By Joe Bianca
In all sports, excitement and intrigue become palpable when there’s a battle for an individual title that comes down to the season’s final days. Whether that’s a scoring title in basketball, a batting title in baseball or a duel for the top ranking in sports like golf or tennis, all eyes are on those players’ every move as their campaign draws to a close.
Racing is no different, as training titles and, more frequently, riding titles, often enthrall scoreboard-watching fans in the waning days of prestigious meets. This dynamic played out dramatically in the final week of Santa Anita’s winter/spring season, as the breakout star of the last few years in California, Flavien Prat, tried to fend off the improbable bid of Evin Roman, a teenage apprentice who very few fans had heard of just six months ago.
Heading into the meet’s final day, however, it was Roman, the recently turned 19-year-old from Puerto Rico, who was in pole position, two wins ahead of Prat. Roman’s agent, Tony Matos, watched in anticipation as his client was shut out and Prat picked up victories in the second and fourth races of the day to draw even at 41 wins apiece.
“I wasn’t nervous, but I was hoping that at least I could tie,” Matos reflected. “Tying with Flavien Prat is the same as winning, because I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a very good rider, and it was good for racing. Everybody was so excited about the whole championship. It went down to the last race.”
Prat looked poised to overtake Roman in the day’s seventh event aboard favored Steve Miyadi trainee Powerful Thirst (Grazen), as the colt took a clear lead into the final sixteenth. Well-bet firster Sunset Seven (Lucky Pulpit) unleashed a big late rally though, and nailed Powerful Thirst on the line by a neck. Neither Prat (one mount) nor Roman (three mounts) found the winner’s circle in the meet’s final three races and the riding crown ended up, fittingly, being shared.
Roman becomes the first apprentice jockey since Gordon Glisson in 1949 to capture a Santa Anita riding title. It was the exclamation point on an extraordinary meet that started off inauspiciously, with the bug boy having to be benched three separate times for riding infractions in two months after arriving at Santa Anita in February.
“He wasn’t adjusted to the turf riding here,” Matos said. “After the suspensions, he went to look at film, got advice from his fellow jockeys and tried to better himself. Now, he’s just as good a rider as you could see.”
Roman started to gain momentum in May and, other than Prat and Mike Smith, no one had as much success in the final two months of the meet. He earned his first stakes victory June 25, one of four wins that day, aboard West Point Thoroughbreds’ Street Surrender (Street Boss), who upset Grade I winner Nickname (Scat Daddy) in the Southern Truce S. The following Sunday, he tallied another four-bagger to poke his nose in front of Prat and set the stage for Tuesday’s drama.
Over the winter, Matos was looking for apprentice riders from the Escuela Vocacional Hipica, Puerto Rico’s jockey school that has produced a tidal wave of talent on America’s East Coast in recent years, headlined by the superstar Ortiz brothers. He talked to Joe Bruno, a prominent Puerto Rican horse racing journalist and television commentator, who showed Matos a handful of young riders looking to make the jump to the United States and told him to pick which one he liked best.
“I liked the way Evin looked on a horse, so I called him,” Matos remembered. “He was going to go somewhere else, but I talked him into coming to California. I wasn’t even dreaming of being close to leading rider. It just happened.”
Roman’s ascent was buttressed by Jerry Hollendorfer, the trainer of Street Surrender, who started using the teen on live mounts earlier in the spring. Soon enough, like a snowball going downhill, Roman picked up calls from powerhouse outfits in Peter Miller, Steve Miyadi and John Sadler, and even rode a few times for Bob Baffert, who rarely legs up apprentice jockeys.
“He’s riding for everybody,” Matos said. “You can see, he rides almost every race. He’s very talented, he’s very good out of the gate and it is a privilege to be leading rider at Santa Anita. I’m very excited to have a rider with this much ability at his age. He’s got a lot of upside.”
The tutelage of the older riders at Santa Anita has been crucial for Roman’s development. Racing is unique in that direct competitors will sometimes take it on themselves to teach young upstarts the tricks of the trade, and Matos says that it’s Roman’s attitude that has drawn the encouragement of California’s riding colony.
“They do it because he’s such a nice kid,” Matos offered. “He’s very humble, very low-key. He was going to be leading rider and he never even got excited. He’s got nerves of steel. He just took it one race at a time.”
Even if he were to fail to win a single race in the second half of the calendar, Roman likely has an Eclipse champion apprentice award in his future. But the sights are much higher now and the hard-working kid is named on mounts in seven of eight races on Thursday’s opening day card at Los Alamitos as he looks to carry his momentum into the Del Mar meet.
“I have a lot of business lined up at Del Mar,” Matos said. “We just have to keep everybody happy because we need everybody. We’ve won a lot of races for small stables. I hate to say one name and not the other, because there were so many people that went to help us.”
It’s going to be tough to top the history Roman made at Santa Anita, but for a 19-year-old who is now the talk of Southern California racing, and who still has his weight allowance until next March, that may have just been the beginning.