Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: Cristina Bonilla’s Dream To Ride Lives On

Dreams die hard. So it is with Cristina Bonilla.

She did not grow up around horses. She came to the racing game late, at 24. She is 37 now. She estimates she has suffered at least four concussions, including one in a horrific accident at Arlington Park in 2021, and tells of significant memory loss.

And yet Bonilla, a 5-2, 109-pound exercise rider for trainer Domenick Schettino at Belmont Park, never loses sight of her dream. She yearns to be a jockey again.

“It’s the only sport where men and women compete at the same level. I love that,” she said. “It makes you work harder. It makes you work way harder.”

Bonilla earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute in her hometown of Chicago. She was working in marketing when she read that no female jockey had ever won the Kentucky Derby. She kept turning over that fact in her mind until it became life-changing.

She called her older sister, Crystal. “What do you think if I become a jockey?”

Crystal answered the question with a question. “What?”

Calls were made and Bonilla gave up everything to leave Chicago for New York, where she met trainer Gary Gullo at the Belmont stable gate.

“Are you homeless?” he asked.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Bonilla responded.

He called fellow trainer Dominic Galluscio, who hired her as a hotwalker and allowed her to stay in a room at his house with the provision that she work hard. She fulfilled her pledge for six months but was determined to start her riding career.

Galluscio contacted Jimmy Miranda and arrangements were made for Bonilla to work for the retired jockey in Orlando. Bonilla learned the basics by riding Quantum, a retired Thoroughbred, in a round pen for two months. Although it was a slow process, she worked her way up to galloping horses.

Cristina Bonilla’s painting of Randy Romero brought the two together

Bonilla also sold artwork online, including a portrait of Randy Romero that attracted Romero’s attention and inadvertently brought the two of them together. He asked her to send videos of her on horseback. He was sufficiently impressed that he agreed to become her agent and they went to work at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana in 2017. She was 31.

That led to one of the best days of Bonilla’s life. She won with her sixth mount, a runaway 11-length victory at a mile and 70 yards aboard Superstitious Swan. “I remember dropping my reins mid-stretch because I was so excited,” she said.

Her return to the jockeys’ room was equally memorable. In keeping with tradition, she was pelted with eggs, powder, you name it. “They got me really good,” she said, “and they put it on TVG.”

Romero died two years later at the age of 61 after battling numerous health issues.

Cristina Bonilla and the late Randy Romero

After Evangeline, it was on to Fair Grounds and eventually Arlington Park with its Polytrack surface. She believes the Polytrack contributed to one of the worst days of her life. It was the summer of 2021 and she was aboard an ill-fated horse named Charlie’s Heir that suffered a heart attack as they approached the wire.

“When they have a heart attack, they give you no warning, no sounds, not even slowing down,” Bonilla said. “It’s just like bam, out of nowhere. He goes to the left, I go to the right.”

She landed head first on a track she described as unforgiving. “I love riding on the Poly,” she said, “but it’s not fun to fall on.”

She woke up in the hospital three days later, not recalling how she got there. Five weeks later, she was galloping for trainer Wayne Catalano and soon won a race for him. She has been with Schettino for most of the last three years and believes she has made great progress there.

“I feel great,” she said. “The only thing is remembering stuff. I feel like it’s a lot less than before.”

She has developed a strong relationship with Schettino and spends holidays with his family. He values her ability to read horses, to elaborate on what she is feeling beneath her each morning and to calm nervous fillies.

“She’s trustworthy and to me that’s a lot,” the trainer said. “That’s my number one thing I think about is trust. I know that they’re looking out for these horses. She loves the horses and loves what she does.”

Bonilla also has gained experience as a veterinary assistant. “It’s something to fall back on,” she said, “because you never know what your next injury is.”

According to Equibase, she has ridden competitively just once this year, finishing last of six aboard 41-1 Bear’s Correct in a one-mile maiden claiming race at Aqueduct on March 3. In 392 lifetime starts, her record stands at 17-30-31 with earnings of $346,183.

Bonilla is doing everything possible to hire an agent who can create opportunities for her in New York. She said she is willing to pay 40 percent of her earnings to that person for the first year. As much as Schettino cares about Bonilla, he is skeptical about that plan.

“For her to ride again and stay in New York, hopefully she’ll get a chance. But New York is a tough place for her to fulfill her dream. That’s just my opinion,” Schettino said. “New York is a tough place for a lot of people to fulfill their dreams. You’re in the top place with the best of the best.”

And yet, through it all, Bonilla is undeterred.

Tom Pedulla, 2022 recipient of the Walter Haight Award from the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America’s Best Racing and other publications.

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The post Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care: Cristina Bonilla’s Dream To Ride Lives On appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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