Fri, Jan 27, 2017 - Page 16 News List

Teenage Argentine jockeys dream of riding to riches

AFP, BUENOS AIRES

With its tree-lined lawns and palatial buildings, Buenos Aires Jockey Club is one of the world’s poshest riding venues: A world away from the homes of its future star jockeys.

Penniless, skinny teenagers from poor country families sign up as apprentices at the club’s jockey training school.

Its regime has turned riders like Lucas Berticelli, 23, into competitors. He has already won dozes of races.

“This is how I have earned money to live,” he says. “Before, I didn’t have a penny. My mom hardly gave me enough for my bus fare.”

The young jockeys can receive prize money of up to US$300 for winning a race, plus a share of winnings from bets, but they dream of winning millions by finishing first in the Gran Premio Carlos Pelligrini, one of the world’s most prestigious races.

However, first they face up to 18 months of tough training designed to tame their egos and keep their weight under 50kg.

They are paid the equivalent of about US$2 a day to tend and exercise the racehorses at the club’s whitewashed stables.

A sign hanging in the training center puts the lads in their place.

“Horses win races,” it reads — not jockeys.

“The boy who loses his humility is condemned to failure,” says the school’s director, 67-year-old former jockey Hector Libre.

Jockeys he has trained have won 8,600 races in the past 12 years, he says.

Though some of them are as young as 15 when they enter the school, the trainee jockeys are no strangers to the saddle.

Despite the dangers of high-speed horse racing, adults have been making money from betting on these riders since they were young boys.

“At the age of 10, I was already riding in cuadreras,” says Kevin Banegas, now 16.

Cuadrera is an Argentine rural tradition: fast, a short race through the dirt roads of a village.

Now an apprentice at the Jockey Club, Kevin gets up at dawn, puts on his riding jacket and helmet and jumps on a chestnut steed to exercise it.

Elsewhere, trainees practice indoors, riding on a wooden mechanical horse while Libre calls out instructions.

At the age of 19, Gustavo Villalba has already won 150 races.

“I don’t want to be the Messi of jockeys,” he says, referring to the Argentine soccer superstar Lionel Messi.

“God willing, I would like to earn enough money to buy myself a house. My own house,” he says.

When he is not in the saddle, he is feeding, washing and brushing the horses.

“I stroke them. I talk to them,” he says. “If they get nervous, they don’t race well.”

The same goes for the riders.

Martin Gonzalez grew up tending sheep in the countryside. Now 25 and winner of 140 races, he recalls breaking his collar bone when his first racehorse threw him.

His fellow jockey Lucas Lopez, 18, warns: “You cannot ride if you are afraid.”

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