Two of the top three positions in the current jockey standings are occupied by “bug boys,” jockeys who have yet to record 40 wins, or those riding in the year following their fifth victory. Tyler Gaffalione, whose father Steve once competed on the South Florida racing circuit, sits atop the meet leaderboard with 59 victories; he’s earned a meet-high $1.29 million in Gulfstream Park purses since the spring. Throughout the track, he is collectively viewed as one of the most improved riders on the circuit. He credits much of that improvement to learning from Gulfstream’s top journeymen throughout the winter season.
“It was the best thing I ever decided to do, to stay here this winter,” Gaffalione said after spending his first week atop the jockey standings in May. “I learned so much from guys like Javier [Castellano], John Velazquez, Mr. [Edgar] Prado for sure, he’s been a big help, Joel Rosario, Julien Leparoux, Rajiv Maragh. They’re great riders, good guys, and when you ride with them, you learn some of their habits – what they’re going to do, when they do it, kind of like their tendencies. It really helped me out a lot.”
Harry Hernandez, like Gaffalione a five-pound apprentice, is Gulfstream’s third-leading rider. A Puerto Rican native, he joined the Hallandale jockey colony in April and has since ridden 32 winners. The 18-year-old was winning races at Gulfstream at a consistent 18 percent clip before breaking his thumb in a spill during morning training hours on June 17. He’ll miss the next six weeks on the circuit, but he has a strong foundation to build upon when he returns to the saddle.
“The people here are great,” Hernandez said. “We have a lot of laughs [in the jockey’s room]. Edgard Zayas, Edgar Prado, Jose Caraballo, and [the other journeymen] tell you what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right, and they’re always cheering for you so you can get excited and keep riding well. And the trainers are good. They never get mad. They just tell you what you did wrong so you can fix it. It’s been really great.”
Gaffalione and Hernandez, two of the most popular jockeys on the circuit, are not the only bugs that have found success at the current race meet, as apprentice riders claimed four of the eight races on Gulfstream’s June 12 card. Hernandez captured both legs of the early double, but Octavio Vergara, Jr. and Brandon Boulanger also shined, riding to wins in the fourth and eighth races, respectively.
A California native, Vergara, Jr. worked for top trainers such as Shug McGaughey, Tom Albertrani, and Christophe Clement before taking out his jockey’s license; he is just one victory away from becoming a journeyman. Vergara’s father, Octavio Sr., rode for 35 years and finished third in the 1984 Preakness Stakes (G1).
“I’d like to stay here and make it my home base,” Vergara, Jr. said. “I figured, the one thing that would hurt me was to keep moving, which is what I did a lot when I first started, kind of just trying to find a place to call home. I hope this can be the spot.”
“Everyone really tries to help each other. That’s one thing about the colony I really like,” he added. “If somebody does something that they think you probably should not have done, they tend to give you advice without asking, which I think is really cool. Sometimes it’s kind of weird to ask your competition for help, so it’s cool that people will just give you insight for your safety and for theirs as well. That’s something I definitely appreciate.”
Boulanger also carries on a family legacy in the saddle, as his father Gary is a longtime journeyman currently riding at Woodbine Racetrack in Ontario, Canada. Boulanger grew up in West Palm Beach, and, like Vergara, Jr., hopes to set down roots at Gulfstream.
“There’s no place like Gulfstream,” he said. “I don’t really see any other place of going and any reason to go anywhere else. It’s Florida, a great place, and at Gulfstream there are plenty of racing days.”
Gulfstream has been known for producing successful bugs. Eddie Castro, now a journeyman at Gulfstream, won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s top apprentice jockey in 2003 after racking up more than 240 wins while riding at Gulfstream and Gulfstream Park West, then known as Calder Racecourse.
In 2013, Edgard Zayas earned an Eclipse Award nomination in the apprentice category after earning almost $3.8 million in purses at the two South Florida racetracks. He propelled that successful season into an even stronger one in 2014. After earning the leading rider titles at the Gulfstream Park summer meeting and the Gulfstream Park West fall meeting, he ended the year with 285 victories, good enough for fourth-best in the nation, and more than $5.8 million in purse earnings.
“I think it was a great place to learn,” Zayas said. “You get a lot of experience, especially in the winter meet, when all the big riders come down here, and they’ll help you. There are a lot of great things about being here.”
Now, Zayas can give his own advice to the up-and-coming riders.
“Always work hard and be responsible,” he said. “Always be really consistent with the way you ride and never change your style, no matter if you’re going through a rough week. Always be the same and be humble. Just keep trying to work hard. Every day, keep working harder and harder.”
Gulfstream’s current apprentice colony also includes Stephanie LaRicci, Luis Figueroa, and Alejandro Moreno.
“I like it here,” Figueroa said. “I come from Puerto Rico, and when you come here, you learn so much and you see so many new things.”
Photo Credit: Coglianese Photos
Left to right: Octavio Vergara Jr., Luis Figueroa, Tyler Gaffalione, Harry Hernandez, Brandon Boulanger)