JUAN DIAZ, PANAMA -- José Rodriguez does not love horses.
Growing up in the slum city of Colón, a notorious port town at the mouth of the Panama Canal, the skinny 17-year-old's childhood was about survival, not much else. Three of his uncles were shot and died in gang-related incidents. Firefights erupted regularly through the streets of the ramshackle neighborhood he called home.
There was always racing -- his father, who works as a welder, is a fan -- but the animals didn't draw him in as much as the chance to escape his bad environment, to do something, become someone. That was the opportunity he went after, caught, and held onto with both hands.
On Dec. 2, Rodriguez graduated with 14 other riders in the 2011 class of the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School at Preisdente Remon Racetrack. Six days later, he rode in his debut race at the Panama oval. Standing in the classroom of the school the next morning, dusty boots still on his feet from his daily job of exercising racehorses, the young rider put a face on the important work being done by eight instructors whose duties are as much about helping troubled teens as they are about teaching them to win.
"Now I have a goal," he said. "The street mind is gone, and I'm doing something to better myself."
It is the proud history of Panama that many of North America's best riders started here before taking their skills to what is still viewed as the land of opportunity. As every native racetracker will tell you, the country is known as cuna de los mejores jinetes del mundo -- cradle of the best jockeys in the world.
First came Manuel Ycaza, then Braulio Baeza, Jacinto Vasquez, Jorge Velasquez, and Laffit Pincay Jr., tough youngsters who scrabbled a way out of poverty, then became riding sensations in the U.S. These trailblazers were followed by Cornelio Velasquez, Alex Solis, Rene Douglas, Martin Pedroza -- men now in their 40s whose names slip easily from American and Panamanian tongues. Eddie Castro, Fernando Jara, Elvis Trujillo, Gabriel Saez, and Jose Lezcano are among the youngest generation of graduates whose careers have taken root in American soil.
For years, however, the jockey school (which officially began in the 1960s) was about one thing -- learning how to ride. Many graduates are remembered for a rise from poverty to greatness, but often untold are stories of financial mismanagement, years of personal and professional culture shock as riders struggled to adapt to their newfound celebrity, and gross under-education for men who stopped school as 14- or 15-year-olds to pursue the athletic side of riding with no regard for academics. It wasn't until 2009 that funding from the Codere Foundation (an arm of the company that runs the racetrack) enabled the historic school to become the official "Laffit Pincay Jr. Technical Jockey Training Academy," a center recognized by the Ministry of Education that was designed to upgrade the level of learning and apprenticeship of future graduates. For the past two years, the school has taught courses in English, math, ecology, technical studies, and history in addition to riding.
According to director Graciela de Román, exposure to poverty and gang violence is a way of life for around 80 percent of her students. Rodriguez's home town, for instance, ranks first in Panama in terms of poverty, unemployment, and crime -- in spite of attracting more foreign investments with its free trade zone than any other city in the country.
When Venezuelan jockey Eibar Coa sent his son, Keiber, to the school in Panama for a year, this is something he wanted the 19-year-old to witness. Younger Coa was raised in the U.S. from age two, unlike his father, who grew up on the streets in his own country much as Rodriguez did.
"If I weren't a jockey, I'd be dead, no question," said Coa. "In those neighborhoods, it's your life or their life. You look out for yourself but that only lasts for so long until it's your life. That's one of the reasons I sent my son here, so he could see all those kids having nothing and wanting something, to see how hard they work because this is the only shot they have to be someone."
Rodriguez was already perilously close to the brink of disaster when he moved here from Colón in 2010. Entangled in what he only referred to as "legal problems," he was permitted to attend the school as long as de Román submitted regular paperwork to the government attesting to the fact that he was maintaining his grades and had not gone truant.
"Sometimes," Coa said, "even 15 is too late."
Rodriguez, however, turned around, surviving the fallout that happens every year as his initial class of 30 students trickled down to 25, then 20, then 15. Some kids who thought they would make good jockeys already had a hard time maintaining their weight and just stopped coming. Others who had never ridden before got scared out on the track in the mornings and quit. There were also riders and trainers who told him he should stop going to the school, one of the biggest challenges administrators and teachers face.
"People on the backside say all the time, 'why do you need to learn to speak English, why do you need to learn math? All you need to know is how to ride horses,' " de Román said. "They don't realize our goal is to help our students have a better life. We work very hard to get them out of the street and we work just as hard to keep them out."
Quiet, the wariness in his eyes belying the pain of his past, Rodriguez said the school offered a support system unlike any he ever had.
"I had a very tough life and grew up very bad," he remarked. "My life has changed a lot since then. Before I didn't have any options, and now I have a goal."
That goal is the same for every single graduate of the school -- to leave Panama and develop a career in the United States. First, however, Rodriguez must win 25 races to prove to immigration that he is able to make a living on the U.S. circuit. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen, but he already has an agent and as soon as this weekend's Clasico del Caribe festival of racing is over, he'll set to work finding mounts and getting those races won.
It hasn't been easy for the young student, who, like many, still sleeps in a tack room in the stable area at the track. The school would like to raise enough money to build housing, but right now it's every man for himself.
"You have to sacrifice a lot," he said. "Mentally, you work very hard to get past that situation."
Rodriguez's family comes once each week to visit and bring him what little money they can scrape up. It is not enough, he said, for him to live comfortably. Still, when asked what he will do when he finally starts to earn dinero, his mind did not go to material possessions. His answer was simple; he wants to help his father and two brothers escape from poverty.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.