Despite the rain, spirits were high at Pimlico on Black-Eyed Susan Day. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
When Nik Juarez, a Westminster native, rode Actress to a stunning victory in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, he pumped his fist in the air with his riding whip and shouted with excitement.
The filly broke her maiden as the 12-1 longshot in the Black-Eyed Susan, run on the eve of the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes. The victory marked Actress's third career start and the mile and one-eighth distance was the longest test for her to date.
Juarez said Actress appreciated the distance and it showed when he guided the filly off the rail as the field turned for home. Actress put her head down and closed the gap to pull away from second-place finisher Lights of Medina by a head.
"It was very exhilarating," Juarez, a 2011 Winters Mill graduate, said. "I'm galloping out and it looked like I was tired as I pulled her up, but I couldn't believe it. It was an unbelievable feeling and I didn't know what to do after the race. It took me 30 minutes to shower because I was sitting there wondering if it really happened."
Juarez wrestled at Winters Mill but said he didn't develop an interest in becoming a jockey until after high school. His father, Calixto, and his grandfather on his mother's side were also jockeys and it was only a matter of time before Juarez took a shot at it. When he was 18, his father sent him to a farm in Monkton to gather basic knowledge of the care and well-being of a horse.
His ran his first race at age 20 aboard Love Heart at Laurel Park in Laurel on December 14, 2013 — together, they won.
"I started from the bottom with it," Juarez said. "It was a long process that didn't happen overnight."
Winters Mill wrestling coach John Lowe knew Juarez had athletic potential when he first came to the Falcons' wrestling program, but there were still improvements to be made.
"If he was guilty of anything, it was taking shortcuts," Lowe said. "As he got older, he realized that there isn't a shortcut to getting what you want in life, you have to put all the work in. He really did that once he started riding. He embraced the entire aspect of the job and has really taken off as anybody will tell you. He's the full package."
Juarez visited his former teachers and coach at Winters Mill a few weeks prior to the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. There, he spoke to Lowe's class about what wrestling helped him accomplish in his life to that point. The sport taught him great lessons, he said, and much of what he does in his career is a testament to the athlete Lowe shaped him to be.
"I wrestled very light and watched my weight," Juarez said. "My job now isn't like being physically strong; you have to be mentally strong too. You have to get through hard times, a lot of hard times and there's a lot more downs than ups."
Juarez's daily life is hardly comparable to that of an average 23-year-old. He works seven days a week, starts his day at 6:30 a.m. and often doesn't stop until late evening. Those early mornings consist of workouts atop different horses and he gets a brief lunch break before returning to the track for the day's race slate.
He'll map out his day using the racing form and create a plan for each mount in each race. Weigh-ins take place 20 minutes prior to every race and afterward, he changes into the proper racing silks, weighs in again and repeats the cycle. Juarez said he rides 8-10 horses a day at times; such is the lifestyle of a young jockey.
Juarez spends much of his summer atop a Thoroughbred or behind the wheel of a car en route to the next racetrack. He resides in New Jersey for the summer to race at Monmouth Park and other surrounding tracks in the area, but he recently bought a house in Florida, not far from Gulfstream Park.
Tyler Gaffalione, Juarez's good friend and a fellow jockey, rode Patch in this year's Kentucky Derby. Juarez has his sights set on making his debut in a Triple Crown race one day and he's determined to work up to that point.
"That's what we do this for," Juarez said. "He (Gaffalione) came back from the race and didn't even rub the dirt off his face. He said it was an amazing experience. It's what we work our asses off for, to get to that level."
Lowe said Juarez gave him a set of his racing goggles that now hang in Lowe's classroom. He uses them as an example in lessons with his wrestlers — an illustration of Juarez's success and his determination to build himself from the ground up.
'When you're a teacher and a coach, you never really know what your effect is on someone," Lowe said. "You can give a pep talk in a practice or a speech in class and there are kids that come back later and thank you for influencing them; you're blown out of the water. I always liked Nik and wondered what influence I had on him. When he came back and we had that talk, it was very humbling."