At Santa Anita, a Changing of the Guard : Oak Tree Meeting Sees Surprisingly Large Influx of Capable New Jockeys

Times Staff Writer

One of them came from Florida, where in 1983 trainer Roger Laurin called him "the most accomplished apprentice I ever saw."

Two of them came from New York, where palmy days had turned to tough times.

One of them came from Maryland, via the world, a 20-year-old veteran whose tall cowboy hats won't be out of place in California.

And another came from Mexico City, via Caliente, labeled the best Mexican rider since the late Alvaro Pineda in the 1960s.

In order, their names are Alex Solis, Ruben Hernandez and Wesley Ward, Cowboy Jack Kaenel and Antonio Castanon. Together, they are the cast of "Fall Faces of '85," a horse opera in nine acts currently playing five matinees a week at Santa Anita.

By no means are they the only new faces at Santa Anita, where jockeys old and young periodically show up at the stable door, drawn by Southern California purses that are the highest this side of New York.

What makes the fall collection unique is that this quintet represents an inordinately large influx of jockeys whose resumes are already lengthy. Name jockeys--Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Steve Cauthen, Cash Asmussen, Randy Romero--have dropped through the skylight with credentials before, some to click, others to struggle. But none came to California in such a cluster as this group.

It's as though the newspapers ran an ad that said, "Jock. pos. avlbl., big bux if qualfd., no beginners," and everybody who read it applied.

Alex Solis, although only 21, won 264 races last year, 15 of them in stakes, and his horses earned purses of almost $3 million. Solis has been a leading rider at Gulfstream Park, Calder and Hialeah, where he won the 1983 Flamingo Stakes for Laurin with Current Hope, a 37-1 longshot.

Ruben Hernandez, 35, won 22 stakes, more than anybody else, in New York in 1979, the most memorable being Coastal's upset of Triple Crown-bound Spectacular Bid in the Belmont Stakes. Hernandez won 20 stakes in New York the next year, once winning important races on three consecutive days at Aqueduct.

Wesley Ward, 17, was easily the nation's top apprentice jockey last year, with 335 victories and $5.2 million in purses. The next-highest apprentice in those categories trailed Ward by 116 winners and $2.4 million. Riding in New York and New Jersey, Ward set a single-season record at the Meadowlands with 124 wins.

Jack Kaenel won the '82 Preakness at Pimlico with a heady ride on Aloma's Ruler, who finished ahead of Linkage with Bill Shoemaker. Kaenel won more than 600 races from '81-84.

Antonio Castanon, 22, was the leading apprentice rider and later top journeyman at Mexico City in '84 and this year beat out defending champion Humberto Enriquez for one of the seasonal titles at Caliente. Enriquez, 19, who won more than 200 races last year, is also trying to break in at Santa Anita.

The five Fall Faces say they are in California for more than a look-see. They say they are here to stay because of confidence that contending mounts will come their way. Some of them have sold homes and boats where they lived, moving their families here and putting their children in school. Others are just starting families with the intention of rearing the children in California.

If any of them was going to renege on his commitment, packing his bags and returning whence he came, it would have been Ward, who rode no winners out of 73 mounts this summer at Del Mar.

Ward said: "I don't care how long it takes, I know I can ride. I've won almost 500 races in the last two years, and that's more than just luck. I'm not boasting, but I've ridden against the best before and I know I can do it again. It's going to take hard work, and I'm ready to do that by being the first one at the track in the mornings if a trainer needs a rider. I knew that I wasn't going to just come in here and expect to take away the choice mounts from any of the established jockeys."

Here's a closer look at the Fall Faces:

ONE MORE FROM PANAMA

Panama is almost as well known for its jockeys as its canal. Start with Laffit Pincay, Jorge Velasquez and Jacinto Vasquez today, go back to Manny Ycaza and Braulio Baeza and fill in the blanks with several jockeys in between.

Alex Solis appears to be another rider in their tradition. "He's got it all," said trainer Brian Mayberry. "He's young, he's light, he's intelligent and he's ambitious. He's got it all together."

Mayberry, is new to California himself, having just arrived at Hollywood Park in the summer with a stable of horses, but he has a rooting interest in Solis. It was Mayberry who suggested that Solis leave Florida.

"I have always liked California and felt I wanted to ride here," Solis said. "But I was thinking about trying it next year until Brian called. I feel like I will be here forever."

Through Walter Blum, the former rider who now serves as a steward in Florida, Solis was able to hook up with Vince DeGregory, an established agent on both coasts. At Del Mar, it seemed as though Solis could make a winner out of any horse DeGregory landed for him. With 23 winners, the average win price for a $2 bet was more than $25.

Trainers besides Mayberry are paying attention. When Delahoussaye was ill, Neil Drysdale hired Solis to ride Best of Both in the Carleton F. Burke Stakes. They finished third. Solis has won the Norfolk Stakes with Snow Chief for Mel Stute and the Volante Handicap for Ron McAnally with Justoneoftheboys.

Solis is this resourceful: In the '83 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream, which preceded Current Hope's win in the Flamingo, the jockey's whip was knocked out of his hand at the eighth pole. Solis took off his cap and used it as a whip until a head wind eventually took that device out of his hand, too.

