trainer richie vega knows tough times

By Dick Jerardi

Richie Vega is not going to be deterred. If he was, he would never have gotten on a boat in 1980 headed on an uncertain voyage from Mariel Harbor, 25 miles west of where he lived in Havana, Cuba. Vega and his fellow “passengers” were trying to get to Key West and freedom in America. He has never forgotten what he saw and felt during the 10 hours between Mariel and Key West.

“You’re alone on the ocean with another 200 people,” he told me several years ago. “You’re holding on for dear life. We saw a couple of boats, it’s very graphic. They exploded. You saw people burning. It was really bad…I was hoping it didn’t happen to us.”

Providentially, Vega made it to Florida and eventually to a refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap near Penn National, where the night lights lured him to the races. He was immediately hooked on the game.

He went from hot walker to groom to assistant trainer and, finally, trainer. He has been in Bensalem since 1984 and took out his trainer’s license in 1992.

Vega typically had around 25 horses in his barn. He ground out a nice living, won 297 races between 1998 and 2000 and got No. 1,000 on Dec. 11, 2016 at Parx. He was elected to the Parx Racing Hall of Fame.

Then, just like that, everything he ever knew was gone.

“Whenever you’re used to doing something, it’s hard to comprehend that they are telling you not to do what you love to do,” Vega said.

Vega was away from Parx Racing for 15 months, suspended for the horse racing equivalent of a summary offense in the real world. A few syringes filled with non-performance enhancing medication were found at his barn. It was a violation of the rules and in a very scrutinized horse racing world the timing could not have been worse.

“You’re always going to be responsible for your whole barn,” Vega said.

Even if a trainer has no knowledge of what happened, the trainer is responsible.

“That’s the worst part of this whole business,” Vega said.

Vega was gone from May 2021 until August 2022. All of his 30 horses were sold.

“The first three, four months were horrible,” Vega said. “You’re thinking about your family, you’re thinking about your life. My wife had saved a couple of bucks for rainy days. You never know when this business is going to go bad.”

Two of his owners, Steve Appel and Luis Visso, were lifelines. They went out of their way to help him. And then he was back.

“That first day, I was crying,” Vega said.

He was essentially starting over in a game he had discovered more than 40 years before. He had just 136 starters from 2021-2023, with 18 winners. He had no horses when he returned. Now, he has eight horses in the barn and a few babies on the farm.

Does he still love the game?

“Absolutely,” Vega said. “I’m getting old. I’m 62-years old right now and I’m still doing it. I’m teaching my son how to do it too. He’s getting his license. I’m not going anywhere, believe me. I’m going to stay here with my people.”

Now, he’s hoping for another horse like Collegeville Girl or Ducle Realidad, two of the best he’s ever trained.

“I’ve got a couple of nice horses like that,” Vega said hopefully, always hopefully.


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