By Dave Joseph For Gulfstreampark.com
Cliff Collier laughs when he recalls his first meeting with jockey Elvis Trujillo.
“I went to the airport in Miami to pick him up and I was standing there holding a sign that read ‘Elvis,’ ” recalled Trujillo’s agent one recent morning on the Gulfstream Park backstretch. “I didn’t think how stupid that might have looked until I realized everyone was looking at me like I was crazy.”
But 10 years after Trujillo’s arrival in the U.S. from his native Panama, no one is laughing at Collier for wanting to be the agent of a 17-year-old kid who didn’t speak English and had little racing experience in North America.
As Gulfstream prepares for its 69th season of racing Wednesday, Trujillo has quickly and quietly become one of the top jockeys in the country. Trujillo has finished second in the jockey’s standings the past two Gulfstream meets and was second in the standings at the 2010 Monmouth Park meeting.
“This year,” Trujillo says with a smile, “I want to move up. I want to be the leader at Gulfstream.”
For fans around the country, Trujillo has become a solid, trusted rider who’s a good judge of pace and always gives his mounts a shot to win. He’s focused; he’s professional; and he’s also built a loyal following of fans when it comes to his ability on the turf.
“Every race is different,” Trujillo said. “Sometimes you have to be patient; sometimes you have to move early; sometimes you move too soon. You know, in one second, you can win a race or lose a race. In one second, the hole can open or, in one second, the hole can close.”
Trujillo’s ability comes from a mix of family tradition and hard work. Christened Elvis because his mother was a big fan of Elvis Presley, Trujillo has five family members who are jockeys, including a cousin and uncle who rode in China and another uncle, Jose Corrales, who rode in the U.S.
With riding in his blood, Trujillo attended Panama’s Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School at the age of 15.
“Every day, I went for two years,” Trujillo said. “You learn to groom horses, hot walk, take care of them – it was very hard work but very cool. I worked hard and I studied hard.”
It wasn’t long after Trujillo graduated from the Pincay School that his uncle (Corrales) told former jockey and leading trainer Wesley Ward about his talented nephew.
“His uncle had been a friend of mine for 30 years; we rode together,” Ward said. “I worked horses in New York in the mornings with Jose. He had to wait a long time to ride before dominating in the northwest. He told me about his nephew, this upcoming jock in Panama who was having trouble getting into the U.S. So we got an attorney out in California to get him legalized. Elvis wound up going through Mexico and riding there before we could get him to California.”
Trujillo rode for Ward in California and won with his first mount. But with mounts tough to get – and after stops in Chicago and New Orleans - the decision was made in 2006 to head east and team up with Collier.
“Elvis didn’t know any English when he flew to Miami,” Collier said. “Needless to say, it was kind of tough communicating with him. But my wife put signs up on our refrigerator with words, so he would eventually point to what he wanted. That’s how he started to learn English.”
And Trujillo’s career has taken off. He scored with his first Breeders’ Cup mount, Maryfield, in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and, weeks later, won three graded stakes on the same card at Calder. He’s been the regular rider of multiple stakes-winner Presious Passion and took home the Monmouth Park riding title in 2009.
“To come to this country so young and with so many dreams and see them come true is very satisfying,” Trujillo said. “But I want to get better and succeed even more. Gulfstream is one of the greatest meets in the world. I think it’s everyone’s dream to do good here and get a couple good 3-year-olds – you know, get a horse and win the Kentucky Derby one day. But I want to do my best every day, every race. I want to ride here with the best…and win.”