Humility and Authenticity: Pablo Morales Turns a Dream Into Reality

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Pablo Morales chats with fans at Tampa Bay Downs (photo by Ben Baugh).

The footprint in the shedrow of a young boy literally following in the footsteps of his father provides insight into the life of someone who would pursue and realize his dreams. Those footsteps are leaving an indelible imprint in the world of thoroughbred racing — and they belong to Pablo Morales.

The son and grandson of a trainer, Morales was almost literally born into the sport. In a small house at the end of many of the barns in Limu, Peru, where Morales grew up, generations of horsemen would immerse themselves in the sport.

“That’s where my grandparents lived their whole life,” said Morales. “When I was born, my dad already had his own house. My grandfather’s house was right at the end of the stable in the racetrack. I have pictures on top of horses, almost as a newborn.”

It was a lifestyle that had its benefits, providing Morales with access to horses and experienced horsemen — his family — who willingly would share their insights and knowledge.

“They were always working with me, teaching me how to ride since I was a baby,” said Morales. “So, it definitely facilitated my career.”

Those early lessons would prove invaluable. A trip to Florida at 11 years of age to visit his sister, who lived in Miami, was a defining moment.

“I visited the States with my mom,” said Morales. “My sister’s husband at the time, worked for the racetrack [Calder, now Gulfstream Park West].”

Having grown up on the backside, the racetrack and its environment was something that was familiar to Morales, but a trip to Gulfstream Park would forever alter his life.

“I took pictures with all the big jockeys — Edgar Prado, Jorge Chavez, Rene Douglas, Jerry Bailey and Pat Day, and that’s when I said, ‘I want to be a jockey, and I want to be a jockey in the United States,’” said Morales.

A Firm Decision

When he returned to Peru, he would begin his sojourn toward becoming a professional athlete. A helmet, vest and custom made boots all became part of his routine attire and, by the time he was 12 years old, he had begun galloping horses at the racetrack.

Despite his equestrian background, Morales said the decision to become a jockey was his and his alone.

“Nobody really pushed me into anything,” he said. “If anything, they weren’t pushing me — because they know that the racetrack is a challenging place. You have to be talented and lucky, and obviously they knew the risks that came with it.”

Morales’ parents were supportive, but his passion for the sport was self-driven and it was at his request that he start being put on horses.

He would eventually attend jockey school in Lima. However, the start of his career as a jockey was far from glamorous. The 15-year-old apprentice made the long ride to a little known racetrack, Arequipa, with no money and a great deal of anxiety.

“My uncle, who was a well-known jockey and is a well-known trainer in Peru, talked to his people over there,” said Morales. “I didn’t know anybody. I got on a bus. It was like an eight hour drive. I went to the racetrack and rode my first couple of races. I won the first race I ever rode.”

That initial success, which saw him win three races and finish in the money (third or better) on all seven of his mounts, served as the impetus he needed. He put his riding career on hold temporarily, to honor his mother’s request to finish out the school year, as he was only 15.

“I missed about a month of school,” said Morales.

Relocating to the United States

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Pablo Morales rides another winner (photo by Ben Baugh).

The completion of the school year would allow him to take the leap of faith, one that would provide him with the opportunity to pursue his dreams. He would get his papers and start toward his objective and,  once again with the support of his family, take the next step of turning his vision into reality.

“My sister helped me with buying a plane ticket and I came to the States,” said Morales. “I actually came to Miami first, in February 2005. I went to Calder. Calder was open for training. My brother was working there, and that’s where I got on my first couple of horses. The first race that I rode in the United States was at Gulfstream.”

Alena’s Boy would provide Morales with his first victory in the U.S. However, mounts were difficult to come by, and the dearth of opportunities left the young rider with a lot of questions. Morales also had the challenge of not being able to speak English and no money, but he persevered despite the adversity.

Overcoming Life’s Vagaries

Corey Moran was Morales’s first agent when he began riding in the United States, but one’s fortunes in thoroughbred racing can change quickly.

