Braulio Baeza was born in Panama and lives in New York, but his story is inextricably tied to Kentucky and Lexington.
He won the Kentucky Derby 50 years ago aboard Chateaugay, a horse from Lexington's Darby Dan Farm. He was among the first Latino jockeys to win the Run for the Roses.
Since that 1963 victory, 11 jockeys born in Latin America have won 15 Derbys. Five of those riders — Edgar Prado, Victor Espinoza, Mario Gutierrez, Jose Santos and John R. Velazquez — have won during the past 10 years.
Angel Cordero or Laffit Pincay Jr. might be more familiar to the betting public, but Baeza led the way. His story reflects the growing international flavor of the Derby, where a horse foaled in Kentucky might be owned by a Saudi prince and have a Mexican-born jockey in that most American of horse races — as when Espinoza won the 2002 Derby with War Emblem, owned by Ahmed bin Salman.
The 1963 Derby victory is special for Baeza, who turned 73 in March.
"That's a race anybody in racing would like to win — owner, trainer, jockey," Baeza said during a telephone interview. "The one race they want to win is that one. Not because of the money, but for the prestige."
Andrew Beyer, longtime racing columnist for The Washington Post and the Daily Racing Form, said "there was always something stately" about Baeza. The jockey sat very erect and gave off a commanding presence atop a horse, just as his father had taught him.
"His demeanor in the saddle is what distinguished him," Beyer said.
Baeza's life story is one of a man who, no matter what befell him, came out on top, riding tall.
Baeza likes to say he was nearly born in a horse stall, but his mother was rushed to a hospital in Panama City, Panama, in time to give birth there. His grandfather and father were jockeys, and as a kid, he walked horses outside the shedrows at a track called Hipodromo Juan Franco.
It was there, at age 15, that Baeza finished last in his first professional race. The horse "was in front until about a furlong to the wire, and then he 'died.' He tired," Baeza said.
Two mounts later, Baeza won on a horse called Choice Brand. By the time he was 19, he'd won on 36 percent of his mounts.
In 1960, Baeza was riding a horse named Monzon when the owner told Baeza that if he won the next two stakes races, the owner would take Baeza and his wife for a weekend in Florida. Baeza won those races, and so he made his first trip to Hialeah Park in Miami. There he met several people from Panama, who in turn introduced him to Camilo Marin, who would become Baeza's agent.
Marin set up an appointment with an assistant to Fred Hooper, an owner and breeder who won the 1945 Kentucky Derby with a horse named Hoop Jr. Hooper was one of the first horsemen to import jockeys from Latin America, notably Jorge Velasquez and Pincay.
The visit to Hialeah opened vistas for Baeza. "When I saw the jockeys and I saw the races, I thought, 'I can ride with these guys,'" he said.
No sooner had Baeza returned to Panama than he received a telegram from a lawyer who had paperwork ready for him to return to Miami and ride under contract for Hooper. So Baeza went back to Florida and began working horses for Hooper at Hialeah.
Weeks later, on April 9, 1960, opening day at Keeneland, Baeza got his first U.S. victory on his first mount, a 2-year-old filly named Foolish Youth. Lexington Herald racing writer Bud Wallace wrote in the next day's paper that Foolish Youth "made off with the first race like she was a major stockholder in the track."
It was a milestone for Baeza. "I felt great, are you kidding? I was on top of the world," he said.
'The Latin invasion'
Bigger victories would follow. In 1961, Baeza won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Sherluck, came in second at the Kentucky Derby on Crozier and then won the Belmont Stakes on Sherluck at 65-1 odds. Sherluck's victory in the Belmont prevented Carry Back, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, from winning the Triple Crown.
Former President Dwight Eisenhower, who had left office earlier that year, made the presentation in the winner's circle at Belmont. To Baeza's surprise, Ike congratulated him in the jockey's native tongue.
"He said, 'Yeah, I speak Spanish,'" Baeza said. Eisenhower then explained that he had spent part of his military career in the Panama Canal Zone in the early 1920s. "Oh! When he talked Spanish to me, he was very friendly. That made it even better," Baeza said.
He rode in the Kentucky Derby again in 1962 aboard Admiral's Voyage, coming in ninth. Three months earlier, Sports Illustrated did a story on "the Latin Invasion," detailing how jockeys from Mexico, Panama and elsewhere were "dominating the young 1962 racing season."
"Since Jan. 1, Latin jockeys have won 11 of 22 stakes races run on major U.S. tracks and the nation's horseplayers are currently picking winners from names like Baeza, Ycaza, Hinojosa, Gomez, Gustines, Espinosa, Valenzuela and Yanez," SI's William Leggett wrote. With their smaller frames and the opportunity for greater financial rewards than in their home countries, Latin American jockeys were becoming a force on U.S. tracks.
Magic happened during Baeza's third Derby in 1963, when he rode Chateaugay to victory for Lexington's Darby Dan Farm. (Living up to his name, Chateaugay did indeed bring happiness home to Pittsburgh Pirates owner and Darby Dan owner John Galbreath. For an extra measure of good luck, Galbreath had attached a chicken wishbone to Chateaugay's bridle before the race. That same Derby Day, the Pirates beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 to take first place in the National League.)
Baeza remembers Chateaugay, the son of 1955 Derby winner Swaps, as "a mediocre horse as a 3-year-old. But he kept pulling and pulling until he became a nice horse, a real nice horse."
From Darby Dan trainer Jimmy Conway's perspective, Baeza didn't overwhip. "He doesn't beat up a horse. He is a master of pace and handles his horse with the skill of a neurosurgeon," Conway said.
