‘Saint Gabriel’: Rich Strike’s practice rider known for more than just his skill with horses – Reuters

There’s an important face you won’t see in photographs of this year’s Kentucky Derby winner’s circle. Perhaps one of the most vital parts of the team, regular Rich Strike rider Gabriel Lagunes watched the race from the stopwatch tower on the backstretch of Churchill Downs.

“I cried after his victory,” said Lagunes. “Before the race, (trainer Eric Reed) asked me, ‘Do you think this horse can win?’ I said, ‘If he comes in, I promise he runs first, second or third.’ I love that horse.”

That was a bold statement considering Rich Strike’s 80-to-1 odds on the toteboard, but Lagunes, also a pro jockey on smaller tracks across the Midwest, certainly wasn’t wrong.

As much joy as that Kentucky Derby-winning moment must have contained, however, it pales in comparison to the emotion that washes over Lagunes’ face when he talks about the annual children’s party he sponsors in his hometown. from Veracruz, Mexico.

Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Veracruz is a hotbed of cartel violence and also has a significant portion of its population living in poverty. In 2020, according to datamexico.org35.7% of the population was in moderate poverty and 5.25% in extreme poverty.

The Lagunes family was among the poorest. He had to walk away from our interview to pull himself together when he remembered that he and his brothers had never received toys at the biggest giveaway party of the year, the January 6 Día celebration. of Los Reyes.

“Here in the United States, it’s Santa Claus,” Lagunes explained. “In Mexico, it’s Santo Reyes. I was going to school and everyone had new toys, but my brothers and I had nothing.

Lagunes goes above and beyond every year to make sure no other child in Veracruz ever has to feel that way again. Each year, he sends toys to over 200 children and hosts a Three Kings Day celebration that includes piñatas, bags of candy, inflatables, a bouncy house and ice cream.

The following video shows some scenes from the celebration:

This man embodies the true spirit of giving; he does not guarantee celebration because of his own excess, but because he knows what it is to have nothing.

Lagunes mounts have averaged about $1 million a year since 2014 (remember, jockeys keep 10% of that total, with an additional percentage going to an agent), and last winter, with so many jockeys staying at Turfway Park for the winter, Lagunes took a job as a salaried practice rider in Reed’s barn just to stay afloat.

Yet Lagunes used its own money to fund the celebration in January of this year so that no child would miss out.

He seemed surprised when asked about the charity work, as if unaware that news of the celebration had reached the United States.

“I buy for everyone,” he said, his eyes watering and his voice choking with emotion. “I see the children smile, and it makes me feel good.”

It was this level of virtuosity that also defined Lagunes throughout his career in the United States. It’s not often that trainers talk about a jockey’s work ethic or friendliness even after a loss, but Lagunes just inspires that level of respect.

“He’s got a heart of gold,” said trainer Tommy Drury, Jr. “He’s always trying his heart out and you always get 100 percent of him on your horse.”

Lagunes first competed in Quarter Horse races in Mexico at the age of 12, progressed through the amateur ranks and won over 3,000 professional races in Mexico. He moved to the United States in 2006 to pursue a career with horses, and has now won 1,514 races here.

“I’m not smart and I’m not very educated, but I love horses and I love my job,” Lagunes said. “It’s my life, horses. They don’t ask for anything in return.”

Reed recognized Lagunes’ equestrian talent the first time he saw him ride at Delaware Park in 2007, and began riding Lagunes on his horses at Mountaineer Park about three years ago. When Lagunes approached him about a regular winter job at Turfway, Reed was quick to agree.

“He’s a damn good rider,” Reed said of the jockey. “He has a good heart, but he’s also very smart with horses.”

From the first morning Lagunes got a head start on Rich Strike at Turfway, Reed knew he had found the perfect colt match.

“He taught the horse a lot, how to relax there, but also how to canter without being so nervous,” Reed explained. “Richie likes to gallop fast, and most riders would try to slow him down and fight him, but Gabe realized that if you just let him lead, he’ll never go too fast. He’s comfortable That’s when Richie really started to get good, once he was able to go out and gallop like the horse wanted him to, not like the rider wanted him to.

Lagunes added that Rich Strike can be a difficult horse to train in the morning.

“The horse is not easy,” Lagunes said. “He used to play too much in the mouth, so I knew I had to let him go. He didn’t like anyone behind or too close to him, but now I know the horse.

“They get along so well,” Reed repeated. “I’ve decided that when the time comes to start getting serious, to keep Gabe on his toes to get things done. It’s a big journey, and he’s probably one of the most important parts.

Lagunes travels to Churchill Downs every morning from his home in Florence, Ky. (about 1.5 hours away) just to gallop Rich Strike. He will travel with the team to Belmont Park ahead of the third Triple Crown jewel, missing out on potential mounts in the afternoon just to travel with the Kentucky Derby winner.

“I think everyone understands what Gabe is doing and they support him,” Reed said.

Gabriel Lagunes with Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike
Gabriel Lagunes gallops Rich Strike at Churchill Downs ahead of his 148th Kentucky Derby victory
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Earnest L. Veasey