Nik Juarez spent his four years of high school on Winters Mill's varsity wrestling team competing between 103 and 112 pounds, so when the lightweight graduated in 2011 he made what he felt was his next step in sports.
Juarez went from the mats to the stables and became a jockey, with dreams of one day participating in a prestigious race. That day is here.
He's one of an elite crop of riders in this weekend's Breeders' Cup, which takes place in Lexington, Kentucky. Juarez is set to ride Valid in the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, which carries a $1 million purse and boasts horses trained by recognizable names such as Pletcher and Lukas.
Juarez has a pedigree when it comes to horse racing — his father, Calixto, collected more than 500 wins during a 20-year carer as a jockey; his grandfather, Charlie Linton, worked as an exercise rider — and started as an apprentice jockey. He won his very first race, Dec. 14, 2013 in Laurel Park. He enjoyed some success along the way, but Juarez suffered a hip injury racing last September, at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, and couldn't get on the track for nearly seventh months.
Aboard It All Adds Up, at Pimlico, Juarez won a six-furlong claiming race in 1 minute, 14.34 seconds.
"I got myself together, got my body back together, and in April I got back to riding," said Juarez, 22, who finished fourth in the overall standings at Pimlico. "I've just been very fortunate since then."
Juarez won 21 times at Monmouth Park in 2014, and 35 times since returning from injury, according to results posted on the website horseracingnation.com. On Aug. 30, Juarez climbed aboard Valid and won the Philip H. Iselin Grade 3 Stakes at Monmouth Park. Valid won the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:50.14, and the 5-year-old gelding posted another win in late September at the 2015 Groomstick Stakes in Florida.
Valid has the No. 10 spot in the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, with Liam's Map as the odds-on favorite (1-1 as of Wednesday evening) in the No. 3 position.
"I'm very excited for this. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Juarez said. "I'm very fortunate to do this while I'm still young. However, now that I am in this position it's like, I have to seize the moment. I have to perform to the best of my abilities. This is business, and I've got to make it happen.
"I know if I put [Valid] in the fight, he's going to grind [Liam's Map] down. There are some really good horses in here, really good trainers, good riders. But I'm going there to win it."
Juarez said he learned how to become a quality jockey by using his wrestling background — Juarez credits WM coach John Lowe for pulling him from the school hallways and helping him become a varsity grappler — since the two have similarities by way of diet, training, and conditioning. When the wins started piling up, Juarez said, the hard work starting paying off.
Now it's his chance to showcase both himself and a quality horse, he said.
"I'm fortunate to be able to ride such an awesome horse," Juarez said. "You need to get lucky, and the door opens for everybody. And I'm very fortunate the door opened for me to seize the moment."