Paco Lopez is the best jockey that you don't know is a really, really good jockey. That seems to be fine with him.
Lopez had one of the most dominant meets a jockey has ever had, scorching his competition this year at Monmouth Park. He won 120 races, beating runner-up Gabriel Saez by a staggering 62 victories. Combined, Saez and third-place jockey Eddie Castro did not have as many wins as Lopez had. Twice during the meet he had seven-win days, the only jockey in Monmouth history to do so. His winning percentage was 28 percent.
He had the sort of season at the Jersey Shore that normally launches a jockey on toward stardom. Chris Antley, Julie Krone, Craig Perret, Jose Lezcano, Jorge Velasquez, Bill Hartack and Don MacBeth are among the riders who went from Monmouth to the upper reaches of their profession. Krone, Hartack and Velasquez made it all the way to the Hall of fame.
Lopez, 28, has put lifestyle above all else. Though he makes plenty of money he would likely make more if he moved to New York or California, but his schedule allows him to enjoy two places that border on paradise.
But Lopez, who is from Veracruz, Mexico, doesn't plan on going anywhere. Though currently riding at Keeneland, his focus is on two tracks, Monmouth and Gulfstream. He is so committed to staying at Monmouth that he bought a house near the track this year and has decided to settle down. He lists beach volleyball as one of his favorite non-racing activities. There's no beach volleyball at Aqueduct.
Lopez, 28, has put lifestyle above all else. Though he makes plenty of money he would likely make more if he moved to New York or California, but his schedule allows him to enjoy two places that border on paradise, Monmouth in the summer and Gulfstream in the winter.
"There's always a possibility of a move to New York but I love the Jersey Shore and am very happy there," Lopez said. "I have a greater opportunity in Jersey. I just want to ride horses and win races. My favorite time and place is to be on a horse."
Jersey racing shuts down in the fall, and that's when Lopez normally heads to Gulfstream. There, he does face off against the upper echelon riders like John Velazquez, Javier Castellano and Joel Rosario. At the Gulfstream meet that ran from November 30 to June 30 he was the second leading rider with 103 wins, trailing only Castellano (132).
"Miami is home, and I have great business there also," he said.
Once he leaves Gulfstream for Monmouth he can count on getting the best mounts at the New Jersey track. When top Monmouth horses ship out of town he's usually right with them. On August 30 at Saratoga he won the Grade 2 Prioress for Jersey-based trainer Kelly Breen and the Grade 1 Woodward aboard Itsmyluckyday for Monmouth trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. The Woodward was his first Grade 1 victory.
But what he can't count on is riding for trainers like Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, Chad Brown, Shug McGaughey, and Kiaran McLaughlin. You have to have trainers like that behind you to go to the next level and consistently get mounts in Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races.
Riding at Keeneland should help.
"Keeneland is a great platform," he said. "I have some stakes to ride there opening week so I decided to give it a try there until the Breeders' Cup."
The meet falls neatly in between the premier seasons at Monmouth and Gulfstream and it's the sort of place where you get noticed if you are successful. Lopez had what must have been a frustrating first three days there. He went 1 for 12 but had five seconds, some of them excruciating near misses. He lost two races by a nose and was second in the $500,000 Spinster aboard Ria Antonio and might have won if not impeded by Don't Tell Sophia. Lopez claimed foul, but his objection was not allowed.
Maybe some day Lopez will move on. There's no doubt that he has the talent to compete anywhere and with anybody. But will he? He has everything he wants and he's happy. Maybe that's enough.
A "Rich" Victory: The story of Rich Tapestry's win in the Santa Anita Spring Championship provided more fodder for the Lasix debate. A lot of American trainers will tell you they can't do without the drug and would be at a competitive disadvantage without it. But that's not how they think in Hong Kong, where Rich Tapestry comes from. Racing administrators there do everything possible to make sure racing in their country is as pure, honest and drug-free as possible. The majority of horses that ship to the U.S. from other countries run with Lasix, their trainers also believing that racing without it would be giving their rivals an edge. But Rich Tapestry's trainer Michael Chang avoided the temptation, which may or may not have something to do with Hong Kong racing officials reaching out to him and asking him to run drug-free.
"Nobody takes the risk of not using it [in the US]," Hong Kong Jockey Club Executive Director of Racing Bill Nader told the South China Morning Post. "This has put a huge new angle on the medication story there. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but consider this -- if Rich Tapestry did happen to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint, he would be named US champion sprinter -- and the US champion sprinter would have done it without Lasix."