“I had an accident, I actually went down with a horse that I was riding on the grass,” said Morales. “I was out for three or four months. I had a crack in my skull, so I couldn’t ride.”

However, while he was recovering, Morales was contacted by agent and former jockey Richard DePass. Morales made the decision to shift his tack, but not being licensed in New York at the time, he had to get his mother to sign the papers so he could relocate to the Empire State.

“He wanted me to start back, when I could, in New York,” said Morales. “So, that’s what I did. I actually went to Saratoga. I didn’t ride (in the races) at Saratoga, but I started back on my birthday on September fifth.“

Living the Dream

Morales had flown to New York, a month prior to his return to riding, arriving in Saratoga, and staying with fellow Peruvian and journeyman jockey Cornelio Velasquez, who was a steadying influence on the young rider.

“He really didn’t know me, barely at all,” said Morales. “He just let me stay in his house. He supported me financially, gave me rides to and from the racetrack and took me grocery shopping. We both had Richard DePass as our agent.”

It was that support early in his career, from practical strangers, that would make a difference. Several of the jockeys knew him from the time he was little because of his family’s connections. It proved invaluable in Miami and later in New York.

The teenager found himself in an adult world, which was overwhelming at times.

“Everything was like a rush,” said Morales. “I was riding better horses, who were very strong, and I was a lot smaller then, and not as strong as I am now. It was definitely a transition.”

It was a surreal experience for Morales, but he was actually living and experiencing what he had thought and dreamt about.

“It was crazy; I couldn’t believe it,” said Morales. “I remember a couple of years before, coming to the States, taking a few pictures, and then thinking, ‘This is where I want to be.’ And I had absolutely nothing ready. I worked on it for a couple of years, and there I was.”

The opportunity to ride in New York as a teenager left an indelible imprint, but Morales wishes he would’ve been a little older.

“I think it would’ve been better for me,” said Morales. “It was so early in my career. I was extremely mentally young. I went from living with my parents to riding with the best of the best. I wish I would have been a little more prepared and mature. I think my career would’ve taken off a little faster with the opportunities that I had. I’m just happy with what I’ve accomplished. Looking back now, I realize that I was a baby.

An Animated Assimilation

But as time went on, Morales became more comfortable in his new environment, adapting quickly and learning English in a somewhat unconventional way. The fact that he was so young seemed to be advantageous as he acclimated at a rapid rate. He was able to understand what people were saying to him, and make himself understood as well.

“What helped me learn a lot was watching cartoons,” said Morales. “It was pretty much all I understood. I remember seeing the exact same kind of cartoons back at home, so I kind of knew exactly what they were talking about. I had seen the episodes already in Spanish, stuff like Sponge Bob and things like that. I had already seen all the episodes. I knew what they were talking about. I used the closed captions too, so I could read and hear what was being said.”

The Daddy and Attila’s Storm

Pablo Morales (photo by Ben Baugh).

Pablo Morales (photo by Ben Baugh).

A propitious set of circumstances found Morales in the right place at the right time. He had only been riding in New York for about a month, when he would get an opportunity to ride in an out-of-town stakes race.

“I broke in really fast, started winning a couple of races, I got lucky picking up a horse that hadn’t been my mount, and convinced the trainer to put me on the horse for the Super Derby,” said Morales.

It gave Morales his biggest win to date. The horse was The Daddy, who won the $750,000 Grade II Super Derby at Louisiana Downs by a head.

However, prior to the race, there was so much going through the young jockey’s mind, a world of opportunity and experiences that would be overwhelming to most teenagers.

“Everything happened so fast,” said Morales. “I didn’t have that good of a command of the English language. They were like, you’re going to be flying [on a plane], and you’re going to be riding in a big race. I didn’t even know how much money I was going to get. I was just happy to be under consideration to go somewhere else to ride. I remember being crazy-nervous. This was the first time in my life that I had stayed in a hotel by myself.”

But sometimes, it can be advantageous to be less experienced, when going into a situation with a number of unknown variables. Morales had a plan going into the race, and rode The Daddy in the Super Derby, exactly the way he had imagined prior to the race.

