Norberto Arroyo Jr. Making Noise on the Big Stage

Norberto Arroyo Jr.

Norberto Arroyo Jr.

Whatever it is you do, it is usually best to do it on the big stage. If you are a theater performer, then Broadway is where I’d imagine you want to be. If you are a film actor or actress, then I guess it would be Hollywood, with an eye on the Oscars. If you are an athlete, professional sports will provide many big stages. Of course you will want to be a pro and compete at the highest level. Each sport has its own big stage, like the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup and NBA Finals.

The Sport of Kings provides many big stages. That’s an advantage we have over mainstream sports that the industry has never taken advantage of. We have the Kentucky Derby, which, despite thoroughbred racing no longer being considered mainstream, remains the most exciting two minutes in all of sports.

We have the Triple Crown series; we have The Breeders’ Cup championships; and we have a whole host of “super card” days laden with stakes races. We also have our premier meets, two of which happen to be underway right now. If you are anyone in horse racing, now is when you want to be at Del Mar or Saratoga. The best of the west and the best of the east simultaneously, with all eyes of the racing world on both racetracks.

It’s no secret I enjoy writing about comebacks. It’s also no secret I feel sports offers the greatest showcase for comebacks both large and small. Comebacks are dramatic; they are competitive; and they test not only the comebacker’s talent, but also their heart and desire. Talent can be measured easier than heart. Revealing the heart of a competitor takes adversity, like the first time a promising horse is tested and looked in the eye. Do they fight or do they fold?

Songbird showed us in the recently run Coaching Club American Oaks how the ones with heart respond and, until they are put to the test, you never really know. Comebacks can stem from many things: injuries, mistakes, bad decisions or choices, or just bad breaks or circumstances. Once you get past the “why,” all that matters to the athlete is “we are here now, it’s time to fight.” What caused you to be there may not be forgotten, but it is not what matters. What matters is what you do with your comeback, your second chance, so to speak.

Some people never get a second chance, while some get multiple chances. You never know how fate will deal those cards, but if you are fortunate enough to get that chance, you better have the heart you need to go with it, the heart you need to get up after being knocked down. If you are getting that second chance and making a comeback for any reason, then you likely had — and maybe still have — the talent, but heart is another matter.

I always find it entertaining to observe how people respond to comebacks. Most fall into two groups: the supporters/believers and the haters/non-supporters or, as I like to call them, the “Negative Nancys.” No offense to optimists named Nancy, but the phrase just kind of fits.

On the way to winner's circleIt usually turns out the supporters are positive people who believe in second chances and redemption. Generally, they don’t hurl insults, drag up dead and buried pasts and are encouraging. The haters, or “Negative Nancys,” usually do resort to insults and dredging up the past.

You can’t really blame them, though: they have nothing else to go on when someone is trying to fight their way back from some sort of adversity.

I usually fall into the group of comeback supporters. We may be on the verge of one of the best equine ones in history as Lady Eli prepares to try to reclaim her status as a top grass filly following a bout with the dreaded laminitis. We may get to see her race at Saratoga on Aug. 27. In the meantime, we have another comeback going on — and I think it is well earned and well deserved.

There has never been much doubt Arroyo Arroyo Jr. was a very talented rider. He was recognized as an up-and-comer on the tough New York circuit while still an apprentice, and quickly developed a reputation as a tough and good rider, one who always tried hard and gave his all. He rode the turf particularly well, and everyone around New York racing knew it. He transitioned from apprentice to journeyman without really stalling his career, as so many riders do, and looked to be on his way to an extremely bright future. The wins piled up, and so did his reputation and status in the game.

Arroyo built up quite a resume for himself. He became a multiple Graded Stakes-winning rider, most of the time on one of, if not the, toughest circuits in the game, and in just about the toughest jockey colony. He was known as a rider who tried hard with every mount and owners loved him because he would ride as hard for them for second and third as he would for a win. That was never more evident than when he finished third on the maiden Nolan’s Cat in the 2005 Belmont Stakes.

With wins in the prestigious Lane’s End, Withers, Bed of Roses, Excelsior, Genuine Risk, Aqueduct Handicap, Next Move, Rare Treat and the Queens County, Arroyo looked to be a New York mainstay with a very bright and lucrative future.

It was no secret that Arroyo enjoyed the night life and also enjoyed sharing his success with his friends. He picked up plenty of checks and enjoyed his success and all that came with it to the fullest, as many young riders do.

Arroyo wins a photo finish against Rafael Bejarano at Del Mar.

Arroyo wins a photo finish against Rafael Bejarano at Del Mar.

