By Brian Skirka For Gulfstreampark.com
HALLANDALE BEACH - Jockey Paco Lopez started his 2010 Gulfstream Park meet two-for-85. If that wasn’t bad enough, a month into the meeting he had a total of only five winners.
Yes, by April 2 – the opening day of Keeneland’s spring meet – Lopez had 52 wins at Gulfstream and was ahead in the jockey standings by two. Just three weeks later, after a start that would have frustrated many riders, the 24-year-old Lopez was celebrating his first Gulfstream riding title.
“That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize about last year,” said Cory Moran, Lopez’s agent. “We started a little slow and really came on. We were actually leading rider before Keeneland opened and all the top riders went to ride there.”
Lopez learned at an early age what it was like to compete on horseback. The native of Veracruz, Mexico began riding quarter horses at the age of 12 at the bush tracks of his native land.
“He was a hero in Mexico,” Moran said. “He won 5,000 quarter horse races before even coming to the U.S.”
Since arriving in this country, Lopez has made quite a name for himself.
At the age of 21, he began riding at Calder and captured the 2008 riding title at the North Miami track just a year later on his way to being crowned the nation’s top apprentice jockey at the Eclipse Awards.
In addition to those achievements and his 2010 Gulfstream title, Lopez has also been leading rider at the Meadowlands in 2009 and at Monmouth Park’s 2010 Elite Summer Meet.
“He’s just a natural on a horse,” Moran said. “He has a great feel and gets a lot of run out of the horse. He never goes against the grain of the horse and he’s fearless.”
Among Lopez’s top mounts from last year’s Gulfstream Park meet was 3-year-old filly Joanie’s Catch, whom he rode to a trio of on-the-board finishes in Grade 2 company. Lopez also captured the Grade 3 Skip Away with Arson Squad for trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. during last year’s Gulfstream meeting.
This year, Lopez and Moran enter the Gulfstream meet with a few more aces up their sleeves, including a mare who gave Lopez one of his biggest wins of the summer at Monmouth Park.
“Unbridled Essence is a very nice horse we’ve ridden and will be riding this winter for [trainer] Greg Sacco,” Moran said. “We won the Grade 3 Matchmaker at Monmouth Park aboard her this summer. I think Greg is pointing her to the Sunshine Millions [Filly & Mare Turf on January 29].”
Despite having so much success so early in his career Lopez isn’t overconfident in his quest to defend his 2010 Gulfstream title.
“I know it’s going to be a very tough meet,” Lopez said. “There are a lot of good riders down here. All I can do is try my best and hope to ride a lot of good horses.”
There is one thing that he’s never done before that Lopez said he would enjoy getting the opportunity to do in 2011.
“I think it’s every rider’s dream,” Lopez said, “to ride in the Kentucky Derby.”