Nik Juarez is one of American racing’s rising stars on the East Coast. He got his start as a jockey at Laurel in late 2013, and in four years has gone on to win 461 races along with the Monmouth Park riding title at this year’s meet. He also rode in a Breeders’ Cup race- the 2015 Dirt Mile- aboard Valid just two months after losing his bug allowance. Nik has won several graded stakes races and continues to make a push toward the top of the profession by competing against top jockeys at Belmont and Gulfstream. We thank Nik for taking time out of his schedule to interview with us.
5 MTP: How has your background as a high school wrestler aided you as a jockey?
NJ: Well one big thing is discipline. To wrestle, you’ve gotta maintain a weight. I used to watch my weight all throughout high school. In my last three years (of high school) I always had to reduce. So that’s one thing helps me with riding because I always have to be disciplined, watch my weight and watch what I eat and when I eat it. The major thing is discipline and mental toughness. Our coach would really instill in us to always push to the next level and after a loss- you can’t let it get to you because you’ve got to look forward to your next match. In horse racing, I’ve got 25 minutes to my next race so I can’t really dwell on a loss for too long. You’ve gotta turn the page.
5 MTP: Was there a certain person or a certain horse that provided your breakthrough as a jockey and helped to get you noticed?
NJ: Oh absolutely, the horse was Valid. I just lost my bug and Marcus Vitali put me on Valid in the Iselin (at Monmouth Park), and that really kick-started me. I’ve gotta thank him, and also my dad too. He’s always my biggest supporter. He’s always behind me and he knows this sport better than I do. He was a jockey, but he didn’t get many opportunities. So to see me doing well and always pushing me forward to the next level- when I do something wrong he’s very quick to tell me, and when I do something right he’s quick to tell me as well. He’s very honest and he’s not biased with that.
5 MTP: In August you purchased Valid from Tom Thurman and brought him back to Maryland after he was racing in Nebraska and Colorado. Do you know why he was put through the 2017 Keeneland January sale? How has he adapted to his new life on the farm thus far and has he given you any signs as to what might come next?
NJ: Well, I’m not really sure why he went through the sale- he made over a million dollars- but once he was sold, I was seeking him out since then. I actually shipped him from Colorado here to Maryland. I went to go see him at the farm last week. I put some tack on him for the first time. That was actually the first time I was on his back since winning the Grade 3 Skip Away at Gulfstream. But he was so nice and really docile. He’s a smart horse. He’s pretty big, and he was very gentle around my dog who was there. Now my dog isn’t really into horses yet- she’s a Rottweiler- and she was running around and he (Valid) never moved a muscle, never kicked out or anything like that. I was telling my dad I think I’m gonna make him into a pony. I think he just has that behavior where he can be a pony on the track. My dad has horses on his own. So I told my dad we gotta get like 10 or 15 horses and let him be your stable pony.
5 MTP: What do you think has been the key to your success? Are there any strengths that you feel set you apart from other riders?
NJ: It’s the people behind me, the horses behind me that are really helping me out. It’s having that support from horsemen. Sometimes it’s just getting lucky, being in the right place at the right time. I think a major thing, like I said from wrestling, is being disciplined and being mentally tough because there’s more downs than ups. And that’s what I tell any other rider that’s going through a tough time- you just gotta keep fighting to get to the next step, or to the next day, or the next race. It’s about perseverance and working hard- you have to work hard- you always want to show your face. That’s what puts you with good horsemen. I really have to thank the horsemen and my dad for instilling a work ethic in me.
5 MTP: Who are some other jockeys that you look up to and have any provided a mentoring role?
NJ: I really look up to Joel (Rosario). He has really great hands and he’s very patient with his riding style, and he’s really helped me out. And also I’m in a corner with Javier Castellano in New York at Belmont. He’s very, very smart. He does his homework. He watches a lot of replays, and he really helps me out with that and reading the Form- he’s trying to teach me. One of my best friends is Tyler Gaffalione down in Florida. Down there we’re always together. Even on off days we’re doing something together- like going paddle boarding or something like that. Him and I are in the same corner together in Florida as well. We always push each other to just ride harder. Especially if we’re coming down to the wire together- we’re screaming at each other. We’re just trying to encourage one another to ride hard.
5 MTP: This past summer you won the Monmouth Park riding title after four years in the saddle. How do you expect this to affect your career and reputation moving forward?
NJ: I’m not really sure. I’m just really happy that I won the title. That was always my dream when I came to Monmouth. There’s a wall in the jockey’s room in the workout room, and there are these pictures of all the leading riders (from over the years). And I remember I just stood there and I stared at them. I said one day I want to have my picture there. That was one of my biggest goals. Going forward I don’t know what it’s really going to do for me. I went to New York now to try and play off of that momentum, and so far everything’s going well. I guess now another goal would be to win another title either up north at Belmont or down south at Gulfstream. I’m just proud that I finally won a title at Monmouth.
5 MTP: You’ve just made the switch to riding at Belmont full-time for the fall meet. Is it more or less challenging than you expected given the level of talent the NYRA jockey colony possesses?
NJ: I’d say it’s exactly what I expected. I ride with a lot of these guys in Florida. Going to Belmont is an entirely different track that requires an entirely different type of style. I put a lot of horses on the front end at Monmouth because that’s the track’s style. As a rider you have to adapt to where you go. And I really like the style at Belmont, where you can sit covered up, be patient, and make one run. It (requires) a little more strategy and the level of riders there is very tough.
5 MTP: Very recently, your fellow colleagues Jose Ferrer and Victor Carrasco were involved in a brutal spill at Delaware Park and the road to recovery will be long for them. Have you ever been worried about the dangers involved with being a jockey? Do you think there are any measures that racetracks could take to help make things safer?
NJ: Yeah I think my dad’s a little more worried than I am. Obviously there’s a saying for us riders- it’s not IF it’s going to happen, it’s WHEN it’s going to happen and how badly- and if you can walk away from it. It’s just how our sport is. The other saying is- the day you’re scared to ride, that’s the day you’ve got to quit. Because you can’t ride scared- you’ve got to just do your job. And I love my job. I have a passion for it. Am I worried about it…sure. But am I scared to ride? Absolutely not.
As for the racetracks, they do the best they can. As a jockey colony we try to have communication with our stewards or track management and we try to do as best we can. When you’re riding animals at 35-40 mph, things happen and we’re human and we make mistakes. So it happens, you know? It’s just our sport.
5 MTP: What are your thoughts on how racetracks should market themselves to attract and retain new fans?
NJ: A big thing in this day and age is social media, especially with the younger crowd. You’ve gotta do it. You see how many followers Gulfstream has. Laurel is getting better with it. Stronach and NYRA do a pretty good job. A simple thing is going to the winner’s circle (during a race) and carrying an iPad. That’s what the guy does at Gulfstream. He has an iPad and takes a picture when the track photographer is taking a picture, and posts it on Twitter or Instagram. Another thing is free admission. At Monmouth there are people who are going with their families and they have pay to get in. So it costs like $60 or $80 for the whole family to come in, and that’s before they sit down and make a wager. In Maryland and other places, you don’t have to pay admission. That’s a big thing. Have free admission at Monmouth on certain days- like every Saturday or every Sunday- and advertise it in the Asbury Park Press (the local newspaper). That’s how you get more people in here and that’s how you get kids into the sport and make them fans for life.
Follow Nik on Twitter @NikJuarez