When he was a small boy Victor Lebron watched the Kentucky Derby on television and announced to his father that someday he would ride in America's greatest horse race. His prediction could have been easily dismissed as the foolish thoughts of a child. Lebron was growing up in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a place that had a tiny racing industry whose jockeys were invisible outside their "country."
Some 20 years later Lebron has turned fantasy into reality. He will be aboard Arkansas Derby runner-up Frac Daddy a week from Saturday in the Derby. And he will be joined in the starting gate by Kevin Krigger, his former schoolmate from St. Croix Central High School, and the rider of Goldencents.
I told my dad the other day, 'remember when I told you I wanted to be in the Derby? Well, I finally made it.' He broke out in a little bit of tears and congratulated me.
”-- Victor Lebron, Frac Daddy jockey
"When I was small, around the age of 8, and I was starting to get into horse racing, me and my dad were watching the Kentucky Derby on TV," Lebron said. "I told my dad that's where I want to be. I want to live in Kentucky and be in that race. I told my dad the other day, 'remember when I told you I wanted to be in the Derby? Well, I finally made it.' He broke out in a little bit of tears and congratulated me."
The racetrack in St. Croix is named Randall "Doc James" Racetrack and Lebron said they only race there twice a month. Lebron, who used to ride his father's pleasure horses around the island, began race riding on bush track races before he invited to gallop horses at the main track.
At the time he knew Krigger but said the two were only casual friends. The friendship blossomed only when both were in the U.S., two jockeys from a small out-of-the-way country trying to make it here. It would not be easy for either one.
Krigger, who arrived in the U.S, in 2001, kicked around at small-time tracks like Thistledown and Emerald Downs. After doing well in Northern California he made the move to the Southern California tracks in 2012 and got his big break when trainer Doug O'Neill gave him the mount on Goldencents.
Lebron, 28, didn't get here until 2005 and started off on a similar path, riding in Ohio, Indiana and at Turfway Park and Ellis Park. He thought he had his first big break when he guided Hansen to wins in his first two career starts, but trainer Mike Maker dumped him prior to the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile for Ramon Dominguez. Hansen went on to win the Juvenile and was named 2-year-old champion.
"I thought that was going to be my big break and my chance to get well known by everybody and push my career up to a different level," he said. "People said I got to him to the place he was when he won the Breeders' Cup. I just wish I would have been on him."
He has been overshadowed by Krigger in the lead-up to the Derby because Krigger rides the more accomplished horse and because Lebron was a late arrival on to the Derby scene. Lebron didn't get to ride Frac Daddy until the Arkansas Derby, where the colt was a big long shot at 24-1. He will be a big price again in the Derby, but Lebron will go into the race with a lot of confidence.
"This horse is doing great now," he said. "I have noticed a big improvement with him since the Arkansas Derby. I galloped him five days before the Arkansas Derby and he galloped real good. But since that race he totally changed. He's gotten a lot stronger."
I am ready to open my own phone company because I've gotten more calls the last two weeks than anybody around.
”-- Victor Lebron, Frac Daddy jockey
Lebron is proud that he and Krigger will be the first jockeys from the Virgin Islands to ride in the Kentucky Derby, an accomplishment that has not been lost in his home country. Lebron said that because of the success he and Krigger had had of late there are dozens who want to follow in their footsteps and the country may open up a jockey school.
"I am ready to open my own phone company because I've gotten more calls the last two weeks than anybody around," he said. "Everybody at home is excited. It's history in the making."
Then there's the matter of his racial background. Black jockeys dominated the Kentucky Derby in its early days but none have won since 1902 and a black jockey now in any race is a rarity. Krigger has been recognized as having the best chance in decades for a black rider to win the Derby. With Lebron, the issue is not quite as clear. His skin is far lighter than Krigger's and the maternal side of his family is from Puerto Rico. Another issue, which also applies to Krigger, is their birthplace. Is someone from the Virgin Islands an African American?
Lebron doesn't believe the issue is all that murky.
"My skin is lighter than Kevin's but I consider myself an African American," he said. "That's because I was born on the island and the culture there is African American."
But he is more so a son of the Virgin Islands, a beautiful place to vacation and maybe even a new hotbed of jockey talent.