Maverick Teacher Gives Aspiring Jockeys a Leg Up
Chunky at 55, Frank Garza makes clicking noises with his mouth as a determined young woman atop a thoroughbred named Uncle Bob lopes circles around him.
“Squeeze those knees!” Garza commands from the center of the sand ring.
Sweat cascades down the face of Xochi Flores, the sister of a jockey who has won million-dollar purses and raced in places as far-flung as Dubai. At 28, she wants to get into the game herself and has picked retired jockey Garza to help her.
“Turn that left foot in! Keep your hands down!” he barks. “Both hands! This is a racehorse, not a pony--you can’t control him with one hand!”
Set on a tranquil farm in the orange groves of Somis, Garza’s operation is part outdoor classroom and part equine boot camp. It’s light years from the turf of longshots and sure things, but it’s one of the few places in the U.S. where aspiring jockeys can go for instruction.
“I’m gonna wear you out today, OK?” Garza tells his student. “I told you it wouldn’t be easy just because you’re David Flores’ sister.”
“It’s not,” she pants.
A native of Tijuana, Xochi (pronounced “ZO-shee”) Flores just moved to tiny Somis from Pasadena. She found a room and took a job at a local grocery so she could undergo Garza’s grueling regimen a couple of hours each day.
Such commitment isn’t unusual among Garza’s students.
Now an apprentice jockey at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, Francisco Duran worked days as a busboy at a Camarillo country club and nights as a janitor. At 5 a.m., he’d show up at Garza’s place to shovel manure out of stalls and go through his mentor’s ceaseless drills.
Growing up in Oxnard, Duran never rode a horse. Even after he declared that his life’s purpose was jockeying, he’d jump when a horse nearby whinnied. But he was strong for his 5-foot-2 frame and he burned with ambition.
“I just wanted it so bad,” he says. “That’s why I stuck with it.”
Years ago, Garza wanted it just as passionately.
He grew up poor, the son of a Texas ranch manager who bounced from town to town. He remembers his dad tying him to a saddle when he was a toddler. At 10, he won his first race, taking home $150. Soon he was hopping buses to tracks all over Texas, a lonely, 78-pound high school dropout seeking his fortune from Bandera to Beeville.
He worked nights at a cotton gin, slept in cold tack rooms, did odd jobs around stables. Eventually, he joined the pros at tracks like Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. He made a nice living and once beat his idol, the legendary Willie Shoemaker. He also broke more bones than he can remember. When a stallion reared back and stomped the daylights out of his back and shoulder in 1980, he retired.
“I didn’t regret leaving,” he says. “I mean, if you’ve been at it since you were 5, you get kind of tired.”
Garza lives a quiet suburban life in Newbury Park. He and his wife just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. He dotes on his three children and his grandson. He says his greatest thrills have come not on the track but from watching his sons score points for Newbury Park High School’s basketball team.
He doesn’t seem like a maverick, but for eight years, Garza has broken with racing tradition and offered to train anyone who dreams of piloting a thundering, 1,200-pound thoroughbred into the homestretch. While jockey schools have taken root in Japan and the United Kingdom, most jockeys in the U.S. pick up their skills informally, working as hired hands at horse farms and then as exercise riders at racetracks.
The system frustrates would-be jockeys who don’t have family connections.
“Almost everyone I know has a dad who was a trainer or used to be a jockey,” says Kevin Mangold, a former student of Garza’s who has been riding at Santa Anita since August. “A couple of years ago I went down to the track and said, ‘I want to be a jockey. Can any of you guys put me on as an exercise rider?’ They all kind of laughed at me.”
A 5-foot-tall actor who had tired of playing children and elves, Mangold commuted six days a week from Hollywood to Garza’s school, leaving his apartment before dawn. For eight months, he rode in the mornings, worked as a computer consultant afternoons and evenings, and squeezed in auditions when he could.
“It’s been tough, but it’s a dream,” says Mangold. “It’s as if I were a tall guy who had been working a conveyor belt somewhere and now I’m in the NBA. I wouldn’t be riding races at Santa Anita if it weren’t for Frank.”
Garza teaches jockeying from the ground up, generally working with just one student at a time. He shows his charges how to muck out stalls, how to groom horses, how to be comfortable around skittish thoroughbreds. After months of drills, he teaches them things that separate a jockey from a mere rider: how to explode out of a starting gate, how to take turns on a half-mile track, how to slow a horse without breaking its rhythm, how to make your move through a knot of jockeys thirsty to win.
“Trust me,” Garza says. “They don’t make room for you.”
It’s not for everyone. Garza’s full-time students ante up about $1,000 monthly for six or seven months. After 30 days, he boots students who are less than committed.
“I tell them up front they’ve got to show me what they’ve got,” he says.
Students range from teenage girls who are crazy about horses to an architectural draftsman who had a revelation about his true calling. About 15 of the 70 he’s tutored over the years now work at racetracks, he says. Most are exercise riders, who can earn up to $40,000 a year, and a few are jockeys, whose earning potential can be--but usually isn’t--in the millions.
One of Garza’s most accomplished students, J.C. Gonzalez, was killed in a fall during a 1999 race at Los Angeles’ Fairplex Park.
“I was devastated,” Garza says. “He was like a member of the family. I kept asking myself: What could I have done?”
As an exhausted Xochi Flores blazes around the ring again, standing in her stirrups, Garza gives her a thumbs-up and she responds with a smile as broad as the backstretch at Santa Anita.
“OK!” Garza shouts. “That’s what I want to see! Get out of the way, David Flores--we’re coming on!”