“I honestly feel, if I had ridden the race differently, I wouldn’t have won,” said Morales. “I was so inexperienced. I said to myself, ‘This is how you’re going to ride the race and that’s it.’ I probably would’ve gotten beat, if I rode the horse today.  I rode it as it was a video game. I just followed the instructions in my head. I wasn’t thinking about the other horses or the moves they were making. I just stuck to the plan. Nowadays, I would be like, ‘This horse is coming up on the inside; I need to move forward or go wide.’ I just would’ve reacted from experience. I just reacted from what I had planned.”

The victory on The Daddy provided Morales with some financial stability. He was able to pay his sister back, who helped pay for his work papers and the lawyer, who made the dream of riding in the United States possible.  The money also allowed him to bring his older brothers to New York, making the transition to the states a bit easier. At the time, even though he was enjoying success as a professional athlete, he still hadn’t obtained his driver’s license.

“I was able to rent a place,” said Morales. “I was staying at a friend’s house. Both of my brothers stayed with me. They both got jobs galloping at Belmont. One of my brothers was a jockey in Peru, and the other was a jockey’s agent. So, everybody’s been on the racetrack for their entire life.”

A man of great humility, Morales acknowledges the support he’s received from people over the years, and how they’ve helped him achieve success and realize his dreams.

However, his win on The Daddy wasn’t his only major victory of 2005, the jockey also won the Fall Highweight Handicap on Thanksgiving Day, making the celebration more meaningful than just sitting down with the family for turkey and cranberry sauce.  A Hall-of-Fame jockey was supposed ride Atilla’s Storm, but fortuitous circumstances would preclude him from getting to the track, allowing Morales to pick up the mount on the Rich Schosberg charge.

“Ramon Dominguez got stuck in traffic,” said Morales. “I was doing well at the time, and people were starting to notice me. They realized I was available.”

Family and Friends

Morales, like many other journeymen riders, has plied his trade nationwide, but, for years now, he’s ridden regularly on two circuits, going out of town for the occasional stakes race. He’s a four-time leading rider at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pennsylvania, and is consistently among the leading riders at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Florida.

Family has always been important to Morales. His wife is the daughter of thoroughbred trainer Eduardo Rojas and his daughter Sofia, who’s seven, and son Camilo, who’s five, play a large role in his life, helping him stay focused. Morales’ family’s support has been critical to his success.

“We have a house here, and my wife has made it a home,” said Morales. “Both of my kids go to school here [in Oldsmar]. We love it here. It’s the perfect place to spend the winter.”

When he’s not at the racetrack, he can usually be found spending time with his family, going to the beach, mall or park.

“We love going out to eat,” said Morales. “I’m constantly playing with my kids. I really enjoy my time with my family.”

Erie, like Oldsmar, has been very welcoming to Morales and his family.

An Understanding of the Game

His evolution as a rider and development as an athlete and person has allowed him to sustain and achieve in a very competitive business. His mental approach, discipline and focus have drawn the attention of trainers, instilling a sense of confidence and trust, making Morales a much-sought-after rider.

“I think that’s where being a bit more mature helps in this business,” said Morales. “You keep going and learn to take things in stride. Racing is never easy. There’s going to be ups and downs. We want to win. The name of the game is winning.”

The Respect of His Peers

It’s that positive approach, sense of calmness and confident demeanor that has enabled Morales to develop a robust network of connections. One of the trainers that saw his potential was Blazing Meadows Farm’s Tim Hamm.

“I met him the first year he rode at Presque Isle,” said Hamm. “He’s super athletic and as talented as anyone in the country. He’s a strong finisher, easy to communicate with and a guy who wants to do right.”

However, when agent Paula Bacon decided to take Morales’ book, she was impressed with the jockey for several reasons. His strong work ethic, dedication to his family and commitment to the sport were among those attributes that brought the two together. Like Hamm, she loved the way he finishes races, too. But his character and his respect for others make him a rare commodity in an ever-changing world.

