Inside Track: A Natural Rider

Walk around Calder Race Course and you’ll keep hearing the word “Paco” from the lips of trainers, bettors, stewards, and other track officials.

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Paco is the nickname for Pascacio Lopez, a 22-year-old native of Mexico who is gaining attention for running away with this season’s riding title and leading the country’s apprentice jockeys in wins. As of Sept. 9, he had 171 wins—including 141 at Calder (28%) in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Lopez is getting rides and winning on many top horses, while also drawing some controversy, with an aggressive style he developed as a Quarter Horse rider in his native country.

“I began with Quarter Horses when I was 12, and I learned the feel of how horses would run,” he said.
Lopez has “natural instincts” that many young riders lack when they come to the United States, said Bill White, who has won 15 Calder training titles.

That includes what White calls ability to find openings in races and “bravado” to seize them.

However, some of Lopez’ tactics have led stewards to issue suspensions—including a 30-day ban he has appealed to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

Lopez has missed 30 Calder days due to suspensions, and also has appealed a five-day suspension from July.

On Aug. 4, stewards suspended Lopez 30 days for what they called careless riding in a race the previous day. Even though no objections or inquiry were filed, they penalized him for bearing in on a horse after he twice looked at the other jockey, said state steward Rene Riera Jr.

The Florida DPMW expects to issue a decision “soon” on Lopez’ latest appeal but has not set a date, said its spokeswoman Alexis Antonacci.

Lopez said a suspension may have been warranted, but added that he feels “30 days is not justified.”

Lopez was born on a farm in Mexico’s Veracruz state. He left home at 12 to work on a ranch, where he began riding Quarter Horses.

In 2006, he moved to the U.S. to “follow my dream of riding Quarter Horses” and make money doing it.

He worked on a ranch near West Palm Beach, Fla., and rode Quarter Horses in private weekend races.

In 2007, friends who worked at Calder brought Lopez to Palm Meadows, Magna Entertainment’s training center near Boynton Beach. After impressing trainers in morning workouts, he began riding at Calder.

Lopez rode his first Thoroughbred winner July 13, 2007, at Calder. Later that summer, White referred him to agent Cory Moran, who has worked with top apprentices including 1998 Eclipse Award winner Shaun Bridgmohan.

Lopez had 30 wins at this year’s Gulfstream meet, tying for 11th place. He credits Edgar Prado for help and friendship.

“Whenever I got discouraged, Edgar would tell me ‘You have a good future,’ ” Lopez said.

Lopez’ list of Calder stakes winners includes Harold Queen’s 2-year old Big Drama, who won the Dr. Fager and Affirmed in the first two legs of the Florida Stallion Stakes.

Lopez lost his five-pound allowance for non-stakes Sept. 9. David Fawkes, Big Drama’s trainer, White, and Eddie Plesa Jr. said they will keep giving Lopez as many rides despite the loss of his “bug.”

The remainder of Lopez’ season, including candidacy for the apprentice Eclipse Award, could depend on stewards.
With 22 days left in the Calder meet he held a 139-91 lead in wins over Manoel Cruz. Calder’s Tropical meet will run from Oct. 23 through next Jan. 2.

Lopez will then ride at Gulfstream. A move to a northern track is possible later in 2009, Moran said.