Novice marked for star status Jockey: Vietnamese immigrant Tho Nguyen finds horse racing in America to be a land of promise, and his future appears bright.

January 21, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Tho Nguyen's first victory as a jockey in Maryland was a routine ride of little more than one minute. The journey preceding that triumph 13 days ago at Laurel Park began 14 years earlier with a boy, a dream and a backdrop of fear.

Nguyen was 11 when his mother bribed his way onto a boat escaping his homeland of Vietnam. The boy carried no money, knew no one on the dangerously overcrowded vessel. But he possessed the knowledge that his father lived in America and the hope that they might soon be reunited.

"It was so crowded, some people had to trade off sitting on top of one another," Nguyen said, recalling the voyage before a recent day of racing at Laurel Park. "The boat broke down, and we were afraid we'd get caught. We ran into storms, and everybody got seasick. I got sick like a dog."

After five frightful days at sea, then six degrading months in a Malaysian refugee camp and finally a swift, liberating flight to the United States, Nguyen found his father. He also found something more.

He discovered that America truly is, in his words, the land of opportunity. And the opportunity that called loudest to him was riding racehorses, even though he did not learn to ride them until two years ago.

Now 25, Nguyen is trying to break into the strong Maryland circuit as an apprentice jockey. He arrived a few days before Christmas in a setting where, once again, he knew no one. He and his agent came from Texas as strangers, and business has been slow. Riding a mere 20 races in one month, Nguyen has won four.

"We had a hard time breaking in. We're still breaking in," Nguyen said of himself and his agent, Dale Ledgess, who books his mounts. "But through my whole life, I started from the bottom. Every step I take, I can only go forward. I lived in a refugee camp for six months. I can't go any lower than that."

One Maryland trainer who has hired Nguyen to exercise horses in the mornings and ride them in races in the afternoons is Eddie Gaudet, known for his support of young riders.

Gaudet has recognized talent before in Allen Stacy and Michael Luzzi. Stacy (1986) and Luzzi (1989) won Eclipse awards as the top apprentice jockey in North America.

"I think this kid is as good as either of them," Gaudet said. "He's very smart. He's dedicated to his work. And he's very, very talented. If he catches on with other trainers, he could lead the nation this year [in wins as an apprentice]."

Such an accomplishment would be phenomenal for someone who did not sit upon a horse until his senior year in high school. Most jockeys grow up around horses, but Nguyen spent his childhood in Saigon with his mother, brother and sister.

"Everybody struggled," Nguyen said. "My mother grew vegetables and sold them. She made clothes and sold them. She did anything she could to raise us."

His father served in the South Vietnamese army, but after the war he never came home. His family assumed he was dead. But in 1979, when Nguyen was 7, his mother received a letter from his father, postmarked Nebraska. He had fled to the United States instead of returning to Saigon (by then known as Ho Chi Minh City), where he would have risked imprisonment.

He wanted his family to join him. But the Vietnamese government wouldn't let them leave. When Nguyen was 11, his mother arranged for their illegal passage. But driving to the boat, they were arrested and thrown into jail for three days.

"Somebody snitched," Nguyen said.

The first day out of jail, though, his mother provided for his escape on a boat to Malaysia. After the dreadful five-day voyage, Nguyen spent six months in a refugee camp as his father arranged an airplane flight to the United States.

When Nguyen finally landed in Lincoln, Neb., he had no idea what to expect.

"When my father left the country, I was only 3," Nguyen said. "I couldn't even remember what his face looked like."

His father worked in a pet-food factory and owned a small house in Crete, Neb. Nguyen enrolled in school and struggled to learn English. In 1990, the year he turned 18 and graduated from high school, his mother and siblings were allowed to leave Ho Chi Minh City. They completed the family in Nebraska.

That same year, Nguyen discovered horses. A friend was the son of a trainer, Johnny Rohrbough, who works at tracks in Nebraska, Minnesota and Texas.

"He put me on a horse for the first time in my life," Nguyen said. "I just loved it. I began dreaming of becoming a jockey."

Rohrbough took Nguyen under his wing. He started him cleaning stalls, grooming horses and riding calm ponies.

"I made him learn it from the bottom up," Rohrbough said. "He was willing to listen and learn the right way."

But Nguyen's father wanted him to go college, not ride horses. So Nguyen attended college for two years before persuading his father to let him pursue his dream.

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