John Clay

John Clay: Derby trainer benefits from previous career as jockey

LOUISVILLE — To find Juan Arias, don't go to his office.

Go to his horses.

"That's where he stays," his friend, Ruben Sierra, owner of Decisive Moment, said of the 46-year-old trainer who is experiencing his first Kentucky Derby. "He's always on his horses."

First, Arias was on them as a jockey. Now, the native of Panama is on them as his own exercise rider, part of the routine of someone who never wanted to get off the horse in the first place.

"I had weight problems all the time," he said. "So I knew my jockey career was going to be short."

So much so, the weight problems nearly cost him his life.

Let's back up for a second. This isn't the same Juan Arias who trained Kentucky Derby winner Canonero II back in 1971. Same name. Different person.

"I get that a lot," he said this week.

That Arias was from Venezuela. This Arias is from Panama, where he attended the famous jockey school there and rode for a short time before coming to the United States in 1981.

He rode for 10 years, mainly in Florida, but keeping his weight down was always a struggle. It would go up, then down, then back up again. The fight took a toll on his body to the point where finally, at age 25, he suffered a serious stroke.

After 45 days in a hospital, Arias decided he could no longer ride in races. He changed his diet. He got a job as an assistant trainer, one he would hold for 15 years before going out on his own in 2003.

"It takes time for someone to come around and give you the opportunity," he said.

Richard Rowan was the first to do so. The retired president of the Savannah College of Art and Design owned Renda, who with Arias as trainer ran in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Arias has seen many Kentucky Derbys, he says, but never from the vantage point of a trainer with a horse in the race. Until now. Decisive Moment, a son of With Distinction, showed promise at the end of his 2-year-old year by finishing second in the Delta Jackpot in November.

He opened his 3-year-old campaign by winning the Jean Lafitte Stakes. Next came a third-place finish in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds behind Mucho Macho Man and Santiva. But instead of sticking around for the Louisiana Derby, Arias brought Decisive Moment to Turfway Park, where he ran second to Animal Kingdom in the Spiral Stakes on March 26.

Decisive Moment has been at Churchill Downs since then. And most of the time, Arias has been riding him. There he was on a cold, rainy Tuesday morning, atop his Derby horse as he walked the shedrow for 45 minutes.

"I'm able to exercise the horses," Arias said. "That way you can stay on top of how sound they are and how they are moving. You have a better feel for what's going on."

"That was one of the things that appealed to me the most when I got him to train for me," said Sierra, who owns Just for Fun Stables. He is also a partner in Agritrade in Florida and is a graduate of Memphis State. "The fact that my trainer is going to be on the horse when necessary, so we don't depend on an exercise rider telling us he didn't feel right, or he didn't switch leads or wasn't himself. Whenever that happens, the next day, he's on the horse, and he knows what's going on."

And Arias loves training.

"I always like to be the captain," he said.

He loves Decisive Moment, too.

"I like everything about him," Arias said. "He's got good composure, good personality, and he's got ability. It is a wide-open race. He's the type of horse that goes out and tries every time. No matter how the race shapes up, he's always there to try."

And Arias is always there, riding his horses.

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