Chavez a real gem as jockey, person

Triple Crown races a just reward for work

Preakness Stakes

May 15, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

When Jorge Chavez returned to New York after winning the Kentucky Derby and walked into the paddock at Belmont Park, the fans erupted in applause.

Horse racing is a sport in which the jockey is often vilified (nearly always by disgruntled bettors). Yet Chavez, who will ride Monarchos on Saturday in the Preakness, is the exception: the jockey everybody likes.

"He is one of the most sincere, honest, sensitive human beings I've ever been around," said John Ward Jr., trainer of Monarchos.

"There's one thing about Jorge - he tries," said Nick Zito, the trainer for whom Chavez rode Albert the Great in the Pimlico Special. "The guy tries with a $10,000 claimer, and he tries with Monarchos. I think everybody likes Jorge."

Chavez won't let a horse quit, riding for place and show as hard as he rides to win.

An aggressive jockey with intense determination, Chavez whips with a short, rapid motion that earned him the nickname "Chop Chop." He is short, even by jockey's standards (4 feet 11), with a bright, endearing smile.

Bettors in New York, where Chavez was the leading rider throughout much of the 1990s, wave signs that read: "Chop Chop, Super Jockey." The racetrack vernacular for Chavez's powerful riding: "He don't get beat no noses."

In the Kentucky Derby, Chavez did not have to worry about getting beat by a nose. Monarchos won by 4 3/4 lengths. After three losing mounts in the Kentucky Derby (best finish, 11th), one in the Preakness (sixth) and six in the Belmont (best finish, fifth), Chavez finally won a Triple Crown race.

"This was my first with a horse that had a chance," Chavez said. "I said to myself, `I've got to do it now.' It's a great feeling, let me tell you. This is as high as you can go being a jockey."

Chavez started at the bottom. Abandoned by his family at 10, he survived on the streets of his native Peru. He declines, politely, to talk about those years.

"He fought his way out of the worst possible conditions growing up," Ward said. "He lived on the streets, but he still went to school and got his degree. On the streets - now that shows you the determination of the guy."

When he was 20 and had a job taking bus tickets, a friend told him he was the right size to be a jockey. Chavez had never ridden a horse. He went to a racetrack and got a job caring for horses. He eventually started exercising them. Finally, he became a jockey.

He taught himself. He watched tapes of the major American races. He tried to emulate Bill Shoemaker. Chavez became the leading rider in Peru, and, in 1988, he began riding in South Florida.

His rough, aggressive style is legendary. During his first spring in America, he received 85 days of suspensions. In 1989, he moved to New York.

"When he first came to this country, he was a rough rider," said Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame jockey. "But that's the case with a lot of riders who come from Latin America. Down there, the rougher you ride, the better you do."

Chavez eventually lost the roughness but retained the aggression. His style is not pretty, but it is effective.

"He's like a golfer who never took lessons," Bailey said. "He's got a horrible swing, but he plays good golf."

Although Chavez was a hero in New York, he was little-known around the country. Often, Chavez won races on good horses but then, for the big races, trainers dumped him for a more polished rider.

The Wards - John and his wife and partner, Donna - helped change that. Donna let him ride her prized filly, Beautiful Pleasure.

She was reluctant at first, she said, because of his reputation for rapid as well as forceful whipping. But after talking with him and watching him ride, she said, she realized he didn't whip horses excessively hard.

In 1999, Chavez rode Beautiful Pleasure to victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. That same day, he won the Breeders' Cup Sprint with Artax. That year he won his first Eclipse Award as North America's outstanding jockey.

Gary Stevens, a Hall of Fame jockey, presented the award. When he opened the envelope, he said: "And the winner is ... Chop Chop."

Earlier that year, on Preakness Day at Pimlico, Chavez was aboard Artax in the Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap. In the homestretch, he encountered a strange sight: an intruder on the track, fixated on his horse. The man had walked onto the track from the infield and planted himself in front of the oncoming horses.

Chavez jerked Artax to the inside at the last moment, avoiding a crash. As Artax swept by, the man took a wild swing and grazed the jockey's boot.

He cannot forget the incident. "That was like a bad dream," he said.

He expects a smoother ride on Monarchos in the Preakness when he tries to capture the second leg of the Triple Crown. Can the gray powerhouse win at Pimlico and then, three weeks later in the Belmont, sweep the Triple Crown?

"To win the Triple Crown is tough," Chavez said. "I just right now am taking it one step at a time. But my horse, I know he's going to give me everything. He'll give you a big run and keep going. I've never seen a horse like that."

Race facts

What: Second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown

When: Saturday, 6:07 p.m. post time

Where: Pimlico Race Course

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

Purse: $1 million

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 5 p.m.)

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