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The San Francisco Chronicle
SPORTS: ON THE HORSES
Figueroa Riding Path To Success
By Larry Stumes
April 20, 2002
THE KEY to success for any new jockey -- young or old -- at a particular racetrack is winning early. That's why 18-year-old apprentice Omar Figueroa is fourth in the Bay Meadows jockey standings despite never having ridden previously in California.
"If a new rider scores quickly, gets a couple of quick wins, that's all it takes," said leading trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who has used Figueroa several times in the first three weeks of the Bay Meadows season. "When you win, people get interested and give you a chance, and then you can win more races."
A native of Puerto Rico, Figueroa began his jockey education at Monmouth Park when he was 15 and rode in his first race there last summer.
"I always had horses to ride when I was growing up," Figueroa said. "My family wasn't in the racing business, but they liked to gamble."
The connection was enough for Figueroa to decide on a career that began under the tutelage of trainer Edward Plesa in New Jersey.
"He helped me a lot," Figueroa said. "He started me practice riding in a chair, and then I galloped horses for him for a year and a half."
Figueroa won his first race at Monmouth Park with his third mount on July 11 but missed much of the rest of the year with a shoulder injury. He won with 25 of 231 starters at Philadelphia Park before coming to Bay Meadows, where he has won with 10 of 59.
"A jockey at Philadelphia Park, Miguel Espindola, used to ride here and told me I should come," Figueroa said. "He got me in touch with an agent (Mark North), who thought I could do well here."
Besides Hollendorfer, Figueroa also has ridden for top trainers Art Sherman, Armando Lage, Wesley Ward and Greg Gilchrist.
"He looks very polished on a horse for an apprentice," Gilchrist said. "He looks like someone who instead of riding for a year maybe has more experience. He sits very well on a horse, if he has enough horse, he generally gets it into a position to get there, and he doesn't get horses into trouble. When you have all that, plus five pounds (the apprentice jockey allowance), it seems like a pretty good bargain.
"I saw a couple of races where he didn't use the whip because he thought the horse was giving everything, so he must relate to the animals pretty well."