by Dan Tordjman
In his first year as a jockey, Victor Carrasco had been pinned in and fanned wide. He’d occasionally broken poorly from the gate and sometimes found himself in traffic. Yet, time and time again, Carrasco found a way to win. What he’d never done was panic.
This past Saturday night, his ability to improvise — to rise to unexpected challenges — was tested yet again.
In retrospect, there was something poetic about it. While winning some 215 races as a bug rider, Carrasco had seemed imperturbable, unshakeable and, indeed, unstoppable. He’d shown no fear at all – that is, until he was called up to the stage at Gulfstream to accept his Outstanding Apprentice Jockey Eclipse Award. He’d played this scenario over and over in his head a million times before, yet Carrasco wasn’t totally prepared for it.
“The only thing that passed through my mind was, ‘What am I going to say?’,” Carrasco explained in an interview afterwards. “I had a good speech (saved) on my phone but 15 minutes before, my phone didn’t have any charge. There was no battery left.”
Ever resourceful, Carrasco quickly reached for a pen and a sheet of paper. There was no time to write his whole speech over again. Instead, he began to jot down the names of the people he wanted to thank. Looking around his table at the Eclipse Awards, there sat a handful of the people to whom he owed gratitude.
There was his agent Tom Stift, who’d encouraged Carrasco to keep up a relentless race-riding schedule that saw him ride multiple tracks, day and night, for months on end. Also at the table were Carrasco’s grandfather and uncle. They’d flown in from Carrasco’s native Puerto Rico, where the two horsemen had introduced Victor to the game at a young age and helped develop his skills. And then there was Carrasco’s mother, the woman he calls “the most important person” in his life.
As Carrasco approached the podium, he handed the Eclipse trophy to Stift and reached for the paper inside the pocket of his jacket. He looked up, smiled and began to speak.
“The dream has come true,” Carrasco said. “I want to say ‘thank you’ to all trainers, all owners, my agent Tom Stift.”
Carrasco would go on to thank several trainers, by name. He also acknowledged his former Puerto Rican jockey school classmates, Edgard Zayas and Manny Franco, who were also Eclipse finalists. Carrasco said that their collective nominations for the apprentice Eclipse Award made them all “champions.”
Then, in one of the more memorable moments of the night, Carrasco paused, laughed, and endeared himself to everyone in the room with two words: “I’m nervous.”
The admission elicited a supportive cheer from the crowd and a reassuring pat on the back from Eclipse Awards host, Jeannine Edwards.
“It’s OK. You’re doing great,” Edwards told Carrasco. “Enjoy it.”
Carrasco would compose himself and complete his speech. But those few seconds when he might’ve seemed unsure, perhaps even a little vulnerable, were illuminating. They served as a reminder that this preternaturally poised and driven rider is also just 21 years old. Who could be blamed for forgetting that simple fact when he’d accomplished so much in such a short period of time?
Yet just a year ago, Carrasco was still in Puerto Rico. He travelled to Florida with little more than a dream of making it as a professional rider. He hardly spoke English and didn’t personally know any trainers, owners or jockeys there. But it wasn’t long before he caught the eye of trainer Juan Vazquez at Tampa Bay Downs. Vazquez referred him to agent Tom Stift, and from there flowed a campaign that culminated on Saturday with Carrasco becoming the 10th Maryland-based apprentice to win the prestigious Eclipse Award, the first since Ryan Fogelsonger in 2002.
After finishing second in the riding standings at Delaware and Pimlico (by one win and two wins, respectively), Carrasco dominated the fall meet at Laurel with an astonishing 69 victories, 19 more than fellow bug rider Trevor McCarthy in second. In addition to Carrasco’s nation-leading win total, he also racked up $4.3-million in earnings as an apprentice. Just last month, he scored his first stakes win aboard Firenze Feeling in the $100,000 Nellie Morse Stakes. This week he begins riding as a journeyman (minus his apprentice weight allowance) and Carrasco has only one thing in mind.
“My goal is to try to stay at the top,” said Carrasco. “I’ll keep working hard and won’t look back.”
When and if he does find himself reflecting on the past year, there are countless moments that should make him smile. And, in a year full of victories, the Eclipse Award was perhaps the sweetest win of all because he actually got to share it with his family.
“They were hugging me and they were really happy,” said Carrasco. “It was an amazing experience.”
(Featured image, of Firenze Feeling winning the Nellie Morse with Carrasco up, by Laurie Asseo.)