LOUISVILLE — Miguel Mena speaks softly and with deliberate maturity.
Sitting in the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association office on the backside of Churchill Downs last week, the 28-year-old discussed, among other things, a role he has taken on in the jockey's room. He wants his to be a voice of support, a sounding board for others mulling a path to take.
"I'm willing to help anybody," he said, holding his morning coffee. "I would like to see everyone make good decisions and have a good career because when you're young, it's hard to get it. Especially (when) you start making money and winning races."
The man knows that of which he speaks, about making choices that put careers and lives in jeopardy.
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He also knows how to alter course back to the positive, thereby putting himself in his current position — less than a week out from the 141st Kentucky Derby, with a mount, International Star, who has also made rallying his hallmark.
Six years ago, Mena himself had ample chance to let circumstances signal his defeat.
At 22 years of age and his career on the upswing, Mena's drinking was spiraling out of his control. The proverbial rock bottom moment came in August 2009 when his imbibing caused him to miss a flight to Mountaineer for the $750,000 Grade II West Virginia Derby, a race his slated mount Soul Warrior ended up winning.
Where Mena could have become another young jockey derailed by addiction, he carved out a far more inspiring path. He enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous. He committed himself to rebuilding damaged relationships. He got married and is now a doting father of two.
He got serious about getting better.
"You know, I had burned some bridges in the past and I had to make some different decisions," Mena said. "I've done a lot of growing up mostly. I'm thankful to be where I am.
"I feel very good about where I am and about myself because it took a lot of time and work to get back to where I am. I'm not on top, but I see myself in a good competitive position, especially at these kind of tracks. I'm just thankful people stuck with me and gave me some good opportunities."
A major chance actually came Mena's way not long after his low point. In July 2009, he had guided Backtalk to wins in the Grade III Bashford Manor at Churchill and the Grade II Sanford Stakes at Saratoga and was able to keep the mount when the colt started in the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
In over his head class- and distance-wise, Backtalk finished last in that edition of the classic. Mena, however, has steadily advanced forward since.
In August 2010, Mena won his first Grade I race when he guided Champagne d'Oro to victory in the Test Stakes. Since 2010, his win percentage each season has consistently stayed around 13 to 14 percent.
Where his Derby mount International Star is concerned, Mena is batting .1000, as the son of Fusaichi Pegasus has not lost since Mena took over the mount.
And the Grade II Louisiana Derby had offered Mena and International Star plenty of room to lose. Sitting seventh in a nine-horse field with only a tepid pace to run into, the duo keep fighting through on the rail before determinedly coming after pacesetter Stanford, ultimately prevailing by a neck over Fair Grounds Race Course on March 28.
That victory gave the pair a sweep of the Fair Grounds' Kentucky Derby prep races, having previously scored off-the-pace triumphs in the Grade III LeComte and Grade II Risen Star. While multiple Grade I winners American Pharoah, Dortmund and Carpe Diem stand as the Iron Three of the 2015 classic hopefuls, it is Ken and Sarah Ramsey's International Star who sits atop the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 171 qualifying points.
Jerry Crawford, president of Donegal Racing, can speak first hand to the positive difference Mena can make, as Crawford's Derby contender, Keen Ice, was beaten by International Star in the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star.
"Speaking of someone who has come into their own ... how about (Mena)?" Crawford said. "That horse doesn't win all three of those races without him. He's a sentimental favorite for our group, he's ridden for us a lot.
"We offered him the mount on Keen Ice (in the Risen Star), but of course by then he was already committed with International Star. Miguel Mena is one of the real feel good stories around here and around racing because he did have some struggles. But nothing like a wife and two kids to sort of tighten the reins."
International Star would go into the books as an upset should he prevail in his 10-furlong odyssey on May 2. Realistically, he has already successfully conquered many of the obstacles that come in a 20-horse field. And if the pace scenario sets up as expected, he will have every chance when heart and guts come into play during the final furlong of the most challenging race of his life.
Kind of like the man who will be in his saddle.
"He's just a good horse. He has everything a horse needs to win races," Mena said of International Star. "He's easy to ride, he rates nice. He likes dirt in the face, he goes through tight holes, he saves ground. He doesn't care and he likes to win.
"I know my horse is under the radar, but I feel like my horse has as good a chance as anybody. He handles everything that I feel like you need for this race."