Lopez introduces himself to Saratoga
SARATOGA SPRINGS “Cheatin’ …”
The next word is unprintable in this space.
I knew it was jockey Junior Alvarado even before I swung my head around to check.
The cheatin’ … person … to whom he was referring, meanwhile, was calmly and confidently waiting for the objection lodged by Alvarado to be gaveled into oblivion by the stewards.
And after a minute or so, it was, giving 28-year-old Paco Lopez, who likely has been called such coarse things before, the first Grade I victory of his career, on Itsmyluckyday in the Woodward at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
It capped a magnificent daily double for Lopez, who also won the Grade II Prioress on Stonetastic.
Itsmyluckyday’s trainer, Eddie Plesa Jr., who employs Lopez on a regular basis at Gulfstream Park in Florida and Monmouth Park in New Jersey, said he prefers to be a big fish in a small pond, but Lopez was a big fish in the biggest pond on Saturday.
The former quarterhorse rider who was once banned for two months at Calder roughhoused it with Alvarado and Whitney winner Moreno for all they were worth for the length of the stretch to win the Woodward.
With 40 days of racing nearly over, the native of Veracruz, Mexico, has ridden just 16 times here this meet, but has four wins that include two of the biggest on Saturday’s blockbuster card.
“Paco’s an outstanding rider who you will be hearing a lot about, no ifs, ands or buts,” Plesa said. “He belongs in the top tier of riders, in my opinion. I’ve been using him since he had the bug.”
That was 2008, when Lopez led the nation in wins for a bug boy and won the Apprentice Eclipse Award.
He grew up poor on a farm with no electricity or running water, moved to a ranch when he was 12 and was in Florida riding quarterhorses by 2006.
Lopez transferred that Wild West style to thoroughbred racing, which cost him the last two months of his Eclipse Award season when the Calder stewards got fed up with his appeals of six infractions totaling over 30 days of suspension.
Must’ve seemed like old times during the stretch drive of the Woodward.
Alvarado was on Moreno to the inside of Lopez and Itsmyluckyday, and it may as well have been the Dodge Charger and Steve McQueen’s Mustang GT swapping hide in “Bullitt.”
Itsmyluckyday and Moreno made contact eight times by my count, and I scored it 5-3 in favor of Moreno.
So it seemed ludicrous that it was Alvarado who protested to the judges, but then again, he lost.
“I probably should have thrown myself on the ground to see if he would have got disqualified in this race,” Alvarado said.
And the Oscar goes to …
Moreno’s trainer, Eric Guillot, naturally, delivered the sour grapes that were as hilarious as you’d expect them to be.
“Looks like I’m going to the Complaint Department again. What time they open?” he said, laughing and referring to last year’s Travers, when Moreno lost and Guillot started an illegal buzzer controversy that was quashed by an investigation.
Lopez just smiled the smile of a winner.
His English is rough, but his dominant form at Monmouth translated well to the hallowed ground of Saratoga.
Lopez has a ridiculous 110-45 edge over Orlando Bocachica in the rider standings on the Jersey Shore, and has topped $3 million in earnings there for the second year in a row. He had 99 winners at Monmouth in 2013, with the next three in the jockey standings each with just over 50.
Still, the Saratoga colony can be intimidating to an outsider.
“Yeah, but I have the same competition at Gulfstream, so for me, it’s no different,” Lopez said. “I know the riders here, and it’s the same thing as Florida.”
“He’s a smart, aggressive rider that does the right thing and has something between his ears, that he thinks and he knows the game,” Plesa said. “He works extremely hard, just does everything right. He’s a credit to his profession and a credit to his country and a credit to his family. Just a great person.”
I jokingly said, “Now you have to say something bad about him,” and Plesa just chuckled.