Jockey Elvin Gonzalez gets led on onto the race track at SunRay Park & Casino on May 13.
Jockey Elvin Gonzalez gets led on onto the race track at SunRay Park & Casino on May 13. (Jaclyn Waggoner — Special to The Daily Times)

FARMINGTON — During a training break on May 13, jockeys, agents and trainers gathered in the horsing kitchen at SunRay Park & Casino to discuss the races scheduled for that day.

Elvin Gonzalez, a native of Panama, sat down at a table with his agent and not far from his trainer.

He is a quiet, modest rider who is new to the New Mexico circuit. But Gonzalez is one of the leading riders at SunRay Park & Casino. Last month, he made history during opening weekend by winning all five of his mounts, including four races in a row.

A horse jockey's work expands far beyond riding in races. Most attend jockey school and become an apprentice for at least a year before racing.

SUNRAY PARK AND CASINO

You can come watch Gonzalez and all of the other riders in action while they race at SunRay Park & Casino through June 22. Race days are Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and races begin at 1:30 p.m. and go until about 5 p.m. There are nine races each racing day.

The SunRay Park was previously the San Juan Downs before it closed for a period of time and was reopened under new ownership in 1999.

Lonnie Barber, director of racing, said the tri-city area benefits from the races because not only do they supply jobs, but the trainers and owners buy hay and feed locally and stay and eat in the area. Some people in the industry, like Barber, make the Four Corners their home.

Horse racing is a family-oriented sport, Barber said. We don t charge for admission or seating. It is all free. We are trying to give the people of the tri-city area some place to go and take the kids that is family fun."

Barber says the biggest day ahead for the track is the Belmont Stakes on June 7. It will be broadcast live throughout SunRay Park & Casino. A horse named California Chrome will attempt to take the thoroughbred racing s 12th triple crown in history.

The SunRay Park & Casino is located between Farmington and Bloomfield on U.S. Highway 64. For more information, call 505-566-1200 or go to sunraygaming.com.

An average jockey's day consists of early morning trainings with the horses and studying racing form and how the horses have been running. They then work with their trainer and come up with a plan for each individual race. Jockeys also don't usually ride the same horses every race, making training and studying that much more important.

Many of the people involved in racing have been involved with it for years, and it tends to be a tight-knit community.

But Gonzalez is an exception. He says he didn't know anything about racing until one day his wife had an idea.

"I was in college, and my wife would watch horse races, and she asked me why I didn't ride because I had the weight and why didn't I go to the Panama jockey school and try?" Gonzalez said through his agent, who translated for him.

So Gonzalez spent two years at jockey school in Panama.

"I never imagined I would make a career out of this," he said. "I was studying public administration in imports and exports in Panama. If it wasn't for my wife, I wouldn't be doing this, because I had no idea what horse racing really was."

Gonzalez starting racing in 2009, and while this is his first year riding in New Mexico, so far it seems to be a good fit.

On the morning of May 13, jockey Elvin Gonzalez runs practices laps at the SunRay Park & Casino’s race track to prepare for the races ahead that
On the morning of May 13, jockey Elvin Gonzalez runs practices laps at the SunRay Park & Casino's race track to prepare for the races ahead that afternoon. (Jaclyn Waggoner — Special to The Daily Times)

His agent, Richard Berlanga, explained he and Gonzalez joined a solid team and everyone works to keep things running smoothly. They are training with Justin Evans, who currently ranks third in the nation in wins, according to Equibase, the official record-keeper for thoroughbred racing information.

"I love to win," Gonzalez said. "But I really love seeing the hard work that everyone puts into the horses reap the rewards of winning."

Gonzalez remains humble despite his success. He says among a field of good riders, what sets him apart is just a little luck.

But his trainer says it's more than just that.

"He has a lot of natural talent that makes him outshine the rest," Evans said. "You are going to see a lot of big things to come for him. Enjoy him while we can get him here right now because I don't think he'll be here very long."

Evans said Gonzalez has the right style and has the ability to put the horse in a good position, making him a good candidate for much bigger racing venues in southern California and New York.

In the second race of the day on May 13, Gonzalez came in first place with the horse Divine Gift winning by a record-breaking 28 lengths.

"I just thank God for the opportunity of the moment to do what I love," Gonzalez said of his jockey career.

Jaclyn Waggoner covers the outdoors for The Daily Times. She can be reached at jaclynwags@gmail.com.

 A closer look >> Justin Evans

Justin Evans is one of the top horse trainers in the nation. He has been a trainer for 12 years and has spent four of those years in New Mexico.  

He says there are a few things he would like people to know about the sport. 

1. It can get dicey: "People don't realize how dangerous this sport is," Evans explained. 

At any given time anything can happen out there. Evans compared the sport to car racing, except on an animal. 

Jockey Elvin Gonzalez helps saddle up a horse in the barn area of the SunRay Park & Casino’s race track during a training practice on May 13.
Jockey Elvin Gonzalez helps saddle up a horse in the barn area of the SunRay Park & Casino's race track during a training practice on May 13. (Jaclyn Waggoner — Special to The Daily Times)

He said when there is a wreck in NASCAR, the vehicles can be moved out of the way. That isn't the case in horse racing. 

2. Self-discipline: "There is a lot of discipline that goes into being a jockey."  Evans said.  

Jockeys are required to maintain a certain weight limit to race. The average jockey weighs about 115 pounds. 

Evans explained it is important for jockeys to eat the right things to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle. 

3. Hard work: Work ethic is also an important part of the sport.

"From the outside, people think jockeys just come out here and jump on a horse, and there is a lot more that goes into it," Evan said. 

Jockeys spend lots of time with the horses, training and working on form and strategy with their trainers for races. 

4. Training together: Unlike other sports that separate competitors, jockeys all train together. 

"These are competitors that share one locker room," Evans said.

Jockey Elvin Gonzalez says the sport is a brotherhood and everyone takes care of each other — until they get on the track, where they all try to win. 

5. Good finishers: Jockeys need natural talent and ability to succeed.

Evans says he looks for someone who puts a horse in a good position and good finishers that at the end of the race are strong and can push a horse when it gets tired. 

Evans says one of his favorite things Gonzalez is he always puts the horse he's riding in a great position to win.