Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Mena’s ‘Pure Courage’ Grants Him Another Chance In Saratoga

Winners aren’t people who never fall. They’re people who never quit. 

Jockey Miguel Mena knows that truth all too well. A serious ankle injury in early 2018, complicated by fracture blistering which prevented surgical repair, kept him out of the saddle for a long, arduous eight months of physical therapy.

“It has changed my schedule a lot, because I have a crooked foot that is painful all the time,” Mena explained. “I can’t run anymore, and even if I do too much walking, it hurts. I have to ride my bike all the time on the backstretch, so I can save my foot for the races. Thankfully it doesn’t hurt when I’m on the horses, but it totally changed my routine.”

The 34-year-old native of Peru had been an avid runner, utilizing the exercise to maintain his weight and fitness for his riding career. Now, with running off the table, Mena uses a stationary bike and other low-impact forms of cardio to achieve that goal.

None of those challenges have stopped Mena. In the past several weeks, he’s traveled out of state to win both the Grade 3 Ohio Derby at Thistledown with Masqueparade and the G3 Robert G. Dick Memorial at Delaware Park with Dalika. Both horses are trained by Al Stall, Jr., one of the first individuals to give Mena a big shot after his ankle injury.

Mena had a strong 2019 season that earned him the honor of the inaugural Randy Romero “Pure Courage” Award for his comeback, presented in February of 2020. Last June, Stall gave Mena the leg up on his stable star Tom’s d’Etat for a win in the G2 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs.

Tom’s d’Etat and Miguel Mena win the 2020 Stephen Foster Stakes at Churchill Downs.

“He had been letting me work Tom’s d’Etat in the mornings, and he always told me that if (regular rider Joel) Rosario couldn’t ride him, I was gonna be the guy,” Mena relayed. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to ride that horse. Mr. Stall, he gives me a lot of confidence, he trusts my work, and lets me get on the horses from when they’re very young.”

That trust and teamwork has led to another exciting opportunity with improving sophomore colt Masqueparade (Upstart). A winner in his last three starts, including his graded stakes debut in the Ohio Derby, Masqueparade will now head to Saratoga for the G3 Jim Dandy on July 31.

“That colt, we got him as a 2-year-old here, and we were always very high on him,” Mena said. “He showed a lot of talent from day one, but he was kind of a slow learner. He was such a big colt, we knew the talent was there but we had to take our time.

“My boss Al Stall, he’s a very patient trainer and he takes his time. Now, in his last two starts, he’s really improving and getting better and better.”

Masqueparade wins at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021

The Jim Dandy will be a significant test for Masqueparade, as the race is expected to draw Juvenile Champion and Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality. 

“I think we have the horse to beat him,” Mena said. “Between working him and getting him to the races, I’ve just never seen the horse get tired. He was always getting better slowly, and we just haven’t seen the best of him yet. I’m so excited to see the future from him. With his maturity and more races, I think he can beat the top horse in the country.”

Stall echoed Mena’s belief in the colt earlier this week.

“He’s on a wickedly improving curve, which is good,” Stall told the Daily Racing Form. “We ought to give him a chance to see how far he can take himself.”

It’s been 10 years since Mena has ridden at Saratoga, and it’s also the site of a dark spot in his career. At age 22, having just arrived at Saratoga as a promising young jockey, Mena developed a drinking problem that threatened to derail his promising career.

Mena took responsibility for his actions and entered Alcoholics Anonymous.

“AA is like another family I have now,” Mena told the Post-Star in 2010. “I never thought I’d meet people who would listen to me the way they do. It’s very good. It’s a family that supports me. I don’t have my family here in the states and AA is a big part of my life now.”

The biggest turning point came when he married his wife April in 2011. The couple subsequently had two daughters, Naelah and Montserrat.

“They’re daddy’s girls,” Mena said of the 7 and 8-year-old. “They always look for where to spend time with me, going swimming or to the park.”

Thanks to his family’s unwavering support, Mena never felt tempted to turn to alcohol during the process of healing from his ankle injury and the difficult eight months of physical therapy.

“I’ve got a strong support system now, with my family and friends,” Mena explained. “It feels good, you know. It’s been a long road, 17 years in the United States with a lot of ups and downs.”

The son and brother of jockeys, Mena remembers following his father to the track in Peru as often as he could, beginning at just six years of age. By age 11 he was grooming horses, and at 14 Mena started at the Jorge Bernardini Yori Jockey School in Peru, which also produced Rafael Bejarano and Hall of Famer Edgar Prado.

He moved to the United States at age 17, and the Midwest-based jockey has now won 2,071 races from just over 16,000 career starts.

“I’m so excited to keep showing up to the track in the mornings, getting on young horses, because those are the ones to take you to the big races,” Mena said. “But really, I just want to win races, whether it’s a $5,000 claimer or the Kentucky Derby.

“I came here with a lot of dreams. I came very hungry to work my butt off. I’m so grateful to this country. It has given me a better life, not only for me but for my family in Peru as well. I’m very thankful.”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Mena’s ‘Pure Courage’ Grants Him Another Chance In Saratoga appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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