FARMINGTON — Had it not been for a career decision made in haste at the age of 21, it's quite likely horse racing fans never would have heard of Macario Rodriguez.
The leading rider at the current live racing season at SunRay Park & Casino was studying to be an architect at Fresno State University in 1999 when Rodriguez decided to try his hand at being a rider.
"I was pledging for a fraternity and somehow we got to talking that my dad had racehorses and I ended up riding my dad's horse," Rodriguez said after a day of racing at the Farmington bullring. "My first horse ran dead last, then my second horse ran fourth. I got beat less than a length. I got hooked right there."
Architecture's loss 14 years ago was truly horse racing's gain.
Rodriguez, 35, is approaching a milestone in his career as he is closing in on 1,000 lifetime wins, all the while continuing to put an exclamation mark on a brilliant season at SunRay Park.
Going into the final three days of racing, Rodriguez currently leads Enrique Gomez by 20 wins in the overall jockey standings. He has a seven-race lead over Larry Gamez in the quarter horse standings and, with mounts aboard several contenders in the final days of the meet, he only figures to pad those already impressive numbers.
"I remember thinking to myself that this ain't so hard," Rodriguez joked about how he felt during his early days.
Rodriguez had a variety of options leaving Kingsburg High School in Fresno, Calif. A valedictorian student, Rodriguez was given a full-ride scholarship to Fresno State before deciding to go on a different path.
"I was pretty smart then," Rodriguez quipped. "The thing I learned in college was that you're going to find out what you really want. I was still pretty undecided about what path I was going to choose."
Since arriving in New Mexico several years ago, Rodriguez's ascent up the ladder has been rapid. He spent several of his early years on the northern California racing scene, chasing the likes of Hall of Famer Russell Baze, a man who so thoroughly dominated the scene in that region that many riders didn't bother to compete with the man currently with the most wins of all time in the sport.
"I'm one of the few riders who was in his circle," Rodriguez said about his days working alongside Baze. "He's very picky, very professional. He taught me a lot about not trying to be too flashy, just use common sense when you're on the horse."
Common sense has also allowed Rodriguez to not let the success this year get to his head. Even with an impressive collection of career statistics, Rodriguez has remained humble.
"In this game, you put your emotions to the side and cowboy up," Rodriguez said. "You can't afford to get too big for your britches."
For his career, Rodriguez has amassed over 770 wins in thoroughbred races, according to Equibase, the official record-keepers for thoroughbred racing. He is currently ranked 14th in the country this year among leading quarter horse riders with earnings approaching $600,000. He has won over 200 quarter horse races in his career and will likely eclipse the 1,000 win mark later this year.
Even with the recent success, the struggles of maintaining both a family and career -- especially one that requires time, dedication and constant travel -- have weighed heavily on Rodriguez this season as he lamented about hard times with his marriage.
"It's a rough game, balancing the relationships and the business," Rodriguez said. "I'm sure I'm not the first and I won't be the last to have to deal with that."
A few weeks back, during the middle of the SunRay season, Rodriguez went through a phase where he rode 10 winners in two days.
Think about all the elements that go into play just winning one race. The start of the race, the pace, the other horses inside and outside, the other jockeys battling for position, the constant motion of starting and stopping and catching breaks here and there.
Rodriguez rode 18 horses in those two days and won with 10 of them, taking over the top of the standings of the current season.
"There's a point in time where you can see it all real clear," Rodriguez said. "And we were winning on horses that didn't have a shot, they'd just jump up and win."
Relationships on the track aren't much different than the ones developed off the track. That's why success comes with teamwork. Rodriguez's agent, Dominic Rivera, has done his best to ensure that Rodriguez stay focused through the good and bad times, on and off the track.
"I feel bad sometimes because of the work he does," Rivera said of Rodriguez's workday. "You dedicate so much to riding. He'll ride 10 horses in the morning (for workouts), then he'll ride nine in the afternoon. And I'll see him and feel bad, but I'll tell him we have to keep going. I have to keep giving him horses the next day."
Rodriguez will ride Casa de Cambio for the first time this Sunday in the $75,000 San Juan County Commissioners Handicap, the closing day featured attraction. Casa de Cambio is one of four horses trained by Hendry Dominguez and is the son of Exchange Rate.
Rodriguez realizes the riding profession always changes. Relationships are very business-like and productivity is key to success.
"You can't think too much about career achievements," Rodriguez said. "The people I work with here, the trainers and owners have all been really good to me. It's like any career. If you're willing to sacrifice and take chances, then you'll have success."