special relationship between horse and rider

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.

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