Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘I Was Born For This’

John Hiraldo began learning how to ride horses just three short years ago, but today the 20-year-old is a leading candidate for the Eclipse Award as North America’s outstanding apprentice jockey of 2021. 

The Puerto Rican-born Hiraldo had always wanted to be a jockey like his father, cousin, and uncle, but his mother took a firm stand on him finishing school and trying other sports before he committed to a life on the racetrack. 

“My mom tried to keep me in school and other sports; she tried her best for me to do something different,” Hiraldo said. “I’d always tell her, ‘Mom, I was born for this.’ 

“Now that I’m riding full-time, she’s honestly my biggest fan! She records all the races, and she tells me, ‘I watch ’em all, scared, I can’t just sit back and not watch.’ The only time she closes her eyes is when I’m at the top of the stretch and I hook up with another rider, because she doesn’t want me to lose that battle to the wire!”

Hiraldo came to the U.S. mainland in 2018 to begin riding, spending time in Maryland learning how to exercise racehorses and in South Carolina, breaking babies at the Elloree Training Center. When Hiraldo returned to Maryland, he got a job working for trainer Brittany Russell. She and her husband, jockey Sheldon Russell, were instrumental in Hiraldo’s continuing education.

“Thanks to her I started breezing horses, working horses out of the gate, and got my gate card,” Hiraldo relayed. “My agent asked Brittany if I was ready in November, and she said, ‘Not quite yet.’ When Sheldon said I was good, that’s when she kind of fired me! The next day I just started walking around with my agent. I was booked to ride my first horse on Friday, and then I picked up a mount on that Thursday. 

“It was nerve-wracking, and I was definitely anxious, because honestly it was the day I was most waiting for in my life. That first race was different; I never thought I would experience something like that [being nervous]. But when I broke, it was like the most relaxing moment of my life. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m here.’ That was the moment I was waiting for. When I crossed the wire, I said, ‘I wanna do this for the rest of my life.’”

From his first mount on Dec. 10, 2020, it took until New Year’s Eve for Hiraldo to make his way to the winner’s circle. As is so often the case on the racetrack, that day didn’t pan out the way he’d planned it.

“All week I was looking forward to that day, because I was riding a 1-9 shot in the third race and everyone kept telling me she couldn’t lose,” said Hiraldo. “Then she stumbled out of the gate, I lost my irons, and we ran third. I was so frustrated, beating myself up and wondering if I was even any good at this. I wanted to just go home, because my last horse was a 30-1 shot.”

Hiraldo bounced back and overcame the frustration to swing his leg over that longshot, and the young jockey is so glad he did.

“He comes out running, so I broke and I just sat off the lead,” he remembered. “I waited, waited, waited, then I asked him and he just took off. Without me knowing what the key to winning is, I just did it. It was patience.”

Flat Rate gives John Hiraldo his first career win at odds of 33-1

Flat Rate paid $69.80 to win, giving Hiraldo the first winner of his career.

“It’s something very special, unbelievable really. I can’t believe it,” Hiraldo told the Maryland Jockey Club media office from the winner’s circle. “I’m very happy. I have to thank God for always watching over me and all the other riders. I’m just very happy. I’ve worked so hard for this moment and I’ve dreamed about it since I was a little kid. It’s something very special for me.”

Over the ensuing year, Hiraldo worked hard to find as many mounts as possible, riding at up to three tracks in a single day. 

In one week, for example, he rode at Parx on Monday and Tuesday; at Colonial on Wednesday; at Delaware Park and Charles Town on Thursday; at Laurel, Delaware, and Charles Town on Friday; at Delaware and Penn National on Saturday; and at Laurel on Sunday.

He has gotten a lot of advice from his cousin, Angel Cruz (an Eclipse Award finalist for outstanding apprentice in 2014), and his uncle, Luis Batista, as well as some of the other riders on the Midatlantic circuit, like Xavier Perez and Victor Carrasco.

“I got a lot of experience, and it helped me to mature more in the game,” said Hiraldo. “Riding different surfaces against good jocks helped me to learn to ride over a lot of different racetracks.”

He celebrated his first stakes win on Oct. 13, winning the Clay Creek Stakes at Delaware Park aboard Red Hot Mess. The filly is trained by Hiraldo’s girlfriend, Chelsey Moysey, for whom the win was also a first in stakes company.

“That was pretty cool,” Hiraldo said. “First for both.”

Hiraldo won 81 races in 2021, riding across the Midatlantic region for most of the year and at Oaklawn Park during the month of December. His major competitor for an Eclipse Award appears to be California-based Jessica Pyfer with 56 victories; her earnings of $2.7 million bested Hiraldo’s $2.1 million.

While it’s only been three years since he first got into the irons, and the race for the Eclipse is over (voting closes on Jan. 10), Hiraldo is just getting started. He’ll keep his “bug,” the weight allowance granted to apprentice riders, through April, and hopes that his alliance with Oaklawn-based agent Jay Fedor will lead to a productive meet. So far, he’s ridden five winners from 39 starters at the Hot Springs, Ark., track.

“I just want to make a name for myself here,” Hiraldo said. “The dream is to be in New York or Kentucky, so I’ve got to keep riding a lot of races, learning, and trying to win!”

Chelsey Moysey and John Hiraldo after their stakes win at Delaware Park

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘I Was Born For This’ appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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