By Dick Jerardi
You watch Sofia Vives ride and you would never know she has ridden fewer than 100 races. She looks like an absolute natural – smooth and confident as she guides her mounts into and out of tight spots, giving them a chance if they are good enough.
Last Monday at Parx, Vives had her horses that were good enough in the right spots so often that the young apprentice got her first three-win day.
It all makes sense when you confirm that she missed her high school graduation because it was the first day she ever got to breeze a horse, that she once dressed up as a jockey for Halloween, that riding horses is all she has ever wanted to do.
“I have never thought of anything else,” Vives said. “A lot of people ask me if you could pick another career, what would it be? I don’t even know. I don’t know anything besides horses.”
Growing up, she had a chalkboard on one of her bedroom doors with the words “jocks room” on it.
Her father has been galloping and working horses for Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse for more than 20 years. Sofia grew up at the Casse Racing/Training Center in Ocala, Florida. Her father was a jockey from 1993 to 2000, riding at Penn National. His last ride was at Parx on Sept. 5, 2000, a few years before Sofia, 20, was born. Lazaro Vives had 4,504 mounts with 677 wins and almost $6 million in earnings. Sofia’s uncle, Juan Vives, also rode at Penn National during his career from 1987-1997. He had 7,715 mounts with 891 winners and $5.7 million in earnings.
“He’s got a lot of photo books in the garage, but no videos,” Sofia said of her dad.
Her dad, Sofia said, did not know anything about horses.
“He thought horses just ate grass, he had no clue,” she said. “If you hear his stories, it was amazing to see how he was brought up into it. He did very good for himself.”
And his daughter is doing very well for herself. She rides at Parx on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, catches a 9 p.m. flight to Toronto Wednesday nights and then rides at Woodbine Thursday through Sunday. Monday mornings, she is back at the airport at 4 in the morning for the plane trip back to Philadelphia.
“As soon as I get to the airport, I uber right to the jocks’ room, and ride races,” Vives said.
When she is at Parx, she stays with her grandmother Alma Cummings who works in the Phonebet business office and lives about 20 minutes from the track. Sofia has her own bedroom there and her “grandmom makes the best dinners.”
Vives won four races quickly at Woodbine last fall, but, because they don’t have year round racing there, she was able to freeze her apprentice year until the track reopened in April.
Vives’ mother, Marie, is the nursing supervisor of the main hospital near the Casse facility. She once worked on the backside and then put herself through nursing school.
“I have to give her major credit because she did it all on her own,” Sofia said. “She did it maybe eight years ago.”
Vives has an older sister with two children, making her “probably the youngest aunt you’ve ever met.”
Her mother was not thrilled Sofia did not want to attend that high school graduation.
“I didn’t want to buy the cap and gown,” Vives said. “I didn’t care about any of it. I just wanted to go to work.”
Her three win day was capped when Neecie Marie won race 6 for trainer Butch Reid.
“Which was nice having my mom’s name in it,” Vives said.
The 7-day per week schedule, plane rides, preparation to ride and then riding are quite different from what she had been doing.
“Coming from just galloping horses and having the whole afternoon off to go to the pool or do whatever to hustling it out seven days a week, it is a lot,” Vives said. “It is a lot being on my own sometimes, but it is for the best, to teach me how to be on my own and to not rely on anybody. I’ve always been very independent.”
Whether she is at Woodbine or Parx, Vives has also been getting on horses in the morning.
So when exactly does she sleep?
“Any chance I get,” Vives said.
And winning a race, what does that feel like?
“I get tingles the whole way, galloping out coming back,” Sofia Vives said. “It’s such a nice feeling. The horses know too when they win. They come back strong. They know. They are very, very smart animals.”
Vives rode just 16 races over six days at Woodbine last fall. She finished second in her first two races before winning her third. After that fourth win, she hit the pause button because the Woodbine meet was nearing an end and she wanted to preserve that apprenticeship. She returned April 17 at Parx. In her first 38 mounts at Parx, Vives had 8 wins, 3 seconds and 5 thirds. This being the humbling sport of horse racing, after that three-win day, Vives did not win a race over 23 rides at Parx and Woodbine. But that will not deter a jockey who has been determined to do what she is doing for just about forever.