California is the third state jockey Santiago Gonzalez has ventured to in his quest to make a place for himself in American racing.
It's the place that was his ultimate goal while growing up in Venezuela and the place where, he vowed to his agent Craig Stephen, he intends to stay.
"The first day he got here, I picked him up at the airport," Stephen said of the 32-year-old rider. "He told me 'You're going to be proud, because I'm coming out here to make it. I'm coming here to be No. 1.'"
That was Stephen's translation from Spanish, which remains Gonzalez's preference while he studies English as a second language on nights away from racing.
Similar statements have been made, of course, by many riders, in a variety of languages over the years. But early on, Gonzalez is bolstering those words, while letting his riding do the talking.
Through Aug. 5, Gonzalez ranked 59th nationally this year, with 51 wins from 372 mounts and more than $2.3 million in purse earnings from his mounts. He has 11 wins from 63 mounts at the summer Del Mar meeting—tied for fifth and only three behind the leading group of Tyler Baze, Rafael Bejarano, and Flavien Prat—and earnings of $589,894.
Gonzalez's father and two older brothers work at a racetrack in Venezuela and Santiago gravitated to the sport naturally, hoping to "stay small" and become a jockey from a young age. He started galloping and riding horses at age 12, riding races as soon as he could, and has around 2,600 wins in South America.
Gonzalez had dreamed of coming to the U.S. after watching Laffit Pincay, Jr. and Angel Cordero on television, and got stateside experience in the past two years at Delaware Park and Gulfstream Park.
Alex Procel, a former jockey agent turned farm manager, noticed Gonzalez at Gulfstream, learned of his desire to come west, and contacted Stephen about taking his book. Gonzalez arrived in Los Angeles late last year and started riding at Santa Anita Park when the winter/spring meeting began Dec. 26. A second-place finish on a 40-1 shot opening day brought some attention, and he started exercising and riding horses for Stephen's longtime friend Jim Cassidy after that.
"If you really watch him, he just never stops riding at any time in any race," Stephen said. "If he is going to make it here, it is because he tries so hard."
Cassidy continues to be solidly in Gonzalez's camp.
"I can't say anything but good about the kid," the trainer said. "We've been very successful. He comes to ride and he gives it his all, whether it's a 30-1 shot or a favorite. It's a strange thing, but everybody's different in our game—moods, things like that. I promise you, every time I put this kid up, I have confidence that I will get the most out of this horse.
"I saw the kid in the morning and he looked good on a horse, but they all look good on a horse in the morning. But right out of the box, phew, he showed he could ride races. Now I have trouble getting him there's so many others want him."
While relatively unknown in the U.S., Gonzalez has celebrity status in his home country.
"We went back to Keeneland to ride Ocho Ocho Ocho for Jim Cassidy in the Blue Grass (gr. I)," Stephen said. "Some stable workers there were from Venezuela and they ran up to him, saying 'Santiago, Santiago,' like he was Michael Jackson or something."