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Troubled Jockey Tries To Stay On Right Path


April 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

The two very different sides of Norberto Arroyo Jr. had formed a most complex relationship. Even at the racetrack, which tends to be a hardscrabble place, owners and trainers have a hard time understanding how someone who is young and talented and comes across as articulate and gentlemanly can also have a violent side, wage fights with a pool stick and wind up in jail.

All that has happened to Arroyo, and he struggles to explain how. But he says he knows it is time to choose who he wants to be and to start making the decisions to get there. The rewards are obvious: a successful career as a highly compensated jockey. The flip side could mean most anything, none of it good.

On Saturday at Aqueduct, Arroyo, a 25-year-old jockey, will try to complete an odd path to the winner's circle in the Wood Memorial, a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Less than two months after being released from the Nassau County Correctional Facility, where he served a 39-day sentence for second-degree assault, he has a chance to win the most important race of his career aboard the colt New York Hero.

"I feel like I've been very fortunate," he said yesterday between races at Aqueduct. "I still think God had something good in mind for me. I went to prison at the right time. I was able to think about a lot of things and now I am able to get out at a time when I can look forward to winning some big races and to keeping myself straight. I want to keep riding good horses and try to fulfill every jockey's dream, winning the Kentucky Derby."

New York Hero, who is owned by Ernie Paragallo, may have a hard time Saturday defeating Empire Maker, considered the favorite for the Kentucky Derby on May 3. But a solid performance would most likely earn New York Hero and Arroyo a trip to the Derby, which would be his first mount in it. Merely riding in the Derby is an achievement, and Arroyo says he is intent on not fouling it up. He professes an unwavering desire to do the right thing, which has not always been the case.

Arroyo moved from his native Puerto Rico to the Boston suburb of Somerville, Mass., when he was 11 and found his way to Suffolk Downs, where he set out to emulate a cousin, Enrique Arroyo, a top rider in Puerto Rico. He shifted to Aqueduct in 1999 and a year later was the leading rider in New York with 188 victories.

But the first visible signs of off-the-track trouble emerged in 2001 when he, his brother and his father, a former sparring partner for Roberto Durán, were charged with assaulting a livery cab driver in the Bronx. It was a side of Arroyo that never seemed on display around the track.

"I've never had a problem with him," said New York Hero's trainer, Jennifer Pedersen. "When I heard about his problems, I couldn't believe it. He's always so polite and so easy to deal with."

Mike Miceli, another trainer who has used Arroyo, echoed Pedersen's sentiments. "Not only is he a great talent, but he presents himself very well,'' Miceli said. "He's very high energy and always has a positive attitude. There aren't too many guys who come across as well as he does."

Arroyo escaped a jail sentence after charges were dropped and reduced in the incident in the Bronx, but he pleaded guilty to his involvement in a fight in a Long Island pool hall the night of the 2002 Belmont Stakes. He entered the Nassau County jail on Jan. 6 and was released Feb. 13.

"I am a good person; it's a matter of my hanging out in the wrong places," Arroyo said. "By going to prison, I realized I can't afford to go to places like that and have problems come to me. When I first went in, I thought it was a pretty messed-up situation. By the time I came out, I looked at it very differently. I started to appreciate things. I used to think staying at home was boring and that I had to go out. Now I know there's nothing like being home. Being locked up was the best thing that could have happened to me."

His jail time does not seem to have affected his livelihood or his mount on a Kentucky Derby contender. But further run-ins with the law could easily jeopardize Arroyo's promising career and the mid-six-figure salary he should earn this year. He says he knows that, is more dedicated than ever to being the best jockey possible and will act accordingly.

He has proven to be a good jockey; proving himself to be a good citizen has been more elusive. That, he says, will change. Riding in the Kentucky Derby or winning the Wood Memorial will not be, Arroyo hopes, his only accomplishment in 2003.

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