When Alexandra Jara traveled to South Florida in 2007 and watched her older brother Fernando win the Donn Handicap (gr. I) aboard Horse of the Year Invasor at Gulfstream Park, the Panamanian teenager dreamed of someday doing the same.
Now, she has the opportunity.
Jara, 24, made a permanent move to Florida two months ago and rode her first races at Gulfstream last week. She hopes to build upon a successful riding career that started in Panama, where she had the second-highest winning percentage among jockeys and was the sixth-leading rider at Hipódromo Presidente Remón in Juan Diaz, Panama. Jara attended the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School in her native country and graduated last year. She says she always wanted to be a jockey but initially put it off to focus on her education.
"I wanted to finish high school, and I was also going to college," she said. "I was studying dance history. I wanted to get all of that done first."
But as Jara neared her 23rd birthday, she had to make a decision.
"The jockey school in Panama won't accept you if you're older than 23," Jara said. "I said to myself, 'It's now or never.'"
Jara stopped going to college and enrolled at the jockey school, spending the majority of her time riding while other students also had to take general education classes, such as math and English. Since Jara had already completed high school and could speak both Spanish and English, she did not have to take the additional courses.
"I only had two subjects to take at the school," Jara said. "But I had to go every morning to work. I worked the horses in the morning, went to the gate, stuff like that."
Jara excelled with her natural talent and ability, but she also benefitted from tips from her older brother.
"He tries to give me advice and talk to me," Jara said. "The most valuable piece of advice he gave me was to not feel bad when you lose, because sometimes you may think a horse is going to win, but if it's not his day and there are better horses, there's not a jockey in the world that can make him win."
Jara may not have been able to complete her college education, but she uses the knowledge she did gain in higher-level education to her advantage. She considers her strength as a rider to be her ability to follow direction and understand what the trainers she rides for want.
"I always pay attention to what the trainer wants," Jara said. "He knows his horses better than anyone. I pay attention to the running style of the horse and try to give the horse the best ride."
Jara has big goals, especially after seeing what her brother could do after coming to the United States. Fernando Jara, who rode at Gulfstream last year and is currently riding in Saudi Arabia, won the 2006 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) on Jazil when he was just 18 years old.
"I want to win," Jara said. "I want to become better at what I'm doing, work on my skills, and try to win as many races as I did in Panama. I'm expecting to get the opportunity to do well here."