Jockey Rafael Bejarano.

Jockey Rafael Bejarano.

Horse Photos/NTRA

With Churchill Title in Bag, Bejarano Has His Fans

by Kathleen Adams
It was two years ago that jockey Rafael Bejarano won his first race in the United States at River Downs. Since then, the 22-year-old has won riding titles at Hoosier Park, Ellis Park, and Turfway Park. On July 5, he clinched another accolade when he was named leading rider for the 2004 spring meet at Churchill Downs.

To mark the occasion, racetrack superintendent Butch Lehr presented the Peruvian-born jockey with a silver mint julep cup in the winner's circle at Churchill prior to the start of the third race. At the close of the spring meet, Bejarano racked up 417 starts with 81 wins.

His money-earning percentage was .49 with purses of $2,966,656. Second was jockey Pat Day with 208 starts and 54 wins. Day's money-earning percentage was .58, with purse earnings of $2,702,948.

Bejarano currently leads the nation in victories. The jockey, who speaks little English, said winning the riding title came as "a big surprise." He said: "I try every time. Here and at Keeneland."

The young rider plans to spend the summer at Ellis Park and is considered by many in the horse racing industry to be a rising superstar. Trainer Al Stall Jr. recalled watching Bejarano at Churchill last year. At the time, Bejarano wasn't banking many wins. Nonetheless, Stall said it was evident he had considerable talent.

"I was just watching him ride and I told his agent, Steve Elzey, 'You've got the real deal here.' He was making the right moves on the horses. He was leaving the gate properly. He just wasn't getting the horses."

Stall said because he doesn't follow the same year-round circuit as Bejarano, he's only been able to use the jockey sparingly. But he insisted he'd like to put the jockey on more of his horses.

"I meant what I said about him," Stall said. "He sits on a horse like (Willie) Shoemaker did in his younger days."

Racing fan Rebecca Crabtree agrees. The 58-year-old arrived at the racetrack early July 5 to secure a spot at the head of the line for those seeking autographs from Churchill jockeys. But Bejarano's was the only autograph she really wanted.

"I bet on him every race no matter what kind of horse he's on," she said. "He's taken care of me. I won $272 on one race because of him."

James Rayburn, 46, of Louisville brought his Kentucky Derby 2000 baseball cap for Bejarano to sign. Covering the surface of the hat are the signatures of jockeys such as John Sellers, Mike Smith, Jerry Bailey, and Pat Day.

"I think he fits in with these riders," Rayburn said. "He has put himself in the running to potentially be a great jockey."