“He’ll do whatever I ask of him, with no complaints about working,” said Bacon. “He doesn’t have any bad habits. He’s really a one of a kind. He’s polite and kind, and has a sense of humor. He comes from very humble beginnings and appreciates everything he gets. Riding around and working with him is fantastic. He’s just naturally athletic. The thing that struck me about him, before I took him, was his fancy style down the stretch, his finish. He’s just a real flashy finisher. He’s strong. He looks the way you want a jockey to look, finishing on a horse.”

Stakes Race Success

There have been a number of stakes winners since The Daddy and Attila’s Storm, Morales’s first two added-money victories in 2005. The rider, who’s approaching 1,600 lifetime victories, has won stakes on Zippy Shannon, Great Intentions, Cash’s Girl, Akronism, Fleet Valid, Rustler Hustler, Big Wednesday, Angelofdistinction, Lotta Lovin, Leinan, Dundalk Dust, Hasay (GB), Lucky Lewis, Happy to Go, Needmore Flattery, R Frosty One, Velvet Mood, Stardoza, Oldzfourfortytwo, Candy Exchange, Tiger Blood and, most recently, Hijo de Sheltowee and Almond Roca.

Those wins have taken on added significance for Morales, recognizing the work that’s gone in to getting to this stage of his career, and the team of people it takes to get a horse to the winner’s circle. Morales was the leading rider at Presque Isle Downs in 2011-2013, sharing the title with Huber Villa-Gomez in 2011, and again in 2017.

“It’s really cool, especially races like that, even though you’re on nice horses, you’re competing against really nice horses,” said Morales. “Those horses are there for a reason; they’re competitive. I know how much the trainers appreciate it, and they trust me to do it. You come back so happy. It definitely feels great.”

Fitness and Fun

When Morales isn’t at the racetrack or with his family, on his days off, he’s found a way to keep himself in shape for the rigors of the sport, one that lasts all year. He places great gravitas on maintaining his fitness level. He found something that improved his agility, arm strength and reflexes. It was about a year and a half ago, Morales, who doesn’t like to run, found another sport to make part of his conditioning routine.

“I happened to get into boxing, I always liked to watch it, so I figured I’d give it a shot,” said Morales. “I really enjoyed it and was feeling a lot better. It was a lot different because you’re using so much arm strength and stamina. After a couple of months, I was feeling so much better on a horse. I was barely getting tired. I wasn’t taking deep breaths after a race. It’s a complete workout. I enjoy it, which makes it a lot easier.”

Conservative Approach

The stability that comes with having a family has helped in Morales’s evolution as a rider, he understands the risks that are associated with the sport, and has been very conservative with his money.

The jockey, who won at a 21 percent clip in 2017, finishing with 201 victories, knows about adversity. A spill one morning in 2010 left him with five broken vertebrae.

Daily Routine

A typical day for Morales finds him waking up, taking a shower, making coffee and immediately going to the track. Some days are busier than others, with the amount of horses he gets on, meeting with people, saying hello to everyone, and then going home before the races. He’ll shower, eat something light, and then, after a brief period of time, he’ll return to the track at about 11 a.m., with post time at Tampa Bay Downs being about 12:20 p.m.

“When I get to the [jocks] room, the first thing I do is check my weight, and then I go into the hot box for about an hour,” said Morales. “When I get out, I grab my program and I just start studying. I start writing down what horses have speed, what horses come from behind, what horses and riders I should be on the lookout for.

“After that, I just ride. And then, I’ll go home. My wife is awesome, she usually has my dinner ready for me. She knows that I come home hungry. And, then, I pretty much spend my day with the kids playing or going to the mall. On my days off, I work out for a couple of hours, and then I try to find something fun to do for me and my family — bike rides, going to the golf driving range, going for ice cream or playing in the yard.”

As his agent Paul Bacon said, “He’s one of a kind.” Morales is a study in humility and authenticity. A rare breed of athlete, Morales’s character is evocative of another era, resonating powerfully with all that he touches.

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