Caught in the whirlwind

Editor's note: this story was originally published in 2009 by KentuckyDerby.com under the title "The Panic from Panama."It is reprinted here with permission from Churchill Downs. Ycaza is now 73. His facebook fan page features a wealth of vintage images.

His days are quiet now, lived out in a modest home in Forest Hills, New York. In seasons past he would head down to Shea Stadium to watch the Mets; Gooden, Seaver, and Koosman at their best. The old ball park is gone this year and that new place, Citi-something, will take some getting used to -- but Manuel Ycaza really doesn't mind. Times change, people come and go. Nothing remains as it once was.

They called him the 'Panic from Panama,' a hot-blooded young rider whose whirlwind determination left a trail of irate jockeys and hard-nosed officials reeling in his wake.

They called him the "Panic from Panama," a hot-blooded young rider whose whirlwind determination left a trail of irate jockeys and hard-nosed officials reeling in his wake. By 1967, 10 years before he was inducted into horse racing's Hall of Fame, he'd already spent a mind-boggling 746 days on the sidelines thanks to stewards' orders. He never won the Kentucky Derby -- missing by less than two lengths in 1963 to fellow countryman Braulio Baeza -- but from 1956 to 1971 he took home almost every other stakes score imaginable, including quadruple runnings of the Kentucky Oaks. He was the only jockey besides the venerable Eddie Arcaro to do so, and he brought home all of his Oaks winners while still in his 20s, half Arcaro's age at the time.

It has been three years since "Manny," once the darling of railbirds and the well-spoken favorite of Turf writers from Belmont Park to Santa Anita, last held court with the press. The most recent interview, granted in 2006, followed a Mets-Braves game at which he threw out the first pitch after winning a random drawing for fans. This is a far cry from the days of his youth, when reporters gleefully chronicled his controversial battles with racing officials, noting the wins he racked up at tracks across the country, as William Leggett of Sports Illustrated once wrote, "With the nerve of a desperado."

He is 71, but the memories of his years in the saddle, of the era in which he booted his way to stardom, are no less vivid. Horse racing in its glory days. America edging toward the turbulence of a civil rights movement. A 14-year-old Panamanian arriving in a foreign country ready to take on the world. No wonder the press corps tracked his every move. It's still a story worth telling.

* * *

He was born with a conquistador's spirit, courage in his blood, determination in his soul. The son of a former motorcycle racer ("I never saw him ride, but they tell me he was very reckless"), with three of nine siblings already en route to becoming skilled reinsmen ("They said, 'Come on, Manuel, be like your brothers!'") Carlos Manuel Mario Deycaza was fated to pursue the adrenaline-charged life of a jockey. It was a heritage his brothers fostered with fierce Latin pride, naming him aboard his first mount and showing him the thrill of the chase, a Panamanian stampede that left his legs like rubber and ignited his competitive fire.

"I am burning inside," he reminisced to the Saturday Evening Post's Sandy Grady in 1962. "I cannot sleep for a week thinking of losing that race. Next time … I win, and I know I love this better than anything."

Of course, there were times when his mother got down on her knees to pray for his protection, Jesus Cristo, and his decision to leave the country to ride races at Santa Anita did not please his father. Still, his parents knew he knew what he wanted. So they let him go.

Coming to Santa Anita in 1954 as a contract rider for trainer A.E. Silver, the teenaged Ycaza expected to get his big break in "the land of opportunity." Instead, he found himself exercising horses without a solid competitor to his name. That year he landed 131 mounts but won with just nine of them, all longshots like the horse he rode in at odds of 110-1 against the great Bill Shoemaker.

"I was in constant touch with my family, and they were very worried about me," he recalls. "We were very close. I bought a car and I used it to drive across the border to Tijuana and I was riding at the racetrack there, making whatever money I could, saving some and sending some home."

Things went from bad to worse that year when Ycaza's contract was sold to trainer Buddy Hirsch, whose string of King Ranch horses were tearing up the West Coast under Arcaro, Shoemaker, and Bill Boland. It was a less-than-ideal situation; galloping great runners in the morning, watching them win under legendary riders in the afternoon -- too frustrating for the highly-competitive youngster. At 15, he asked for the return of his contract, but as Hirsch took him to a Panama-bound plane, he made the trainer a solemn promise: "I'll be back."

