(Originally published in the March 3, 2012 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
Even by jockey standards Rafael Bejarano spent a busy President’s Day weekend in mid-February.
He began it Feb. 16 in Kentucky, taking and passing his U.S. citizenship test. Feb. 17 through Feb. 19, Bejarano worked at his day job, riding winners in Southern California, where he is currently second in the Santa Anita standings. On Feb. 20, at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, Bejarano piloted the winners of both divisions of the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) for red-hot trainer Bob Baffert.
Bejarano might have been able to cut down on his travel by taking the citizenship test in California, but the Peruvian-born rider wanted close friends to share in his pride at becoming a U.S. citizen, which will be finalized during his induction ceremony, also in Kentucky.
“Julio Espinoza has been a good friend of mine for a long time, since I came to the United States,” said Bejarano. “He and his family will be there for the swearing-in.”
Bejarano considers himself a Kentucky resident who happens to work in California. After spending 11⁄2 years at the Peruvian jockey school, whose graduates include Edgar Prado and Jorge Chavez, and riding at the Hipodromo de Monterrico in Lima, Bejarano came to the U.S. in 2002, beginning his career at River Downs in Ohio.
The fame of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) reached Bejarano at the jockey school.
“That’s where I heard about the most famous race in the world, the Kentucky Derby,” said Bejarano. “It was a dream for me when I started. I never thought it was going to come true for me, even to be able to ride in the Kentucky Derby. To me, just riding in the Kentucky Derby is a big thing.”
Seven times Bejarano has ridden in the Derby, and the closest he has come to victory is a fourth-place finish aboard Papa Clem in 2009. For 2012 he has options on several Baffert mounts: Castaway and Secret Circle, who won the Southwest divisions; 2011 CashCall Futurity (gr. I) winner Liaison; and Fed Biz. The latter has only won a maiden and an allowance race in three starts, but he is already ranked high on many Kentucky Derby lists and is slated to run March 10 in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II).
Bejarano has ridden Secret Circle, Liaison, and Fed Biz in all of their starts, including Secret Circle’s win in the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint last year at Churchill Downs. Bejarano, on the other hand, partnered with Castaway for the first time in the Southwest.
“I worked Castaway in company with Secret Circle a week before,” he said. “I was on the lead, and Martin Garcia was on Secret Circle. Castaway felt really strong, and both horses worked good together. So I had a lot of confidence in both horses.”
In the Southwest division with Castaway, Bejarano sat just off the leader until the final turn, drawing off to win by 33⁄4 lengths. Castaway paid $15.40 as the fifth choice.
“Bejarano got aggressive from the outside post on Castaway,” said Baffert. “He let him rip from there.”
Similar tactics worked with Secret Circle, who won by a half-length in the second division as the 3-5 favorite.
“I was so happy and so lucky to have both horses in different divisions,” said Bejarano. “Mr. Baffert is doing a really good job with the horses. He is so good at putting horses in the right spot.”
Despite his many successes in winning riding titles in Kentucky and California, the 29-year-old rider has remained humble. He often credits his agent, Joe Ferrer, with much of his success, and Bejarano is a devout Christian who thanks God after every victory, not for the win but for bringing all the jockeys and horses back safely.
Another person he thanks is the late Bobby Frankel, who urged Bejarano to move to California in 2007 after the jockey had led the jockey standings in Kentucky and also done well in Florida and New York. Bejarano was happy to win his first two Breeders’ Cup races for Frankel, aboard Intercontinental in the 2005 Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) and Ginger Punch in the 2007 Emirates Airline Distaff (gr. I).
“I’m always going to have a good memory of him because he was the guy who opened the doors for me in California,” said Bejarano. “When Bobby Frankel brought me here to California, he always had faith in me and gave me opportunity.”
Riding for Frankel and Baffert, as well as for many other top California trainers, enabled Bejarano to sweep the riding titles at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar in 2008. He repeated at Santa Anita in 2009 and 2010. It would surprise no one if a Kentucky Derby victory is in Bejarano’s future.