Apprentice jockey Octavio Vergara Jr. earned his first career victory on June 26 at Calder Casino & Race Course, crossing the wire a length in front aboard Dynamic Duke for Calder Hall of Fame trainer Kathleen O’Connell in the fourth race.
“It feels unreal. I’m really excited,” Vergara said. “I’m really fortunate with people like Kathleen O’Connell that are trying to help me out and I’ve been happy to work with her and I’m glad that she’s willing to work with me and I hope there’s more to come.”
Vergara took Dynamic Duke to the early lead at odds of 6-1 in the 6 ½-furlong claiming race, then held off the post-time favorite Imperial Force before opening up heading into the far turn and drew away down the stretch. His lead was sufficient to hold off the late-running Pentland, who closed for second.
“He’s smart, he has very good work ethic, he seems to have a good demeanor with a horse – that’s what impressed me,” said O’Connell. “I think he has a good future ahead of him if things go right.”
The victory was Vergara’s first in 47 tries since beginning his riding career at Calder this year. He has finished second twice and has had four fourth-place finishes as well.
“I had a couple that were so close,” Vergara said. “It was starting to get frustrating, but I am happy that it didn’t come too fast because I want to learn as much as I can and I know the only way that is going to happen is with time and riding more races.”
Vergara rides numerous horses for O’Connell in the mornings, frequently making trips to the starting gate and working horses for her in addition to galloping.
“He is growing and learning in leaps and bounds and to be good at anything you have to just do it,” O’Connell said. “When you want to learn how to gallop you have to get on a bunch of horses. As you get on a bunch of horses you learn more and more. Then you learn more about breezing. When you breeze a bunch of horses then you do the gate work and you learn more about that and it just comes to the point in time where you need the actual race-riding to develop even further.”
Vergara has a history of working with some of the industry’s top members since he first began studying to become a jockey. He attended the North American Racing Academy (NARA), which is based in Lexington, Kentucky, and worked with former rider and member of the National Racing Hall of Fame, Chris McCarron, who is the founder of NARA. At NARA, Vergara built a foundation for his career and focused a lot on the academics portion of the program. As part of his internship with the riding program, Vergara worked for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey before graduating in 2010.
After graduation, Vergara continued to work for McGaughey off-and-on for about three years. Most recently for McGaughey, Vergara worked the stakes-placed mare Puzzling in company with the Grade 1-winning colt Orb in his final workout at Payson Park in April before the colt shipped to Kentucky and won the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby.
While some NARA graduates choose to begin their apprenticeships soon after graduating, Vergara chose to take his time. He said the reason for the wait was that he wanted to have more on-track experience. He chose Calder as his starting point for his apprenticeship because of Calder’s history of producing successful jockeys’ careers.
“I decided to start my career at Calder because I saw how a lot of really accomplished jockeys – that was what their path was – they started here, they learned as much as they could, and once they became polished more opportunities came their way, and it just seemed like it was a very good spot to learn and a good spot to start,” Vergara said.
Locally, in addition to O’Connell, Jose Santos, a former jockey and member of the Hall of Fame, and Mike McCarthy have been helping Vergara as well.
Horse racing and riding in particular is in Vergara’s blood. Many Calder racing fans and horsemen remember his father, who rode at Calder in the 1980s. In his jockey career in the United States, the senior Vergara reached 1,071 victories with earnings of more than $17 million from 1976 to 2011. On his mother’s side of the family, Vergara’s grandfather was a jockey who rode races in Puerto Rico.
The apprentice hopes to stick around the Sunshine State for the near future and ride locally.
“I would love to stay in Florida, but my mind is open to whatever is going to be best for my career.”