Musical's Man - by Claire Novak

(Originally published in the July 21, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

 By Claire Novak

It is not unusual for a jockey’s name to be linked with one horse. Mention Jeremy Rose and Afleet Alex comes to mind. Bring up Stewart Elliott and you think of Smarty Jones.

Juan Leyva’s runner of a lifetime is Musical Romance, who recently dashed to victory July 7 in the Princess Rooney Handicap (gr. I) during Calder Casino & Race Course’s Summit of Speed. Last year, en route to Eclipse Award honors, she upset the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (gr. I) at odds of 20-1 with Leyva in the saddle.

The 28-year-old Mexico City native has been aboard the daughter of Concorde’s Tune for 20 of 38 starts, including eight of 11 visits to the winner’s circle and all but one of her eight stakes scores. Those who know him and the horse recognize a special bond, according to agent Roger Velez.

“They blend together, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “He’s got so much confidence in her; he knows her down to a ‘T.’ He’s patient and knows when to press the button on her, exactly when to use that closing kick.”

Musical Romance is trained by Bill Kaplan, who co-owns the 5-year-old mare with Pinnacle Racing Stables. Kaplan gave Leyva a chance when the rider first moved to Florida from California in 2005. Kaplan needed an exercise rider and Leyva was coming back off an injury.

“He went to work for me through the Gulfstream Park meet as an exercise rider and breezed all my horses,” Kap-lan recalled. “I got to know him well and was impressed with his work ethic and ability. I started to let him ride a few during the afternoons, and he was able to do just what I wanted. He’s a very intelligent young man. We developed a relationship that has gone on to this day, and he rides first call for me now.”

Where Musical Romance is concerned, Kaplan said the trust horse and rider have developed is key to their success.

“Musical Romance is unique in the way she has to run,” he explained. “During her 3-year-old year we learned she needs a certain kind of patient ride. Juan is able to do that on her. After so many races together he knows she’s going to give everything she’s got when he asks her, and she knows whenever he asks her to go through a hole somewhere that she’s going to make it through there, whether it looks like she’ll fit or not.”
In many races Leyva saves ground with a rail trip before splitting horses, diving the mare through seams that barely appear to exist.

“She pretty much listens to what I want from her,” Leyva said. “Wherever I want to place her, that’s where she is.”

But don’t think for a second that Musical Romance and her rider have a lovey-dovey relationship.

“She’s all racehorse,” the jockey said. “You try to pet her in her stall, she’ll pin her ears at you. She’s a masculine filly, not one of those that likes a lot of love. She just wants to do her job.”

Leyva’s horse sense comes from his father, Ignacio, who taught him to match race Quarter Horses when he was 12. Raised in the Riverside area of Southern California (his family immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s), he began galloping Thoroughbreds at Fairplex Park when he was 16. A brief visit to Turf Paradise, a stint spent riding both Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds at Los Alamitos, and a tough go of it in the competitive SoCal jock’s colony led to the Florida move seven years ago. His mounts have passed the $1 million mark in yearly earnings six times since.

“Bill has been really instrumental in the recent success I’ve had,” remarked the rider, who lives in Pembroke Pines, Fla., with his wife, Kristi. “And Musical Romance, well, I can’t say enough good things about her. She’s helped me a lot career-wise because, hey, I won a Breeders’ Cup race. I can ride on the big days and not choke. That’s where it’s at.”

Leyva is currently second in the standings at Calder, and is well known and liked around the track. He is fluently bilingual, and volunteers to translate Sunday “film school” meetings between apprentice jockeys and stewards to help the kids out.    
Kaplan and Velez wouldn’t be surprised to see Leyva riding on a bigger circuit sometime soon.

“He’s going to be one of the top riders in the nation,” Kaplan said. “He never had the opportunities, but since he’s established himself with Musical Romance he may have to move up to New York or New Jersey soon. I wouldn’t begrudge him that at all.”

“He’s willing to work at his craft,” said Velez. “A good rider has to be a versatile rider, and he has that quality—he can adapt. He’s still young, and he’s going to keep getting better.”

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