Former Classmates at Puerto Rican School are Finalists For Eclipse Award
By By Catie Staszak
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – In 2013, Eclipse Award finalists Victor Carrasco, Manuel Franco, and Edgard Zayas combined for 3,160 starts, 548 wins, and almost $12.5 million in earnings.
But these three apprentice jockeys have more than just talent, horsemanship, and meteoric climbs up the jockey standings in common.
They also all learned their trade in the same place.
Carrasco, Franco, and Zayas are all products of the same jockey school – Escuela Vocacional Hipica in Puerto Rico – and are members of the school’s graduating class of 2012. Not long after commencement, the classmates left their native country to pursue careers in the United States, but they parted ways as each tried his hand at a different racing circuit. Carrasco took his tack to New York, Franco settled in Maryland, and Zayas made his home locally in South Florida, beginning at Calder and then commuting to Gulfstream Park. Now the three are grouped again as finalists for the year’s top apprentice jockey, as decided by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form, and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters.
The 43rd Eclipse Awards will be handed out Saturday evening at Gulfstream Park.
“I’m really excited to be a finalist,” Zayas said, “and I’m really excited for my friends, too. We were all in the same room at the same school. Being nominated – no matter if I win or lose – just being there is something big for me.”
Based at Camarero Race Park, Escuela Vocacional Hipica was established almost 40 years ago to provide local high school students with an alternate route to personal and professional success, according to school director Ana Velia Velazquez.
In order to be admitted to the school, students must meet weight and height requirements and pass a thorough interview process. Each year, about 15 jockeys are accepted into the school and begin a four-part curriculum that is entirely free. For the first six months, students do not even come in contact with a horse. Instead, they practice with a mechanical horse and work primarily in the classroom, studying topics like physical education, English, nutrition, ethics, the history of horse racing, and the anatomy and physiology of horses. The following six months are spent working on the ground with horses, learning to lead and handle them, as well as grooming and tacking, before they can mount the horse and begin riding in a round pen. The students finally train on the racetrack in the third quarter of the program, riding school-owned horses on a small track. Then the students ride local trainers’ horses on the large track at Camarero for the final six months of study.
“It’s a complete curriculum,” Velazquez said. “Not everyone finishes, but those that don’t make it get chances in other courses.”
Those courses are related to other areas of the racetrack industry, including training, exercise riding, veterinary work, horse shoeing, and grooming.
“We want them to be doing something good for them, their families, and their future,” Velazquez said. “After they graduate [from our school], we encourage them to keep studying to get a high school diploma as well.”
Graduates receive a special diploma from the school and also receive an occupational license in their respective field. The jockey program is accredited in Puerto Rico. But like Carrasco, Franco, and Zayas, most of the graduates do not stay local and instead move to the U.S. Velazquez will personally call agents to recommend a jockey who she believes can be successful. Then she stays in contact with the jockeys throughout their careers. A notable graduate is John Velazquez, a two-time Eclipse Award winner and member of the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. Velazquez recently donated a mechanical horse to the school, and the school dedicated its most recent graduation to him.
“It’s like a family,” Ana Velazquez said. “We care a lot about [our students]. We want them to become part of the school and feel like it’s their home.”
Velazquez described Carrasco, Franco, and Zayas as “good students with good grades and good behavior,” and she isn’t surprised in the least by their success. She pointed out Zayas as an especially hard worker. Zayas, in turn, also had very positive things to say about his time at the school.
“It was a really good experience,” Zayas said. “I learned everything there. We started from the bottom and [worked our way up] step by step. It’s a long course, but they teach it really good.”
Velazquez would agree, attributing positive results to the hard work the school’s qualified instructors put in and the motivating support they give to their students.
“I think we’re doing a good job,” Velazquez said. “It’s something we do with a lot of love. We do want to help these kids be successful and give them the tools to be better human beings and better professionals. This is the first time we’ve had three students become finalists for an Eclipse Award in the same year, and it’s very exciting. We’re very proud of them.”