He cleaned up in his native country for 10 months before going along with his brothers to Mexico City's Hipodromo de las Americas. First day in the saddle, he won four races. When he left to try his luck in the States again two years later, he was the oval's leading rider and had hit the front with an unprecedented 37 percent winning average.

"I led the standings at Golden Gate and that's when the whole thing started," he says of his return to the U.S. "They saw this new face coming over here with an impact, winning a lot of races, and the press had a feast writing about my desire to win. From Golden Gate we went to Santa Anita where Shoemaker was the perennial leader, and I gave him a tremendous battle for the riding title, and the public saw my enthusiasm, and they loved me."

They saw this new face coming over here with an impact, winning a lot of races, and the press had a feast writing about my desire to win.

-- Jockey Manny Ycaza

In 1956, 118 runners catapulted down to the wire at California tracks with Ycaza in the saddle, this in spite of a run-in with a filly at Del Mar that left him with multiple broken blood vessels and a ponderous cast (restricted to seven weeks' rest by the doctor, he reportedly escaped from the hospital in four days, chipped off the cast, flew to Suffolk Downs, got back on the same filly that had caused the damage in the first place, and went on to win two of her next three starts). In 1957, he earned national attention as the runner-up to that year's leading rider, Bill Hartack, winning 306 races in spite of 130 days spent under suspension.

* * *

This was to become his legacy, an exercise in juxtapositions. He was charmingly handsome, romantically poetic, unusually well-read in matters of science and law, yet fearless in the saddle and unnervingly persistent in his pursuit of victory.

"Where Shoemaker is pleasantly withdrawn, Ycaza is ebulliently outgoing," the Miami Herald's assistant sports editor Edwin Pope penned in 1960. "Where Hartack is blunt and often graceless, Ycaza spares nothing in courtesy …"

The established riders of the day begrudgingly acknowledged the young upstart's winsome ways, but left no question as to their opinion of his daring style. "He's a perfect gentleman," Arcaro stiffly told Grady, " … off the horse." In the jockeys' room, they displayed no pretenses of affection. Fists were thrown, curses leveled -- "Assassin!" one rider was reported to shout -- and the clever competitors, always looking for an advantage, soon found theirs in the sympathies of the stewards.

"I became a threat to them," Ycaza says, the logic behind this statement portrayed in the statistics of his career. "It worked out, in a way, like a sword with two edges. On the one hand, it gave me the power because they were always watching to see what I would do. On the other hand, sometimes they could make drama; if I was too close to them they could claim a foul and the stewards were already keeping me under close scrutiny … so one thing followed another."

On March 1, 1958, at Hialeah Park in Florida, Ycaza rode the race that would change the course of his entire career. He was just 20 years old, taking his first shot at a $135,000 purse, mounted aboard one of Elizabeth Arden Graham's top 3-year-olds. Engaging in a closely-waged stretch duel with Hartack and that year's eventual Kentucky Derby winner, Tim Tam, Ycaza attempted to urge an extra effort from his mount, Jewel's Reward, by switching to a left-handed whip. The movement was made at precisely the wrong moment, as Tim Tam came in and Jewel's Reward ducked away from the stick.

Bumping and battling down to the wire, Ycaza's mount collided six times with his contender before drawing off to win by a head. He was promptly disqualified for interference, a decision that put the crowd into an irate uproar. Officials, forced to move their trophy presentation to the director's room for the safety of Tim Tam's connections, did not look kindly on the young jockey's part in the incident. He was slapped with a 15 day suspension for "rough riding." It was the beginning of a stigma that would follow him throughout his career -- from then on, at every track, every meet, every race, he was placed under the microscope even more severely than before.

Fifteen days after the Flamingo, Ycaza went to New York. The stewards had gotten wind of his coming and had formed a less-than-cordial shotgun committee. "We don't take that kind of riding around here," they said. But Ycaza was determined.

"There are Arcaro, Atkinson, and Shoemaker," he told Leggett one day at Belmont. "Once, when I am oh so little, I tell my mother that I shall one day be greater than the great Arcaro. But I am not yet ready for this Belmont Park … These Belmont jockeys, they are the velvet, and I am the corduroy. Someday, Ycaza will be here sitting on a horse… and he will be with the velvet jockeys and all the people will know him … and [he will] be much happy."

