Some riders dominate a circuit in such a way that horseplayers are conditioned to look for his name in every race, lest they accidentally leave his horse out and get burned. For west coast handicappers, Rafael Bejarano is that rider. Bejarano has won seven riding titles at Santa Anita since 2007, when he settled in Southern California permanently, and has 25 riding titles to his credit across the region.
Bejarano got his start riding as an apprentice in his native Peru at age 17. When he nearly exhausted his apprenticeship by winning 49 races in two months (52 is the limit, according to the LA Times), Bejarano flew to the United States in order to remain eligible for a weight allowance. From 2002-2005, Bejarano shifted his tack from Ohio (where he got his first win at River Downs on July 10, 2002), to Florida to New York.
Bejarano collected a few stakes victories along the way, including the Stephen Foster Handicap and Carter Handicap, but his big break came in 2006 when Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel approached him about riding at Santa Anita. Frankel did so on the recommendation of Edgar Prado, a veteran rider who became fast friends with Bejarano (a fellow Peruvian) as they competed against each other on the track.
Prado, who couldn’t go to California with Frankel since he was committed to Florida for the winter, recently related the story to the LA Times. “Frankel asked me who would be a good rider,” Prado said. “I said, ‘Why not Rafael Bejarano? He’s a good jockey and he’s winning races.’”
And, as they say, the rest is history.
Bejarano’s first Breeders’ Cup victory came aboard Intercontinental in the 2005 Filly and Mare Turf, and he followed that up with wins in the Distaff (2007), Juvenile Sprint (2011), and Dirt Mile (2013 and 2014).
Surprisingly, Triple Crown success has been hard to come by for Bejarano; he was second in the Belmont Stakes in 2005 and third in 2006 but has yet to hit the board in the Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby. But Bejarano is optimistic that will change soon.
“I’m still only 32-years old, so I have a few more shots,” Bejarano told the Pasadena Star-News in a 2014 interview. “When I was in jockey’s school, it was a dream for me to win the Kentucky Derby. If it happens, I’m going to be so happy. I know I’m going to have my opportunity someday.”
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