Beating the odds, jockey chases dream of running for the roses at Philly-area track
January 17, 2013By Kevin McCorry
Video by Kimberly Paynter
Within the horse-racing community, Parx Racetrack in Bensalem, Bucks County, is considered a major stepping stone to the upper echelons of the sport.
If a young jockey wants to make it to, say, the Kentucky Derby, Parx -- which used to be called Philadelphia Park -- is a good place to earn a reputation.
Talk to the insiders at Parx these days, and they'll tell you there's one young rider who's doing exactly that.
As a 16-year-old high school sophomore in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Angel Suarez had grades high enough to be ranked near the top of his class.
His mom figured he'd become a doctor.
Suarez, though, had other thoughts.
"One day I just decide to become a jockey," said Suarez. "And I tell it to my mom. I say, 'Hey mom, I want to be a jockey.'"
His agent, Donna Servis, still can't fathom the guts it took for Suarez to make that decision.
"He was top honors at his class at high school, finished sophomore year and came home and told his mom, 'I don't want to go back to high school. Don't register me for junior year,'" said Servis.
"She said, 'You don't want to be a jockey. You're too smart for that.' And he said, 'No, no. I really think I do.' She said, 'Well, let me think about it.' Slept on it that night, woke up the next morning and said, 'OK, whatever you decide, I'll support you.'"
At first, Suarez had very little going for him. He had zero racing experience. He couldn't afford the equipment or the uniforms. Even getting to the school was a chore. His family didn't have a car, and he sometimes made the 20-mile trek by foot.
But to Suarez, these were mere minor setbacks. The way he figured it, he was short enough, thin enough and, above all, driven by a burning passion to be the best.
Within two years, he graduated from jockey school as one of the top prospects in Puerto Rico and set his sights on the big time in the United States.
Welcome to the big show
When Servis watched video on Suarez, she knew the 109-pounder was the real deal.
"When apprentices come, most of the time they're very anxious," Servis said. "They break from the gate. They go to the lead. They rush, rush, rush, rush, rush. And then they hit the top of the stretch and then -- they have nothing."
The big deal about Suarez, according to Servis?
He had what teenagers of all nationalities typically lack: patience.
Servis signed him as a client early in 2012 and immediately Suarez began establishing himself as one of the top apprentices or "bug boys" in the nation. (Rookie racers are called "bug boys" because they're marked differently in the racing form, with an asterisk that some think resembles an insect.)
With binoculars at his eyes, a microphone fixed to a podium at his chest, Keith Jones calls all the action at Parx from his perch high above the grandstand.
"I watch a lot of kids who come here as apprentice jockeys, and you watch them and you wonder how they're even managing to stay on the back of the horse," said Jones, an announcer for 27 years.
"But (Suarez) hasn't shown it at all. He's ridden like a veteran rider almost from the first day he got here."
In the money
Barely in Bucks County a year, Suarez has now won 156 races, has been nominated for the prestigious 2012 Eclipse Apprentice of the Year award, and has raked in over $3.4 million in purse earnings -- more than any other rookie in the country.
After the owners, trainers and groomers take their cut -- minus travel expenses and agent fees -- the 19-year-old made about $150,000 in 2012.
But don't think that money, or success, came easily; Suarez wakes daily at 5:30 a.m. and is outside on the coldest of cold days, the hottest of hot days.
He faces the very real danger of getting seriously injured by horses.
He constantly has to travel, feels steady pressure to win, and fights a continuous battle NOT to gain weight, often eating just one meal a day, a salad, right before bed.
He repeats this process seven days a week. On and on. Without break. For months.
Not to mention that Suarez has had to leave everything he used to know.
"Believe me, when I first came here, it was very hard for me. You know, 19 years old, and staying here alone is really hard sometimes. But then I just focus on my work, and start to win races and I started to feel better," said Suarez.
"Sometimes my family comes here and visits me, so, sometimes I feel alone, but not all the time."
Heart of a champion
No matter the loneliness, the pressure or the success, Suarez hasn't let it go to his head.
"I always send money to my mom," he says. "My mom is first."
To Servis, this humility is a welcome rarity in the horse-racing world.
"They are given so much so fast in life that they reach a certain point in their career where they get big heads. They think they're God," she said.
"They think that no one can touch them. All the women want them ... it can turn them into monsters. Angel has never ever, ever changed," Servis said.
For Suarez, who will graduate from apprentice jockey to journeyman in February, this is only the beginning of his dream of one day riding in the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes.
He will find out if he's won the apprentice of the year award at a ceremony in Florida Saturday night.
In the meantime, he has advice for anybody thinking of becoming a jockey.
"Well first, you have to lose weight, and, I don't know, you have to love horses."
Editor's note: In an earlier version of the story Suarez was misidentified as living in the United States for less than a year. Suarez in fact was born in Puerto Rico and is a U.S. citizen.