By Bill Finley
When Joe Bravo decided to leave New Jersey because of new regulations banning the use of the whip, his future was unclear. Bravo, 49, needed a place to ride, but leaving the comfortable confines of Monmouth Park might be difficult. He had been riding at the Jersey Shore track since the late eighties and has been leading rider there 13 times.
But rather than struggling outside of the Garden State, Bravo is having a meet to remember at his new home, Del Mar. With a week to go in the meet, Bravo has 20 wins, good for fifth in the standings. His winning percentage (20%) trails only Flavien Prat (27%).
Having proven that he can compete against the best at a top-tier track like Del Mar, Bravo has decided to make Southern California his home base and said he will be ready to go when racing shifts to Santa Anita Sept. 29.
“The old saying is that when one door closes another one opens,” he said. “In hindsight, this has been a complete blessing. It really shook up my life completely and made me pack my bags up and come to the other coast. It was all for the better. I'm so thankful for the opportunities I have had here.”
To test the waters, Bravo shipped west to ride the final three days of the Santa Anita meet and won two races from 10 starts. He could see right away that California horsemen were willing to give him a chance.
“After I got together with my agent, Matt Nakatani, I came here for the end of the Santa Anita meet and I was overwhelmed by the welcome I got from trainers and owners,” he said. “They were saying 'Joe, it's really good to see you out here.' It's one thing to say that, it's another thing to follow up. Look at who I've been riding for. It's all the top connections. There's no better feeling than that.”
Bravo has ridden winners for eight different trainers, including top outfits like John Sadler, Richard Baltas and Phil D'Amato. He's ridden eight winners alone for Sadler. He's also had three stakes wins, capturing the GIII Rancho Bernardo H. with Edgeway (Competitive Edge), the GII Best Pal S. with Pappacap (Gun Runner) and the Osunitas S. with Ippodamia's Girl (Stormy Atlantic).
“That's what everybody works for, to ride in the higher end races,” Bravo said.
Riding for top outfits like the John Sadler barn has obviously helped, but so has a mental adjustment. Looking back, Bravo realizes he had gotten complacent in New Jersey. He stopped working hard and was content to only ride three or four a day. That was good enough for third place in the Monmouth standings last year, but he was no longer a match for Paco Lopez, a younger jockey who had surpassed Bravo as the top rider in New Jersey.
Bravo knew that he had no chance to make it in California if he didn't come out in the mornings and if he didn't agree to ride in lower-level races.
“Of course I miss it. Jersey will always be home,” he said. “That's probably why the last couple of years I was enjoying the good life. The Jersey Shore is really nice and I wasn't really striving that hard for anything. With this shake up, it's revitalized me. I'm working hard and it's been kind of fun with the way things have been shaken up. I got into a little rut [in New Jersey] and horse racing had become a job. I had an easy go of it at Monmouth for a good run, but coming here has revived my career.”
One of the ironies is that he left New Jersey because of its whip rules only to land in the state with the second strictest rules when it comes to the crop. California riders can only hit their mount underhanded and are limited to six strikes a race. Though he says the California rules are definitely better than they are in Jersey, he is no fan of them.
“They are very strict here,” he said. “If you turn your stick up and hit a horse it's an automatic suspension. It was a very big adjustment for me to make. It's almost like riding with handcuffs. You can't get really aggressive. At least you can do some kind of encouragement. It is difficult, but you have to adjust. I do believe there should be riding crop rules. I just wish they would be a little bit more lenient so you can still have competitive horse races. You have to protect the owners, trainers and gamblers. You see some guys who have already hit their horses six times and there's still an eighth of mile to go and he has to stop. It makes it look like the rider has fallen asleep. Instead, they're just trying to follow the California rules.”
After Santa Anita, Bravo can look forward to the Breeders' Cup, which will be run at Del Mar. He's only won one Breeders' Cup race, with Blue Prize (Arg) (Pure Prize) in the 2019 GI Breeders' Cup Distaff, but his success on the circuit should put him in line for some decent Breeders' Cup mounts. In a normal year, after the Breeders' Cup, Bravo would be on his way to Gulfstream. Instead, he will gear up for the long Santa Anita meet that begins Dec. 26. He's not going anywhere.