Arroyo did not come from a family or background that assured him a career on the racetrack. He was from the Bronx, New York — a different world, with a whole set of different rules than many other places across the country. You have to be from one of these places to understand it. I grew up in Brooklyn, also a different world so to speak, so I know firsthand how things are.  Try telling someone from the Midwestern suburbs what a day in the projects in Brooklyn is like and see the looks you get.

As fast as Arroyo found success is as fast as it left him. Fate is fickle and Arroyo made choices that not only took his career away, but almost his life. He was young, immature and stubborn, so he had to learn things the hard way. Fortunately for him, he did, and, all the while, he kept that talent he had on the back of a horse. He is a different man today than he was earlier in his career and, to his advantage and that of his clients, a better rider. We’ll get to that shortly.

For a while, however, Arroyo’s talent on the back of a horse was not helping him. After being out of the game for a brief time, Arroyo found success again riding at Turfway Park and Churchill Downs. The talent was there, but things were not the same. He went to Oaklawn Park and, again, found success, leading the jockey colony there and winning some stakes… but it still wasn’t the same.

Arroyo’s troubles were not over. This time, however, it was not immaturity or bad choices that hurt him. It was a fire. The home he was renting in Kentucky burned to the ground and Arroyo was lucky to get out with the clothes on his back and his children. In true when-it-rains-it-pours fashion, while trying to recover from this and keep his family together, Arroyo learned his past mistakes continued to haunt him and he was having trouble getting his jockey license back. He had to work horses on a farm while applying to different jurisdictions in hopes of getting his license reinstated.

Race riding and being a jockey was all he really knew… well, that and boxing, but it was a little late in the game for a boxing career, which Arroyo may have been in a position to have had he chosen that path.

He didn’t. He became a jockey and it became his life, his passion. Now, it was all gone.

Instead of spiraling downward, Arroyo relied on his dedication and faith and persevered. He kept himself in shape, took care of his children and family, kept working on the farm, prayed, and kept applying for a license. Finally, things turned and Arroyo was granted a license to ride in the state of New Mexico. It was a far cry from the big stages Arroyo had competed on with success in the past. At least he was riding, though, and at least he had some hope.

It did not take long for Arroyo to start winning — it never has — and soon he was a force to be reckoned with in New Mexico. He was on the card every day and winning races. He was also getting back into riding shape and his timing and rhythm were getting better every day.

Track Talk

Track talk at Del Mar Racecourse.

Arroyo wanted nothing more than to get back to the big stage and not just show he could compete and be just another rider in the room, but a force. The odds were against him. Racing jurisdictions can be strict with people who have been refused licenses in the past and Arroyo found it difficult. His brother, Nelson, had recently gone to California and found success as an agent. He was developing a reputation as a solid agent and, more importantly, he was becoming well liked and gaining credibility.

Nelson was able to arrange a meeting between Arroyo and the California stewards, who were preparing for the elite Del mar summer meet. It was a longshot Arroyo would be granted a license, though. The odds were even longer that if he was, he would win more than one or maybe two races during that ultra-tough meet. Southern California is a tight-knit circuit, difficult for anyone to break in to, let alone someone making a comeback who has had licensing issues. It helps if you can ride and if you have a brother who has earned the respect of his peers.

Arroyo had his meeting with the stewards and they agreed to grant him a license. He’d be able to ride at Del Mar!

Arriving just days before the track opened at a meet most Southern Californian horseman point for all year, the odds were not with Arroyo making a lot of noise on the big stage — they couldn’t have been more wrong.

If I would have told you three weeks into the Del Mar Summer 2016 meet that Norberto Arroyo Jr. would be eighth in the standings, ahead of riders like Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, Martin Garcia, Joe Talamo and Martin Pedroza, you probably would have said I was nuts. Thus far, Arroyo is proving the naysayers wrong and showing the stewards they made a good call.

From 27 mounts, Arroyo has 5 wins, 5 seconds, and 4 thirds. That is a 15 percent win percentage and a 50 percent in-the-money rate. It’s the kind of riding owners and trainers appreciate, as it earns purse money. It’s more the way Arroyo is doing it, though; he’s in the groove, making excellent moves with excellent timing and looking awfully good out there against some of the best on the big stage. It’s a fun and deserving comeback to watch, although I don’t share the surprise many do, as I always knew he could ride.

Recently, I had a chance to talk in detail with Arroyo about where he’s been, where he is and where he’s hoping to go.

Did you expect this type of success when you came to Del Mar to ride this summer?

