Jose Caraballo the New Kid on the Block at Gulfstream Park
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL - If you asked a young Jose Caraballo what he wanted to be when he grew up, he’d tell you he wanted to be a professional basketball player.
The Puerto Rican jockey laughs at those childhood memories now. Things didn’t pan out for Caraballo on the basketball court, but he's happy with the way things turned out. When Caraballo didn’t grow past 5’2”, he decided to become a jockey. After 36 years in the saddle, he’s won more than 2600 races and amassed earnings upwards of $44 million.
Caraballo has ridden over 17,000 races in his career, but not a single one of them had been at Gulfstream Park prior to this season. The 48 year old found the warm weather in South Florida too appealing to pass up, and in November he moved his tack from Delaware Park in Maryland to contest Gulfstream’s Champions Meet for the very first time. So although he is by far a veteran compared to the riders he is competing against, he is by and large a rookie at the Hallandale track. Still, he has ridden nine winners so far this meet and is finishing in the money more than 30% of the time.
“It’s great, especially right now, because the quality of the horses and riders is the best,” Caraballo said. “I feel very good competing with these guys and holding my own, and it’s getting better every day. I’m a little older and competing with the young kids, and I’m beating them. I like that. I like the competition.”
Caraballo was inspired to ride by a cousin of his father’s in Puerto Rico. By chance, his name was also Jose Caraballo. According to Caraballo, the elder Caraballo was the leading jockey in his native country for many years.
“He was a great, famous jockey,” Caraballo said, “and that’s how I went into it. Same name. My goal was to be a jockey, and it’s been good. I’ve been lucky.”
Caraballo’s racing career truly began, though, at Thistledown in North Randall, Ohio, a far cry from Puerto Rico. Caraballo struggled with his weight in his native country and thought he’d have more success in the United States. He won his first race at Thistledown in 1978 before moving to Boston at the request of his father, who to this day follows Caraballo to the tracks where he rides. He currently works on the Gulfstream backside as a hot walker.
“We do a lot of jumping around (as jockeys),” Caraballo said. “There (in Boston) I did amazing – leading jockey at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park. My father asked me to come over there, so that’s why I went. He follows me around now. He’s my biggest fan.”
The family affair continues with Caraballo’s brother, who exercise rides at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. Additionally, Caraballo’s wife Aimee Hall is a trainer. Caraballo won his 2,000th race aboard one of Hall’s horses in 2005.
“I was supposed to ride a horse before that race, but I didn’t, and the horse won,” Caraballo said. “If I would have ridden that horse, I wouldn’t have won my 2000th for her. It was meant to happen.”
Caraballo also had the privilege of riding 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, whom he compared to a Ferrari, in the colt’s first two races. He also rode top sire Tapit to his maiden win at Delaware Park in 2003. But if you ask Caraballo who his favorite mount is, he will give you a different name – a lesser-known filly by the name of Lemon Drop Mom. Caraballo rode Lemon Drop Mom in nine of her 20 career starts, including her final five races. He also rode her to four of her six wins and all three of her stakes wins. In 2008, the two were second in the Delaware Handicap (G2) and Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) and third in the Beldame Stakes (G1).
“Even though I rode Barbaro and Tapit, that filly for me was special,” Caraballo said. “Any time I rode her in a race, she was always there for me. There was just something about the filly. And every place I went, she always showed up. I liked that.”
Caraballo will ride the rest of the Gulfstream meet before heading back home to Delaware, excited about the new contacts he has formed during his time in Florida. He already has plans to return.
“I’ve had a great time,” Caraballo said. “I’ve done good and created some new business. I have to go back home, because I have so much business back there, but now that I’ve come here, it’s going to be even better there, because I’ve picked up some new outfits, like (trainer) Ricky Griffith. Last year he was there (at Delaware Park), but I didn’t ride for him. Now that he’s here, I rode three for him, and I won two already. I’ve picked up a lot more business. I have to go back home, but I look forward to next winter.”