Eric Camacho was studying mechanics at a local technical institute and working at a tire store in Columbia when he had a chance meeting with jockey Alberto Delgado.
They chatted and it didn't take long for Delgado to persuade the teenager to take a shot at a career in horse racing. Almost immediately, Camacho dropped the wrenches and picked up the reins in pursuit of a lifelong goal.
"From a very young age, it's always been my dream to be a jockey. I had a knack for it," said Camacho.
Knack, indeed. Barely one year after competing in his first race, the Odenton resident is on the threshold of his first meet championship and - at age 21 - is firmly ensconced as one of the most highly sought properties in the Maryland jockey colony.
Camacho rode three winners yesterday to enter today's final program of the Laurel winter stand with 60 victories, three more than Ramon Dominguez, a nationally prominent talent who finished second aboard High Limit yesterday in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Today at Laurel, Camacho has six mounts and Dominguez four.
Ironically, Dominguez's absence from Maryland for two days to ride in an important Triple Crown prep might push the youngster who patterns his style after him to the title.
In many eyes, it would be poetic justice after Camacho was slapped with what some considered an unjust five-day suspension for a riding infraction at Charles Town, costing him valuable days in the duel.
"If I finish second to Ramon Dominguez, it would be like winning, anyway," said Camacho. "I love his confidence and the way horses respond to him. He makes it look easy. Sometimes when he wins, it's like magic."
The racetrack has always been familiar ground for Camacho, whose father, Enrique, was an exercise rider in Maryland for two decades and also rode in a few races. "He was the one who brought me to the track and got me around it," said Eric.
But it was no surprise that Camacho's mother, Sandra Hare -who has since remarried - was not enthralled when Eric decided to become a jockey.
"I didn't think it was a great career choice," said Hare, an administrative officer at the Goddard Space Flight Center. "I had been around this game for many years and I had a little bit of a sore spot about it. But Eric was bound and determined. He's always been very athletic and exceled in everything he tried. I think he's been blessed.
"Once I saw him pushing toward this, I made one stipulation - that he finish school. But in his heart, this is what he wanted."
Camacho dabbled in numerous sports at Arundel High and was most proficient in soccer.
Once his primary focus shifted from automotive to equine, he became an understudy at the Laurel barn of the Salzman family, walking hots, galloping horses, studying film and form and soaking up information from everybody.
John Salzman Jr. is his agent and brother Tim Salzman his primary trainer, although Camacho is also in great demand with such local training heavyweights as Scott Lake, Howard Wolfendale and brothers Gary and Dale Capuano, and often has a choice of mounts.
Jockey Rick Wilson, whose riding career was almost assuredly ended by a nasty accident at Pimlico a year ago, became his first true mentor.
"He's a good kid and he has arrived," Wilson said from his Carroll County home. "When he first came, I saw that he had a lot of patience, good hands and got along well with all people.
"I worked with him at the gate and on pace, getting him used to how fast he was going. He listens well; he has a good head on his shoulders. You knew right away he was going to be good."
"Rick Wilson was awesome, pointing me in the right direction," said Camacho. "When you get advice from somebody like him, you take it and run with it."
When Wilson was hospitalized after the spill, Camacho was at his bedside daily. "My wife kept asking who he was," said Wilson. "I think he knows more about the races I won than I do."
According to close associates, Camacho also is equipped with a strong work ethic. He needs no prodding to appear for any assignment.
"He's there every morning because he wants to be," said Tim Salzman. "Even if he has ridden at Charles Town the night before. A lot of jockeys won't show up if it rains or something. But even if Eric doesn't have a horse to work, he wants to gallop something. His attitude is awesome."
Such veteran riders as Dominguez, his model, and Mario Pino foresee a bright future for Camacho and don't believe he will suffer unduly when he loses the weight allowance given to apprentices and becomes a journeyman on May 6.
"A lot of guys start off thinking they know everything, but I don't think losing the 'bug' will be a problem for him," said Pino. "He's always going to do bettter because he works hard, wants to learn and is smart. I've been really impressed with how much he's progressed the last few months. That's a good sign that he's not declining."
"Losing the bug does affect you and it doesn't have anything to do with being a lesser rider," said Dominguez. "You have to prove yourself all over again to trainers and owners. It's a big step. But I'm very impressed with how quick he has learned."
Trainers believe they will have no qualms about continuing to use Camacho.
"He fashions himself after Dominguez, which is a good thing," said Lake. "He'll have to keep learning, but I think he'll be fine. As of now, I plan on continuing to use him after the bug."