It was not an easy road. Between March and November, he was set down four times for "careless riding," "interference," and "rough riding." On October 23 the Belmont Park officials took him off his mounts for 20 days after he brazenly made a diagonal cut across the field. Finally back in the saddle after serving that suspension, he was involved in a spill not of his own making and suffered a concussion, a separated shoulder, and two broken ribs. Still, he finished out the year seventh by earnings, with $1,024,714 in purses.

Ycaza followed this pattern throughout his career -- racking up the suspensions, working twice as hard to bring in the victories he could only hope to keep. He calls the period his "personal tsunami" and believes the harsh disciplinary actions, while occasionally justified, were also a reflection of the times.

"This country was totally different then from how we are living in it now," he says. "Discrimination was high and the mentality was more aggressive to outsiders. Now, most of the best riders in the country are Latin, so it's a huge difference."

He was the first jockey from Panama to reach the upper echelons of North American racing, and the progress he made would pave the way for other outstanding athletes such as Braulio Baeza, Jorge Velasquez, and Jacinto Vasquez. He faced the pressure on a daily basis, fighting the urge to return to his native land. There, he would have been more at ease, more relaxed. Life would have been easier for him. Here, every day was a struggle.

"Every race," he says, "I felt the same agony. Just winning wasn't good enough, I had to prove myself. But I used that pressure to go to a higher level, to show them they couldn't get the best of me."

In the spring of 1959, Ycaza was walking the finest of lines. He earned utmost respect for his ability in the saddle, but his battle with the stewards and his hell-bent-for-leather approach had several top owners looking elsewhere to fill their saddles. Just in time, salvation came his way in the form of Capt. Harry F. Guggenheim, former U.S. Ambassador to Cuba and a founding member of the New York Racing Association and publisher of Newsday. Guggenheim's Cain Hoy Stable runners were primed to take home every considerable victory that season, and after 12 months of association with Ycaza, he was the nation's leading owner. The respected horseman spoke fluent Spanish and could often be seen engaging in vibrant paddock conversations with his new first-call rider and legendary trainer Woody Stephens. He was the hard-riding jockey' lifeline, putting him aboard the top horses in his string. Ycaza's best years in the saddle had begun.

* * *

That May he headed to Louisville, where the eyes of the nation fell upon Churchill Downs in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby. The city's pulsing energy gave Ycaza an indescribable thrill. He felt this passion for racing every day. To see it reflected in the people, the atmosphere, was invigorating.

"For me it was so exciting, the energy, the anticipation," he says. "Of course, number one is before number two, so to me the first event was the Kentucky Oaks and it was just as important to me as the Derby, I wanted to win it."

And win it he did, taking the second division of the 3-year-old filly race aboard Hidden Talent in a ding-dong battle to the wire. The Cain Hoy runner, a very smooth filly to ride, was able to set up the pace among the first tier without tiring and turned back a bold challenge from Indian Maid, who actually got her head in front before fading slightly to finish 1 ¼ lengths behind.

"It doesn't matter whether she won by a nose, a head, a half a length," Manny says. "The important thing is, she won. Sometimes you can have a nice filly, a good filly, or a great filly, and she was a good filly. She had a lot of ability and she got the job done."

Ycaza was on a roll. That summer he set a record for single-season winners in Saratoga (41) that remained unbroken until 2003. Among other scores, he took the Jerome Handicap, the Matron Stakes, the Schuylerville Stakes, the Suburban Handicap, the Travers Stakes, the Withers Stakes, and the Washington D.C. International aboard Bald Eagle, who would repeat the score in 1960 en route to a 1960 Eclipse Award for outstanding older male horse. In 1960 he took the Oaks again with Make Sail, a filly who had failed to win in her three previous starts that season. In yet another thrilling finish, the jockey moved his mount up with a rush to take the lead entering the final furlong. She was all out to hold safe by a neck.

"There are no impossible things in this life," he told The Miami Herald that season. "I say to you that I wish to do this. Therefore, I will do it. With me, [to] wish is power."