“Actually, I wasn’t even sure they would grant me a license and let me ride. I came on faith and my brother Nelson’s word. He was confident he could get me a meeting with the stewards. From there, it would be up to me to show them I was worthy, serious and wanted to ride and work hard. Kim Sawyer, Grant Baker, and Scott Chaney believed in me, saw I was sincere and for that I am forever grateful and determined not to let them, the fans, or the people who ride me down. That goes for my brother Nelson too. He believed in me and helped me get here. He’s my agent and I am proud to be working with him. Looks like we are making a good team.”

How was the reception on the backstretch when you arrived?

“Better than I thought. I did not know what to expect. Racing is very competitive and I had been away from the spotlight a while. My reception turned out great. Opening day was a few days out and I really had no business. I started getting on a lot of horses in the morning, and working really hard. I think people saw my focus and dedication, and how hard I was working. There are so many trainers who put me on horses in the morning and I am thankful to all of them. I started to get confidant and more fit. People like Peter Miller and Richard Baltas and Andy Mathis were especially helpful naming me on live horses right away.”

You started winning early in the meet, how did you get yourself in riding shape?

“Well I always keep myself in shape. I’ve always been an athlete, and used to box so I like to be fit. There is nothing like riding, though. I went to the gym daily, ran a lot on the beach, which is good in the sand, and watched my diet. I also went and still go to church a lot as I am most thankful to God for giving me this second chance at a career I have always wanted so badly. God has opened the door and I will make the most of it and not let Him down or those who believe in me.”

How was your reception in the Jockey Room? It is known to be a competitive place.

“It is a competitive place. Very competitive. I think most of the riders respected me because of my past riding, but didn’t know what to expect now. I felt things change quickly after we were riding together and felt I had the respect of the other riders in the room. We are all competing, but we are all part of a big family too. Most wanted to see me do good, but I think I surprised a few by winning and finishing in the money as often as I did early.”

Do you plan to stay in California?

“I hope too. I love it out here and the whole way of life. The racing is great too. The stewards and trainers believed in me and are giving me opportunities. I am so happy to be working with my brother Nelson. If things work out, I want to stay and hopefully get a big horse to ride”

Why should trainers and owners ride you over the other jocks in the room?

“Easy question. Nobody will try harder for them, period. I want to win every race I ride and, if I can’t, I want to be in the money. I also think I am riding as good or better than I ever have. My rhythm and timing are there; I am in the best shape of my life not just physically, but mentally too”

How does business in the future look?

“Great. Better than I could have hoped for. Nelson is doing a great job. I have calls already on some really nice horses coming up — Hootenanny being just one of them.”

How does it feel to be back making noise on the big stage?

“Really, the only way I can say it is blessed. I am so thankful to the Lord for giving me an opportunity to get another chance and prove myself. I enjoy the competition, enjoy riding and working hard, but really I am just so thankful. I really didn’t know if I would ever get a chance again. I’m going to keep working and riding hard and let things fall into place. I am working horses for people I never have before and new doors are opening. I’m thankful and excited.”

What is your plan or formula to keep it going?

“Easy question, again, my friend: no more mistakes and immature behavior. Focus on God, my family, my riding, staying fit and showing all my backers how they made the right choice, every day. That’s what keeps me hungry and going. My brother is doing such a great job too, I hope to be able to ride for people like Jerry Hollendorfer, Richard Mandela, Phil D’Amato and maybe even Bob Baffert. So many others too. Once they see how hard I ride and how bad I want it, I am hopeful they will give me a chance to prove myself. If they do, they won’t be sorry.”

It was great speaking with Arroyo, and I am enjoying seeing him really do well again. He’s always been an excellent rider and simply had some bad breaks.

As I said before, comebacks in sports are dramatic and can be fun to ride along with. If things continue — and there is no reason they shouldn’t if Arroyo continues to do his part as I believe he will — the sky will once again be the limit for Norberto Arroyo Jr.

Jonathan Stettin
Jonathan has always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings, as he practically grew up at the racetrack. His mother, affectionately known as “Ginger,” was in the stands at Belmont Park the day before he was born as his father, Joe, worked behind the windows as a pari-mutuel clerk.

As a toddler, Jonathan cheered for and followed horses and jockeys, knowing many of the names and bloodlines by the time he was in first grade. Morning coffee in his household was always accompanied by the Daily Racing Form or Morning Telegraph.

At the age of 16, Jonathan dropped out of school and has pretty much been at the races full-time ever since. Of course, he had some of the usual childhood racetrack jobs growing up — mucking stalls, walking hots and rubbing horses. He even enjoyed brief stints as a jockey agent and a mutuel clerk (like his dad).

His best day at the track came on August 10, 1994 at Saratoga, when he hit the pick-6 paying $540,367.

Jonathan continues to be an active and successful player. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin or visit his Web site at www.pastthewire.com.

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