But Solis got Current Hope to the wire in time. After the race, the stewards huddled before deciding that using the cap was legal. Solis might have gone to one of his boots next. He wants to win that badly.

CALIFORNIA, AT LAST Like Solis, Ruben Hernandez is also a Panamanian who first rode in Florida when he came to the United States. The first year there, his unyielding style made him look like the second coming of the fiery Baeza. Hernandez received 60 days in stewards' suspensions.

Hernandez eventually calmed himself and won several riding titles in Florida. In 1976, he was torn between moving to New York or trying California. "Pancho Martin (a leading New York trainer) talked me into coming to New York," Hernandez said. "He told me he'd give me a good shot."

It was Martin's son, Jose, who gave Hernandez the mount on Lakeville Miss in 1977 and the 2-year-old filly won the divisional championship. Besides the Belmont, Hernandez's other major victories include the Hollywood Derby with Steve's Friend in '77, the Maskette with Pearl Necklace in '78, the Whitney with State Dinner in '80 and the Marlboro Cup with Noble Nashua in '81.

Overall, though, Hernandez's New York business was slipping. He went from 168 winners and $4.5 million in purses in '81 to 78 winners and $1.5 million last year. He finally separated from his agent of eight years, Juan Dominguez.

"I had wanted to try California last year but my wife, Maria, said no," Hernandez said. "This year, before Saratoga (in August), I had made up my mind that we were coming."

THE KID'S STILL SMILING Lenny Goodman, who was Wesley Ward's agent in New York, once said: "This kid'll ride three pounds lighter once he gets those braces off his teeth."

Dennis Ward, Wesley's father, used to call his son "the kid with the silver smile."

Dennis Ward, now a trainer, was the country's leading apprentice jockey in 1960-61. Wesley Ward began riding on the Washington state fair circuit at 12 and had won about 150 races by the time he reported to Goodman early last year.

Jockey and agent hardly had time to catch their breath. Besides leading the nation in performance, Ward--who, incidentally, had the braces on his teeth removed last year--also was first in energy, riding in 2,094 races, which is almost six a day. He rode day and night when New York tracks and the Meadowlands were both open.

Still an apprentice as this year started, Ward piled up 83 wins and $1.5 million in purses in three months. Even though his apprenticeship, which included the advantage of riding with less weight, ended on March 28, he's still the national leader among bug boys in purses and ranks fourth in wins.

Since March, however, Ward has won fewer than 30 races and his winning percentage is under .07, compared to .16 last year.

He does not believe the slump is related to becoming a journeyman. "Two days after I lost my bug, I got a seven-day suspension, and that didn't help," Ward said. "But then I came back and won 10 races in two weeks. What happened was, Lenny had a heart attack and I was without an agent. That's what killed me."

JACK OF ALL TRACKS Jack Kaenel says he's 20. Santa Anita has been listing him as 21. Maybe the jockey is working from the same birth certificate he used in Maryland, where in 1981 he won 36 races before it was discovered that he was only 15, one year under the minimum. As a bona fide 16-year-old, Kaenel was the youngest jockey to ever win a Preakness.

Kaenel has more experience as a rider than some jockeys who are considering retirement. "Last July was my 10th anniversary riding," Kaenel said. "Besides horses, that includes mules, rodeo broncs, even dogs and goats as a child."

Because Kaenel rode quarter horses for his father at bush tracks all over the plains states, he figures he's especially qualified to ride thoroughbreds in California.

"They train horses different out here," Kaenel said. "In New York, with the deep surfaces, if you started riding a horse hard at the half-mile pole, he'd be done by the time he got to the wire. But in California, you gotta be able to blow a horse out of the gate. You have to have speed out here and you better be in contention early."

Things have always happened to Kaenel, and they're still happening. A few days before the '82 Preakness, he was in an automobile accident, but because he was wearing his protective jockey's skull cap, the concussion wasn't serious enough to keep him out of the race.

This summer, he suffered a broken foot in a starting-gate accident at Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha. While recuperating at his mother's home in Chicago, he decided to go to California with his wife, Debbie, who is pregnant, and their 3-year-old son.

"I said I'd never come out here unless the situation was right," Kaenel said. "It's too tough to win out here without coming under the wrong circumstances."

IN A FAMILY WAY Antonio Castanon is the son of a Mexico City exercise rider and 1 of 10 children. Two of his his brothers also hope to become jockeys.

"I have set no time limit on how long it will take me here," Castanon said. "I am just going to keep on trying. I liked riding at Pomona (the Los Angeles County Fair meeting that closed last month). There is a trick to riding that (five-furlong) track, and I think I picked it up quickly."

Castanon, riding outside of Mexico for the first time, won 21 races in 18 days at Pomona, placing third in the standings. But Pomona, a meeting that most of the leading jockeys skip, is not Santa Anita. Ron Hansen led the Pomona standings for the fourth straight year, but he's never been a factor at California's major tracks and no longer competes regularly here.

"I have been riding for five years," Castanon said. "To me, that is a long time. I have a better chance to be a name jockey in California."

And just as good a chance to slip into oblivion. There's no guarantee that "Fall Faces of '85" will be a long-running show for any of the cast.

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