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Learning : Jockey Henry Garcia Has Gone from Milking Cows to Become One of the Leading Quarter-Horse Riders at Los Alamitos Track

Times Staff Writer

In a room filled with country music and little men, he was the littlest. The others, with delight and a measure of audacity, kiddingly called him a midget, and he laughed because he knows and they know that he is the perfect size for his profession.

Henry Garcia could only sympathize as other jockeys headed for the steam room to try to melt pounds so they wouldn’t be denied a ride.

“I don’t think I’m going to grow anymore,” said Garcia, 5 feet tall and always at 110 pounds although he eats like the horses he rides.

But Garcia, who lives in Artesia, grows every day--in esteem, and is looked up to in the jockeys’ room at Los Alamitos race track. He is the third-leading rider at the current meeting with 27 victories.

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He is respected because he started from the bottom, a stable boy, a Portuguese kid from the zores who came to the United States when he was 16. He couldn’t speak English or ride a horse the way a jockey is supposed to, but he learned to do both.

“My first time riding it was really hard for me to get my balance on top of a horse,” Garcia said. “But I really wanted to be a jockey. The more I would gallop, the better I got.”

Now he makes good money, rides into the winner’s circle at night and exercises horses in the early morning. He is a man who prides himself on class, politeness and hard work, and who is never too vain to still help out around the barns.

Garcia is the regular jockey for Caesar Dominguez, the second-leading trainer at Los Alamitos. In 1978, Dominguez gave Garcia, who was milking cows at an Artesia dairy, his start exercising horses. He rode his first race in ’81 and won his first race in ’82.

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There was a lack of tension, even anticipation, in the fluorescent-lighted jockeys’ room where the sorrowful tones of Anne Murray and the Gatlin Brothers came from a radio. Silks (jockeys’ coats) hung like flags from the ceiling. The air smelled of saddle soap, boot polish and cigarette smoke.

“There’s no pressure in here . . . no kids are crying, it’s not like being home,” said Garcia, who has two small children. His wife works at a bank.

Garcia was only scheduled to ride in two races so on this night there would be a lot of waiting.

“It’s like going to any job,” he said. “I don’t get nervous or nothing. It’s not boring. All the people are pretty friendly and there’s always something to do in here.”

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But he knows no other job could satisfy him.

“I’m so happy here,” he said. “I’m doing my favorite thing.”

Some of the jockeys were smooth-faced kids, while others had faces that revealed they have been around the track many times.

Garcia, 26, fit neither category. He was darkly handsome. His black hair curled over his white turtleneck and his eyes were a deep brown.

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Before kicking back, he studied the program. The names of horses are about all he can read in English. The horse he would ride in the third race was named Administrator.

The jockeys, some in robes, waited for their races not by psyching up but by lounging in a room off the dressing area where there was a snack bar, card tables and two televisions, one that showed the races and the other commercial television.

Garcia ignored both televisions and played Pac-Man with the fervor of a teen-ager at an arcade. He scored 28,770 points and wasn’t pleased.

Some jockeys went fishing. They took their poles and walked out through the thick infield grass to a small lake that rippled lightly and held bass. In the distance, a rooster crowed. In the grandstand, the spectators rustled and murmured as post time approached.

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“Gotta go to work,” Garcia said at his dressing stall. He put on his red silk and snapped it up. It had a little red bow tie on it.

As Anne Murray sang, “Can I Have This Dance for the Rest of My Life,” Garcia put on an orange and green helmet, adjusted his turtleneck in a mirror, lit a cigarette and waited with other jockeys, who also smoked. When a bell sounded, they went out to the paddock to mount their horses.

Administrator, a big, muscular quarter horse, wore orange blinders and was chomping at the bit, kicking and bucking in that erratic way that keeps wary humans at bay.

But Garcia eyed him calmly and fearlessly, although two years ago one of these animals fell on Garcia during a race, breaking his back.

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Administrator started to move out without Garcia so, in a blur of action, the jockey--with a boost from Dominguez--jumped on the whirling horse like a dog jumps on a pony at a circus.

With Garcia in the saddle, Administrator calmed down and they walked out onto the dirt track lined with palm trees and light poles that stood tall against a pink and purple sky.

Garcia, known as an aggressive jockey who gets a horse to break from the starting gate quickly, rode Administrator to an easy victory in the 400-yard race.

“Thanks, Henry,” said Bob Esposito, Administrator’s owner, as Garcia reached the winner’s circle to pose for a picture.

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When he returned to the jocks’ room, where cheeseburgers sizzled and cards were being shuffled, Garcia said, “Nothing to it. He broke good, all I had to do was whip him. I don’t think they like that much but I don’t think they got much choice.”

While waiting for another hour to pass, Garcia smoked and chatted with two young jockeys, Eddie Garcia and Ralph Seville, and Joe Matsuda, 47, a valet who polished the jockeys’ boots and saddles and set out their hair spray, Right Guard, Old Spice, foot powder, aspirin, towels and soap.

“Everybody thinks he’s my brother, he’s too ugly to be my brother,” Eddie Garcia kidded. “I’m Mexican, this guy’s too short, he’s a midget.”

Seville mentioned that Henry has helped him learn the basics of riding. “Like he always says, hard work,” Seville said.

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Henry said: “If you work hard in this business you’ll make it. You get one shot and if you mess it up, someone is waiting to take your place.”

Eddie listened to the man he is trying to gain on in the jockey standings.

“You listen to the good ones and watch,” Eddie said.

It was 11 p.m. and Garcia was ready to go home to a dinner his wife would leave out for him. He did not finish in the money in the eighth race but one out of two for the night wasn’t bad.

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Unlike many of the other jockeys, who favored jeans and cowboy hats, Garcia put on dark slacks and a blue polo shirt, sprayed his hair and walked toward the parking lot through fans who did not notice him.

In a few short hours he would be back, galloping horses past a grandstand littered with ticket stubs and beer bottles.

And when he finished with that Garcia would be the only jockey to head to the barns to help out, which would be no surprise because his boss, Dominguez, had said, “All jockeys think they’re God except him.”

And just when the sun would start getting hot, Garcia would grab a pitchfork and pitch straw into Administrator’s stall, making kissing sounds as the animal tried playfully to bite his hand.

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