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Orlando Sentinel

Reading, Writing And Riding

A Unique Horse-Racing School Helps Young Puerto Ricans Chase Their Dreams

By Matthew Hay Brown, Sentinel Staff Writer

5 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

CANOVANAS, Puerto Rico -- The sun still hasn't risen over this coastal town when Joaquin Suarez trudges across the dewy grass to the stables.

The race Friday won't start until midafternoon, but by 6 a.m. the student trainer is working Tun Tun. He slips the nylon halter over the head of the 8-year-old horse, brushes down his deep chestnut flanks and leads him out for a short walk.

Early-morning workouts are just part of the curriculum at the Escuela Vocacional Hipica, Puerto Rico's horse-racing high school. In what may be the only program of its kind in the world, 80 students meet outside Puerto Rico's storied El Comandante racetrack before dawn each day to practice training, riding and exercising horses.

After two hours at the stables, they will hit the showers and head for the air-conditioned classrooms under the grandstand for classes in horse-racing theory, English and other academic subjects -- preparation for high-school diplomas, licenses as trainers, jockeys, exercisers or farriers, and jobs here and abroad.

The state-run school is one reason for the disproportionate success of Puerto Ricans in horse racing not only on the island, where the $260 million industry employs 8,000, but also in the United States, where graduate John Velazquez currently leads all jockeys in earnings.

"They know what they're doing there," says alumnus Pichi Garcia, a former jockey who works as an agent in Miami. "When those students graduate, they're ready. Everyone who comes out is very, very good."

But with much of the student body drawn from among the island's poor and many having dropped out of traditional schools, Principal Ana Velazquez says the mission of the program goes beyond mere job training.

"We're trying to give them some tools so they can not only work, but they can become professional, they can integrate socially with people, they can grow," Velazquez says. "They start by doing something they like. With that, they have the motivation to work hard, to study, to become better human beings."

"It's not easy, but one can do it," agrees Kelvin Serrano, 22, who is training to be a jockey. "You grow as a person."

Serrano is one of seven students who will be riding in the afternoon's race. It's the last of the fortnightly 1,000-meter runs before the final, 11/16-mile race at graduation later this month, and the school is abuzz with anticipation. Jockeys and trainers elbow one another as they boast of their horses, "Ese va a ganar" -- "That one is going to win."

"We're all friends," says 18-year-old Hector Rivera, a two-time winner who will be riding Tun Tun. "But when we're racing, we're all enemies. Everyone wants to win."

But first, there's class. The students, predominantly in their late teens or 20s, concentrate on training, riding, exercising or shoeing horses while studying the traditional range of academic subjects for a high-school-equivalency diploma.

"The majority of my students are dropouts," English teacher Eudez Calderon says. "When they come for the first time, they're not interested in school, but this represents a real opportunity for them. We talk about the graduates and what they've accomplished, and we promote them to be the best of the best. It makes them feel different. You see the change."

Ivan Cruz, 29, a former factory worker set to graduate this month as a farrier, a specialist in shoeing horses, says he saw "the opportunity for professional development. It was a good decision."

Cruz is planning to explore opportunities in Puerto Rico and Florida. Others will look for work in New York, New Jersey and California. Former jockey Ronan Losada, now chief steward at El Comandante, says most should find work quickly.

"There is a need, here and in the States," he says. "People know this school and the quality of the graduates."

By noon, the trainers are back at the stables, readying their horses to race at 2 p.m.

Joaquin Suarez leads Tun Tun to the concrete run to hose him down. The chestnut's muscled flanks glisten in the bright Caribbean sun as stable worker Armando Anglero soaps him up. Stable boss Luis Hiraldo braids Tun Tun's black tail; worker Eddie Burgos tapes his ankles. There will be no betting on the student race, but several of the instructors have declared Tun Tun the favorite.

Under the grandstand, the jockeys are weighing in before changing into their racing silks. Their weight is recorded daily; they must keep themselves consistently below 105 pounds to stay in the program.

"You have to accustom yourself to eating very little," Hector Rivera says.

The trainers lead their horses along the 10-minute walk from the stables to the track. Students and teachers fill the lush green paddock; parents, aunts and uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins crowd the first rows of the grandstand.

Suarez admits to nerves before the race. Rivera, now in his silks, says he feels peaceful.

Instructor and former jockey Emilia Salinas calls the day's riders into a circle at the edge of the track. She reminds them to look good for the owners and trainers in town for the Clasico del Caribe -- the Caribbean Classic -- set to go off today. All join hands as she leads a prayer for their safety and success.

They climb their mounts for the parade. Rivera wears an orange top over white britches atop Tun Tun, who sports the number two. Finally, they trot out to the starting gate. And in a drumbeat of hoofs and an explosion of dirt, they're off.

It's Corazon Partido, under Raymond Hernandez, who takes the early lead, jumping out of the pack by a length. Second is Lord Diego, under Erick Ramirez. Entering the turn, Tun Tun is trapped on the rail behind three others.

The jockeys are floating above their mounts, gliding along while the horses underneath them pound the track. In the paddock, their classmates are jumping and shouting.

Corazon Partido is pulling away, and Tun Tun is looking at fifth or sixth when the pack finally opens up. Quickly Rivera guides him off the rail and, with a burst of speed, through the others.

As they round the turn into the final stretch, Tun Tun has fought his way to third, gaining hard outside Corazon Partido and Lord Diego, closing the distance fast, he'll pull ahead if there's enough track left -- "Let's go, Tun Tun," Velazquez shouts -- and wins by a head.

Back at the paddock, classmates reach up to slap Rivera's hand. A beaming Suarez, posing for pictures in the winner's circle, explains the feeling in two languages: "Me siento bien happy!"

For Rivera, a three-time winner now, it's the payoff for the early mornings, the weight training, the classroom hours, the careful eating.

"The emotion of riding," he says. "It's one of the greatest things there is."

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