He brought his parents, Carlos and Helena, to the U.S. for long visits, renting them a home in Jamaica, New York. He also paid the bills for three sisters -- Mirtha, Yolanda, and Moritza -- at a Long Island academy. His brothers, Carlos, Rudolph, and Alex, rode some winners in New York and New England, but Ycaza was the family star.

Sandwiched between his two Oaks scores that decade (1963 aboard Sally Ship and 1968 on Dark Mirage) were victories in the Blue Grass Stakes, Canada's Queen's Plate stakes, and the 1964 Belmont Stakes aboard Quadrangle to spoil Northern Dancer's Triple Crown bid. By then his peers had become more accepting, and he was honored with the 1964 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. He would go on to be involved in a few of racing history's best-known disqualifications -- like the 1967 Jersey Derby when he crossed the line 6 ½-lengths in front of the field in stakes record time aboard the great Dr. Fager then was disqualified for crowding on the first turn -- but would also set some of racing's great milestones, such as the first ever sweep of the Filly Triple Crown when Dark Mirage took the Acorn Stakes, Mother Goose Stakes, and the Coaching Club American Oaks after winning the Kentucky Oaks.

"I don't think I was ever beaten with Dark Mirage," he recalls. "She was like a big dog; she probably didn't weigh more than 750 pounds -- just looking at her, you probably wouldn't have given a dime. They would put the saddle on her and sometimes I used to wonder how to fit on her, but her stride was so smooth and she used to respond to everything I asked. She had used to take her run from behind with a big effort every time I set her down and told her to go."

It is ironic that the man known for his aggressive style would also become one of the winningest jockeys in America's greatest race for 3-year-old fillies. Traditionally, female runners require a gentle touch, a coaxing approach more difficult to maintain in the heat of competition. But in spite of his many racing infractions, those statistics with Oaks runners present irrefutable proof of Ycaza's pure talent. He was, and always will be, one of the premiere riders of the Turf.

* * *

Less than two years after his final Oaks score, Ycaza fell at Hialeah. His mount shied at tire tracks left in the turf by a truck that had crossed over to feed the track's legendary infield flamingos, a condition he had warned track management about the day before. Thrown directly into the air, he landed feet first on the grass and fractured his left ankle, which quickly healed -- but his mangled right knee would never be the same. He sued the track and won a $225,000 settlement, but his career, for all intents and purposes, was done.

Eventually well enough to make a comeback in 1971, he won just eight of 97 races that season. In classic Ycaza style, one of those victories was in the Illinois Derby aboard the Woody Stephens-trained Northfields. He was dismounting after the race when his knee locked up in excruciating pain. He returned to New York to have an operation, and in testament to his overwhelming love for the game, returned to the saddle three more times. He also served as Panamanian Counsel General to the United Nations in 1973 and 1974, drove trotters for a year, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, and rode for the last time in 1983, closing the door on a career that brought him 2,367 victories with a 22.4 win percentage.

* * *

"Competition," Ycaza says, "should be open worldwide and everybody should have the opportunity to compete at a high level, to show their expertise and ability. That was my greatest accomplishment, that I opened the door -- not just for Latin Americans but for jockeys from all over the world to come here and become a success."

He keeps a low profile these days, most of his time taken up with the management of real estate in Panama, and with following the stock market, and with spending his golden years in peaceful retirement. It is a good life, his wife Jeanne by his side, their daughter Carla Jean pursuing her PhD, suitably, in Human Rights Law at the National University of Ireland. Two other children from his highly-publicized marriage to former Miss Universe Linda Bement (they divorced in 1969) live in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles; his son Manuel and daughter Lindita gave him five grandchildren, a happy family.

He has begun to think the thoughts all old men think, hoping his legacy will be remembered. Between trips to Panama and time in this country, he records his memories. Someday, the story will be told with his own words. And even if he believes it would be fitting to be known by the young riders who so glibly enjoy the freedoms he first fought to earn, he is too much of a gentleman to say so. They may not realize everything he did to pave the way for them, but he does. It makes him feel proud.

He still follows racing, will attend the Belmont Stakes and spend some time at Saratoga. He especially loves the Travers. When those runners come thundering down off the final turn, his eyes gleam brightly and his heart still quickens at the sound.

Deep within his soul, the conquistador lives on.

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.