By Dick Jerardi

When he was growing up in his native Puerto Rico, Carlos Mercado was drawn to the sights and sounds of the racetrack on the island, El Commandante (now Camarero), 20 minutes outside San Juan.

“My mom brought me to the racetrack for the first time when I was a young kid,” Mercado said. “I loved the horses, the jockeys, the trainers.”

He wanted to be a rider, but became too big too fast and had to be content with galloping a few horses on the beach in his late teen years.

“That was my dream,” Mercado said. “I was so heavy. I dropped weight to 129, but one day I passed out.”

That was the sign he was not going to be a jockey.

“In my beginnings, I was a singer in Puerto Rico,” Mercado said.

So he sang Merengue and Reggaeton while plotting a way to be part of horse racing.

“I couldn’t be a rider so I said, ‘I need to be on the racetrack; work with the riders,’” Mercado remembered. “I said I’m going to be an agent. I enjoy my work. When they’re riding, I’m riding.”

He represented many of the better riders in Puerto Rico, but he wanted more.

“If I stay here, I’ll never win a Kentucky Derby,” Mercado said to himself. “I’ll never win a Breeders’ Cup. Big races.”

When he came to Parx in 2010, he started with Roberto Rosado and Luis Hiraldo. Now, he has Dexter Haddock and Anthony Nunez. They are just names to most people, but in Mercado’s world, Haddock is “The Black Panther” and Nunez “The Golden Boy”.

“I am the kind of person that wants to promote my riders differently,” Mercado said. “I love to give them funny names because when you promote something different then people say ‘oh, I like that.’”

When one of his riders wins a race, Mercaco puts out videos with music on Facebook. Like he said, he’s different.

“I think you need to create new things because the world is moving different every day,” Mercado said.

He also does the grunt work.

“I am the kind of person, I get to my house, I’m working hard on the condition book, watching replays; I’m different,” Mercado said.

He is definitely that.

Mercado has worked with Haddock since the jockey’s career began in 2017. Haddock has already won 211 races and his mounts have earned nearly $6 million.

“I go to Puerto Rico and one rider said, ‘I got a kid for you, this kid is humble, hard working in the morning,’” Mercado remembered.

So he watched Haddock, knew instinctively he was going to be good and brought him to Parx.

“I said, ‘this kid’s got it,’” Mercado said.

The kid has it: Haddock was Leading Apprentice Jockey at Parx that first year.

Mercado picked up Nunez after he lost his bug.

“I watched Anthony for a long time when he was a bug,” Mercado said. “When he lost the bug, the agent fired him. I said. ‘the agent is crazy, this guy is going to be a good rider.’”

Starting in 2017 like Haddock, Nunez has 76 career wins and $2 million in mount earnings. He is closing on $1 million in 2019. Agent and jockey have been together for just six months.

“I love working,” Mercado said. “I don’t sleep.”

Actually, he thinks he sleeps about five hours per night.

“I’m working on the condition book until 1 o’clock in the morning and I wake up like 5:30,” Mercado said.

And then he heads to Parx to talk to trainers to get his jockeys some mounts in races so they can win and he can put their performances to music.


By Dick Jerardi

Luis Villanueva has ridden three winners in 2019. Each has been on three-year-old Pennsylvania-Bred filly I’m the Talent, including her first win in her first start on April 22 at Parx, the race that gave trainer Scott Lake his 6,000th victory.

“I’m the Talent, she came in, she was this little ratty-looking thing, looked like she’s been turned out in Siberia,” Lake said. “Villanueva was getting on her the whole time, he was the only one ever getting on her. She got a shin, she got a foot problem, she got a little crabby behind, she had all these little issues going on, but he always took his time with her, really liked her.”

Her first couple breezes, Lake said, were just okay. Villanueva, however, kept telling Lake she could run. Lake wasn’t so sure.

“Can I ride her when she runs?” Villanueva asked.

“You know what?” Lake told him. “I’ll let you ride her when she runs. I ended up working her with one of my good horses and she outworked him by five or six lengths.”

Now, Lake knew what his exercise rider already knew. I’m the Talent had talent.

Did he still want an exercise rider/jockey who rarely rides in races anymore to ride the filly in a race?

“Man, I committed to him and I’m a loyal guy,” Lake said.

So, Villanueva rode I’m the Talent in her debut, a dominating 6 3/4 length win. Trainer and rider ended up smiling together in a historic winner’s circle picture—Lake’s 6,000th career training victory.

“It was a nice thing,” Villaneuva said of getting to ride Lake’s 6,000th winner. “Yeah, it’s a special feeling and thanks to Lake and the owner for giving me the opportunity.”

I’m the Talent and Villanueva have gone on to win two allowance races and also finish second in a stake and second in another allowance. Villanueva’s 11 mounts in 2019 have earned $140,777, with all but $5,587 on I’m the Talent.

Villanueva has ridden in 1,164 races. His best year was his first, 2012, when he won 63 times, with mount earnings of $1.4 million. From 2016 to 2018, he won just three races, not because he did not have the ability to win, but because he just was content exercising horses in the morning.

“He’s a very capable rider,” Lake said. “He’s got good hands. I didn’t really know him until he started working for me, but I think his work ethic wasn’t the best early on and that kind of hurt his career.”

Which makes him not so different than many young jockeys. It’s a demanding sport and it’s often hard to understand the demands when you’re young.

So, Villanueva has carved out a living as one of Lake’s exercise riders and, when needed, one of his jockeys.

In the fall of 2018, Zafiro Azul just wasn’t running well for Lake.

“Lake, let me ride her, let me ride her,” Villanueva asked.

He let him ride her and she promptly won her last two races of 2018. Villanueva has ridden her in all five 2019 starts. She finished second in a March race, but has not hit the board since. Those 2018 wins, however, still resonate.

So does that 6,000th win.

“He’s a good kid, really quiet,” said Lake of his exercise rider/occasional jockey. “He’s a really good hand in the morning.”

And, when needed, quite capable of getting a horse out of the starting gate into the winner’s circle.

I’m the Talent came out of her last race on Oct. 15 with a shin issue so she will be out for five to six months.

When she’s ready to run again, Lake will have a decision to make about who rides her. But he knows at least one jockey who gets along quite well with the filly.