The leading jockey has left the building, gone before you even really got to know him.
Francisco Arrieta came off a horse during an in-company half-mile workout on the morning of Friday, Nov. 6. He was lucky to escape his fall with only a dislocated collarbone and already has started getting on horses again in the morning, but when Arrieta returns to race-riding it will be at the Fair Grounds meet, which opens on Thanksgiving in New Orleans.
Arrieta never had ridden in Chicago until October but made a quick, deep impression this fall at Hawthorne. At the time of his injury he had 28 winners from just 87 mounts, a total that even more than a week after his fall left Arrieta atop the Hawthorn jockey standings, 11 wins ahead of second-place Jareth Loveberry.
Arrieta came to Hawthorne after winning 77 races this year at Canterbury Park, second-best among riders there. Arrieta was leading rider at Zia Park during the New Mexico track’s September through December 2019 season, and had been runaway leading rider, his 194 winners more than doubling the second-best total, at the 2018-2019 Turf Paradise meet.
That is a lot of winning for a jockey who literally could barely win a race for several years. Arrieta, who turned 32 on Nov. 14, came to America from his native Venezuela in 2014, first emigrating to south Florida before making his way to New York, where he attempted to pursue a riding career that had begun at age 16. The New York circuit is the toughest in North America, and Arrieta had little support from anyone while trying to break into the colony. Riding mainly in New York, but also at other East Coast track, Arrieta had 210 mounts between 2015 and 2017. He won three races during that span – three!
“It was really, really frustrating,” Arrieta said in a recent phone interview. “But that teach me a lot, too. All that time I spent in New York, I learned a lot, and one thing is to never lose my dream. Every day in my heart and in my mind, I kept that.”
Arrieta made some mistakes during his stint at Hawthorne, as every jockey does. But most of the time, when he was well-mounted -- which was frequently, thank in part to agent Tim Hanisch – Arrieta didn’t miss the mark. He looks good on a horse, horses appear to respond favorably to his cues, he’s tactically sound, and Arrieta presses any pace advantage he might possess, a huge plus in American dirt racing. All of which explains how Arrieta has made what surely must be one of the most monumental leaps in racing history, going from a three-year win mark of 3-210 during the 2015 to 2017 period to 595 for 2,437 from 2018 through Nov. 12, 2020.
“The horse is 80-percent of it. You can’t do anything with the horse. Opportunity makes the difference,” Arrieta said. “I was in a tough place, in New York. I already know what to do in a race, but I don’t have the horse.” Top New York riders would give Arrieta advice about how and when to move. Arrieta said he’d make mental movies of how he could translate such advice into action, but in actual races, he never had mounts who could take him where he wanted to go. “My horses would run from the gate to the three-eighths pole, and that was it.”
Arrieta, who is married with three daughters – his family all now with him in America – endured a tough stretch in Venezuela, too. Arrieta, who started jockey’s school at age 14, was riding at a private track, Rancho Alegre, in Ciudad Bolivar in southeastern Venezuela, but moved to Caracas in 2009 and tried to make inroads at La Rinconada, Venezuela’s most prominent track.
“I tried for maybe six months, but it’s hard to get in, and it was too hard to find the opportunities, so I had to go back to Rancho Alegre,” said Arrieta.
Opportunity, from all the recent evidence, was all Arrieta required. Hanisch, who also represents jockey Mitchell Murrill, reached out to Arrieta at the end of the Canterbury meet, trying to entice him to Chicago. Hanisch has good connection in New Orleans, too, and Arrieta should have a chance to make his mark there, too.
Reavis revs up, still works slow
Official racing databases list 1977 as the first year Mike Reavis trained racehorses. Reavis will take their word for it.
“That’s a good question,” Reavis said, asked to name the year his training career launched. “I have no clue.”
What’s less obscure: Reavis, who turned 74 in October, is still going. Covid-19 ruined the first 60-percent of his 2020 season, but Reavis has thrown a flurry of punches at Hawthorne, his nine winners from 26 starters through Nov. 15 good for third in the trainer standings. Karl Broberg in his first Chicago race meet has 11 winners, while the Hugh Robertson barn – populated in great part by horses who came from the Canterbury string of trainer Mac Robertson, Hugh’s son – has a meet-best 14.
Reavis is on track for his lowest annual win total since 1981, but he’s hanging in there, the worst affects of the global pandemic – hopefully – behind him.
Reavis was among the Illinois horsemen who didn’t send their stock south to race last winter and wound up stuck at Hawthorne when Covid-19 paralyzed American society this past March.
“Basically, what I was doing was eating a lot of bills and money. These horses turned into dependents,” Reavis said. “We just ate the bills, waiting on stuff to happen, like everybody that stuck around – not just in this business, but all businesses. You keep training thinking next week, three weeks, you’ll get going, and that turns into two months longer. You hate to stop on them - you lose the fitness level you spent money on – and you look at your bank account, and this thing’s shrinking fast.”
Reavis bio from old Chicago media guides says he served in Vietnam and worked for “the telephone company” before turning to horse training. Reavis is a character, cowboy hat and the occasional fringed leather outer-garment, expansive mustache. He is a talker, too, occasionally seeming to enjoy watching fellow horsemen get lost in a rushing tide of words. The first time I spoke to Reavis, in a phone interview around 2001, he immediately launched into a long, intense diatribe regarding the new “jail” rules governing how horsemen could run horses back following a claim. I distinctly remember my brain hurting as I tried to process the torrent of information and complaint.
Around 2001 – that was the Reavis heyday. He won training titles at Sportsman’s Park in 2001 and 2002 (to go with an early one in 1991) and five of them at Hawthorne between 2000 and 2003. Reavis brought along young prospects from scratch, and usually had firepower in the Illinois-bred ranks but did most of his heavy lifting in the claiming game. What always stood out to me was his unusual workout patterns. Reavis-trained horses didn’t work often but they always worked long and slow – seven furlongs in 1:29 or some such, a mile in 1:46. It’s unclear why it took me the better part of 20 years to ask him why he worked that way, but last week, I finally did.
“I can tell you why I work slower than normal. Here’s what we do. We let them roll down the backstretch, take hold of them around the turn, and then do more again going to the wire, They can gallop out for a long way, too, depending on how fit they are. The fitter they are, the longer they gallop out,” Reavis said.
The fast straight, slow turns method developed out of common sense, Reavis said. The strain, the torque, placed on a horse’s limbs as it goes around the turn is far greater than what’s experienced on a straightaway. Horses can twist and turn to their heart’s content out in a field, Reavis stressed, but under a hundred-and-something pound rider, switching to the left lead and bending into a turn causes ample issues.
“A lot of the thoroughbred problems are on the left – not all, but a lot,” Reavis said.
Reavis’ methods seemingly get his horses fitter than most, and his stock is especially effective racing over a route of ground. During 2020, Reavis, who owns an Illinois farm, has had to take the long-range approach with his stable, as well, using Arlington, where he won just three times from a mere 24 starters, as a bridge to Hawthorne. And now, having just cut into some of the losses from earlier in 2020, Reavis, like other Chicago horsemen, must face the reduction in racing days from three per week to two in December. Then, the winter dark period followed by two-day-per week racing in March and April. Hawthorne’s ongoing casino project casts some light at the end of a very long tunnel, but, short-term, there’s more hunkering down to be undertaken.
“I’m not claiming horses this year unless I bump into something I can’t pass up, and other than that, I’m passing everything,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. Just wait till Arlington next year and wade into them. Unless you’re going somewhere else this winter -- and I don’t plan on it.”