For his part, Baeza said, "I realized myself that if the horse is extremely tired and he's giving you his best, and you hit him and hit him, sometimes the horse is like 'Hey, I'm doing my best and you're beating the hell out of me.' I found out that I got more out of the horse if I hit just once in a while."
At age 23, Baeza was not the first foreign-born jockey to win the Derby. Jimmy Stout, born in Malta, won in 1939 aboard Johnstown. And Johnny Longden, born in England, won in 1943 with Count Fleet.
(Hispanic jockeys Henry Moreno, who won in 1953, and Ismael "Milo" Valenzuela, who won in 1958, were born in the United States.)
Just when it seemed that everything was going his way, Baeza had a falling-out with Hooper.
In 1965, Baeza asked Hooper if he could move to New York for the spring and summer meets. Hooper agreed, so Baeza made arrangements to move to New York, found an apartment there for his family, and lined up clients. But when the Hialeah meet ended, Hooper refused to let Baeza go to New York. Hooper wanted the jockey at upcoming meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs.
Baeza refused and went to New York anyway. Hooper responded by getting a court injunction that prevented Baeza from riding.
"I had to do something," Baeza said. "I wanted to ride in New York, especially because my kids were in school. And in New York, they race the whole year. But he (Hooper) got annoyed and stopped me from riding."
The matter was settled when Baeza, with the help of friends, bought back his contract from Hooper for $100,000.
In 1966, Baeza rode his favorite mount of all time: Graustark, another horse from Lexington's Darby Dan Farm.
"I never asked him to run. To me, he was the best horse I rode," Baeza said.
Graustark was the heavy favorite for the 1966 Kentucky Derby. But after winning seven straight races, Graustark suffered a career-ending injury, breaking a coffin bone while in the lead of the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Racing on a muddy track, he was in front by six lengths in the back stretch but lost by a nose to Abe's Hope. Graustark died in August 1988, the month after Darby Dan owner Galbreath died.
With a Derby victory under his belt, Baeza entered racing's stratosphere. He rode a series of horses that would go into the history books, including Roman Brother, champion horse of the year, and Buckpasser, a champion 2-year-old colt. Buckpasser won 13 straight to capture horse of the year honors in 1966. Dr. Fager set a world record mile at Arlington Park in Chicago and was named horse of the year in 1967. Successor, Queen of the Stage, What a Pleasure, Arts and Letters — all were champions in one way or another, and Baeza rode them all.
From 1966 to 1969, Baeza became the top-earning jockey in the country. In 1967, he became the first jockey to crack $3 million in earnings.
"Everything was beautiful to me," he said. "Everything was working my way."
In 1972, Baeza continued his winning ways in England. There, riding the Darby Dan horse Roberto, named for Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente, he was victorious over the unbeaten Brigadier Gerard in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup.
Baeza won his first Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey in 1972, the year that award was instituted. He won it again three years later.
Perhaps the last great race in which Baeza rode was the July 1975 match race at Belmont between Ruffian, a filly that captured the nation's attention by winning her first 10 starts, and Foolish Pleasure, the Kentucky Derby winner. Baeza rode Foolish Pleasure, while Jacinto Vasquez rode Ruffian. But the hype came crashing down when Ruffian shattered her right front ankle during the race and was later euthanized.
Baeza still remembers the sickening sound of the bone that "cracked like when you crack a dry stick. She dropped back and I yelled back to Jacinto, 'Hang on!'"
Many think Ruffian would have won had the bone not broken. But not Baeza.
"There's no chance that filly could have beat that horse," he said. "No chance in the world. She was a great filly, but she was no match."
The following year, Baeza retired. He had been in a losing battle against his weight since about 1973.
"It's no fun, especially when you have to lose 5, 6, 7 pounds before a race," he said. "I used to put on a lot of clothes and then go jogging for a couple of miles. And go in the hot box and sit down and sweat. And then you're so thirsty. It's no fun."
Baeza had a total of 4,013 wins — 3,140 races in the United States and 873 in his native Panama.
He rode in the Kentucky Derby nine times but won only in 1963. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1976.
Baeza went on to become a trainer for 15 years in New York and later worked for the New York Racing Association. Then, in a sad postscript to his racing career, Baeza and another man were indicted on 291 criminal charges, including scheming to defraud, conspiracy, falsifying business records and tampering with a sports contest.
They were accused of falsely reporting the weights of jockeys and thus "misleading the public into betting on horses whose chances were compromised by overweight jockeys," according to The New York Times.
"They said I was trying to fix the races," Baeza recalled. "I said, 'How the hell am I going to fix the race? I couldn't care less who wins the races. They were completely wrong."
Vindication came when a judge dismissed the "fat jockey case" because of faulty evidence in 2007, but the damage to Baeza's reputation was done. The next year, Baeza and co-plaintiff Mario Sclafani filed a $100 million defamation suit against New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer, who had brought the criminal case, and others. But the civil suit was dismissed because prosecutors are immune from conduct associated in presenting evidence before a grand jury.
Baeza later found a job as clerk of scales at Louisiana Downs. He continues to work there and as the clerk of scales at Hialeah, his favorite track — the place where he first glimpsed what life in the United States could be.
Today, except when recounting the charges that were thrown out, Baeza speaks with no bitterness. His speech is relaxed, comfortable but proud.
It is the equivalent of how Baeza's father taught him to sit on a horse.
"He didn't want me to sit like I'm tired on top of the horse. A lot of jockeys, they sit down and they slouch, and he said they looked like they're already tired. 'Look like a jockey, not like a cowboy.'"