Jockey Nik Juarez Working His Way to the Top

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Nik Juarez aboard Saint Abbey at Pimlico Racecourse on May 12, 2016 (photo by Dottie Miller).

Those who know Nik Juarez well probably weren’t surprised when he won his first career race aboard his first career mount. But, on Dec. 14, 2013, the Maryland native did just that at Laurel Park, bringing $5,000 claimer Love Heart to the wire three-quarters of a length ahead of Cherylwithans in race 5 for trainer/owner Calvin Barth.

Juarez, the son of former jockey-turned-trainer Calixto Juarez, as well as grandson of long-time exercise rider Charlie Linton, showed his family and friends from Westminster, Maryland that the third-generation jock was ready to take the racing world head-on with his relentless work ethic.

Growing up at the racetrack as well as competing in high school wrestling prepared Juarez to hit the ground running. Believing that both race riding and wrestling are 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical, Juarez understands the importance of mental toughness.

“In this sport, you don’t have to be the biggest and strongest, but you have to be mentally tough because for all the ‘ups’ you see, there are a lot more ‘downs’ to this business. You have to take the good with the bad,” explained Juarez.

The obvious “downs” for Juarez include the normal jockey job hazards of being thrown from the saddle and the accompanying broken bones. With a litany of fractures on his resume, two incidents stand out in the 23-year-old’s young career.

Having already fractured his left leg and ankle as a “gallop boy” before his 2013 debut, Juarez was again sidelined following a spill at Monmouth Park on Sept. 28, 2014, being unseated from Forward Momentum and sustaining a serious right hip injury that cost him nearly seven months of competing.

Unfortunately, the recovery from the hip injury caused Juarez pain in his left leg, which required the screws that were in place to help his bones heal to be removed to alleviate the pain from the overcompensation of weight bearing.

Juarez worked as hard at rehabilitation as he does at his craft, and again, not surprisingly, won his first race in his return from injury.

Having won just one of his four mounts in 2013, then amassing forty wins in his abbreviated 2014 campaign (finishing just shy of the $1,000,000 mark in earnings), Juarez really took off in 2015.

Already known for being a hard-working and relentless rider, it was the relentless urging of trainer Marcus Vitali to give him a shot that put Juarez aboard multiple graded stakes winner Valid.

Two days after losing his “bug” (the end of his jockey apprenticeship), Juarez piloted Valid to victory in the Grade III Philip H. Iselin Stakes at Monmouth on Aug. 30, 2015.

With the three-and-a-half length victory over race-favorite Bradester and jockey Corie Lanerie, Juarez won in his first try at graded stakes company.

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Nik Juarez aboard Orbit at Laurel Racecourse on April 24, 2016 (photo by Dottie Miller).

Vitali would make Juarez the regular rider of Valid for the rest of the gelding’s career, including an appearance in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile — where the duo finished fifth as a 45-1 longshot in the race won by Liam’s Map in that horse’s career finale.

Another big win for Juarez at Monmouth in 2015 was with Sunny Ridge in the $100,000 Sapling Stakes in September. Sunny Ridge would go on to win the 2016 Withers Stakes, although Juarez did not make the trip to Aqueduct.

Juarez finished 2015 with 118 wins in 724 tries (16 percent), going over the $3 Million mark in earnings with $3,029,667.

He would follow up his very solid 2015 with an even better winning percentage — and he moved up to 44th in North America in terms of earnings with $4,611,969 — in 2016. He also won another graded stakes for Vitali with Valid in April of 2016, capturing the Grade III Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream.

Later in the year, aboard Sunny Ridge in the Grade I Haskell, the second-longest shot on the tote board finished a game third, behind Exaggerator and American Freedom, but ahead of Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and multiple graded stakes winner Gun Runner.

For Juarez, “it was exciting because it’s my ‘home track’. I know I started in Maryland, but Monmouth is more like home to me than anything. It was nice to ride in the biggest race, especially not even a year after I lost my bug.”

Juarez rode four horses to three victories in 2016 — Reagan’s Odyssey, Shea D Girl, What Power and Diamond Place. He acknowledged that each horse had lots of heart, but of the four, What Power was a “real game horse that always wanted to win.”

Juarez finished 2016 winning with 153 of his 896 mounts (17 percent).

On Jan. 4 of this year, trainer Kelly Breen assigned Juarez to ride 5-year-old mare Pretty Perfection in an allowance optional claiming race at Gulfstream. At 13-to-1, the pair had to run three-wide and make a very late run to win the race by a neck.

Breen rewarded his rider by sticking with Juarez when Pretty Perfection was entered to the 8th running of the Ladies’ Turf Sprint Stakes at Gulfstream as part of the undercard to the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational later that afternoon.

“I kind of got her to relax the last race [the Jan. 4 race]. She’s been so high-strung in the morning. She works fast, and we just tried to get her to relax,” said Juarez.

He knew he had a solid shot of winning the race when he saw the bay mare in the morning; and his feeling was confirmed shortly before the race.

“On Saturday, she came into the paddock — she wasn’t sweating or nervous. Kelly and I both noticed,” explained Juarez.

Heading to the gate at just under 14-1, Juarez had to pull of some timely maneuvering to give his mount a chance in the five furlong sprint.

“There was a little bit of an altercation on the turn. I was watching it kind of unfold before I got to the turn, and because I was anticipating it, I was able to make my move around right when the problem occurred. I think that’s what won the race,” said Juarez.

And win the race they did — for the second time in two starts.

“I was so pumped after the race,” said Juarez.

Although his plans for the spring are not yet finalized, Juarez is already a seasoned pro in the Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey/Delaware circuits as well as a regular rider in South Florida.

His jockey agent, Jay Rushing Jr., happens to be the son of Juarez’s father’s agent, so the pair has a lot of trust in each other. What Rushing Jr. and Juarez offer to trainers looking for a rider is a very hard work ethic which translates to mental toughness in the saddle.

Ask anyone on the backside of the tracks that know of Juarez and the first thing they’ll tell you is that he’s a hard worker.

When asked about his work ethic, Juarez responded, “I do work hard. I work very hard. I’ve got to work my ass off to make sure I make it, because I’m the only person taking care of me.”

The future is certainly looking good for this up-and-coming rider.

Ryan Dickey
Ryan Dickey is a full-time firefighter in Dearborn, MI, and a life-long horse racing fan. He is a handicapper and contributor to prominent horse racing Websites as well as a freelance sportswriter/photojournalist. He covers local high school sports and community events for multiple outlets, including bi-weekly newspapers and has over 200 works published to date.

Once again the owner of a race horse, Ryan is president (and currently sole member!) of Firehouse Racing Stables, LLC. This year @FirehouseRacing plans to send its first thoroughbred, That Is So Right (a 4 year old chestnut gelding), to run at tracks in Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia and, possibly, Indiana.

Having lived in Las Vegas for six years and working in the sports gaming industry, Ryan knows sports handicapping from “both sides of the counter.” Feel free to contact him on Twitter (@rdickey249) for questions, comments, criticisms, or critiques.

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