By Ed Gray
Joe Bravo is the quintessential journeyman, a hard-nosed jockey whom bettors have been counting on for winners for more than 20 years. With 4559 trips to the winner’s circle, the New Jersey native has served them well.
Bravo could call it a career tomorrow, and no one would have the right to ask any more of him –except the 39-year-old jockey himself.
Instead of looking back on a rewarding career, in which he captured 13 riding titles at Monmouth Park and 9 more at Meadowlands, Bravo is looking forward to many more years of riding winners. He already has an inkling what retirement would feel like, and he prefers the thrill of riding winners that he’s experienced on a regular basis at the current Gulfstream Park meeting.
“You know what makes me enjoy it as much as I do now? It was sitting on the sidelines,” said Bravo, referring to injury-enforced periods of inactivity in 2001. “To tell you the truth, it was getting a little bit like a job to me. I won a lot of races. It got to be old hat. Sitting on the sidelines with injuries and watching the game go by, gave me a very, very big appreciation for it. I want to be out there. It’s great.”
Bravo has ridden 25 winners from 148 mounts to rank among the Top 10 at the highly competitive Gulfstream Park meeting.
“I’m ecstatic just to have a job again. I’ve had a great career with a lot of success. I had 13 years without an injury, then I got into a pretty good spill, breaking a lot of bones,” Bravo said. “It was a sad period in my life. I think it’s why I enjoy the game so much at this point and time.”
Bravo has enjoyed particular success in turf races, scoring 18 victories on the grass course, including stakes triumphs aboard Little Mike in the Fort Lauderdale (G3) and Canadian Turf (G3) and Justaroundmidnight in the Marshua’s River (G3). Only leading rider Javier Castellano has more turf victories (25) than Bravo.
“The whole key about winning turf races is to be on a good horse. Good horses make you look good and bad horses make you look bad. But in turf racing more so than dirt, positioning is a big advantage,” he said. “On turf, you don’t have to quite have the best horse. You can have a mediocre horse in position with a good punch. Everything is the last eighth of a mile, not the first mile.”
Bravo has a special appreciation for the nuances of turf racing.
“It’s exciting. A horse could be last turning for home and still have a game effort to win the race,” he said. “On dirt, you don’t see that as much because, it’s almost like you’re running on the beach. It takes time to get into stride and get into gear and get the rhythm down running on dirt, whereas a turf horse will get up underneath you and grab a hold of the bit – cut and go.”
Bravo, who has ridden 24,600 mounts, is being somewhat more selective in accepting mounts at this stage of his career.
“I want ride a horse with a shot to win, and I think trainers know that. I’m not going to waste your time wanting to ride a horse I don’t think has a shot,” Bravo said. “If I’m asking to ride a horse, it’s because I really think he’s going to be somebody, maybe not that start, but down the road. It’s not only to win the race but to develop a horse. I think that’s the biggest thing. Winning is great, but if you can develop a horse to win several races in a row, that’s a big advantage.”
Bravo, though, is far from riding out the string. He’s riding with a renewed passion for his craft.
“In this game, I don’t care if you’re 100 years old, you’re always going to learn something. I go out there every day and learn something new. You use that to your advantage,” he said.
Bravo is also riding for the fun of it.
“If you don’t enjoy this job as a jockey, you better stop before you get started, because you’re going to lose 80-percent of the time when you have a good year. It’s a very tough injury. There are a lot of injuries ahead of you,” he said. “You better enjoy it, and I love it. It’s not a job it’s a life.”