Presidente Remon, the lone racetrack in the postage-sized country of Panama, has a slogan: Panamá es la cuna de los mejores jinetes del mundo.
Panama is the cradle of the best jockeys in the world.
It’s a true slogan. For five decades Panama has been the most fertile patch for turning out jockeys for American racing, much like the Dominican Republic for baseball players. And at the center of this tradition is the jockeys’ school there, which is named for Laffit Pincay Jr., its most famous graduate and probably the greatest jockey to ever live.
I’ve been spending the last few months looking into the school and Panama’s central place in American horse racing, asking the question, Why, of all places, Panama? An answer, as well as a look at the newest jockeys from Panama, will be in The Daily Racing Form next Saturday. Grab a copy.
The main character in my article is 17-year-old Luis Saez, the next can’t-miss jockey. His story nicely tells the larger one of how and why Panama continues to produce such skilled riders. Few other jockeys anywhere the last three months have been as scorching as Saez. At his base of Calder Racecourse in Miami he is neck and neck with two veteran riders for the riding title. And he’s always been in this country since August.
But it was a little more than a year ago that Saez slept on a tack room floor on the backstretch of Presidente Remon in Panama City, a hopeful 16-year-old jockey about to graduate from riding school there. For two years, Saez, a kid from a remote jungle area, shared that small concrete floor with another classmate, not to mention a bevy of rats and cockroaches that also called the tack room home.
To graduate from the school, riding was the last step; first there was walking hots, and grooming, and mucking stalls, eight hours of laborious tasks a day, all for little pay. Up at four in the morning for training hours, classes in the afternoon, then four more hours at the barn. The hose Saez used to spray the horses doubled as his shower.
“It’s a great sacrifice to live in those quarters,” Saez told me, through an interpreter.
Saez was hungry – literally and for opportunities, and when the chance to immigrate here opened up he didn’t wait to take it.
More to come next week…