it tough to gather the kind of momentum that makes horsemen sit up and take notice. The four have combined for 10 victories during the first month of action.
That doesn’t stop any of them from arriving before dawn to put in a full morning of work, searching for opportunity. “I try to keep my foot in everybody’s barn,” Keiser said. “Every day I’m out here, I work hard, and I work out every day. It doesn’t matter what horses I ride or what their odds are. It’s just showing you’re going to give 100 percent every time and getting the trainers to believe you can do it.”
Veteran trainer Gerald Bennett is impressed by Keiser’s persistence and ability to engage with her mounts. “She is here early in the morning and has a good work ethic. It seems like she gets along with the horses we put her on,” he said. “You can tell she wants to be up there at the top.”
She is far from the only one, and with dozens of riders on the grounds scrambling for the scraps left behind by Gallardo (no relation) and the other leaders, desire and dedication will tell the story.