Jockey Paco Lopez is riding to his dream

Monmouth Park jockey Pascacio “Paco” Lopez, 23, was once a poor boy in Mexico with a big dream. In just more than two years, he’s been making that dream come true from the back of a race horse while keeping his ambitions simple.

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So far in 2009, the jockey has won more than 1.1 million in purse money at Gulfstream Park, in Hallandale Beach, Fla.

Lopez’s biggest achievement was winning the 2008 Eclipse Award for “Best Apprentice Rider” in North America, an award bestowed upon individuals whose outstanding achievements have earned them the title of champion in their respective division, said Cory Moran, his agent.

He is now one of top riders at Gulfstream, behind leading jockeys Jose Lezcano and Elvis Trujillo, a rank he received by riding the third most horses in one season at Gulfstream Park.

He made headlines when he won first place riding Smooth Air during the $300,000 (G2) Gulfstream Park Handicap, in April 2009. And, Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens named Lopez their leading Champion Rider of 2008, Moran said.

He’s young and fearless, with an aggressive but not dangerous riding style, Moran said, noting that Lopez had more wins than any apprentice jockey in the nation in 2008. Lopez’s drive has earned him the chance to ride on top mounts, he added.

Today, Lopez is riding and winning stake races at Monmouth Park and Belmont, N.Y.

He’s racked up other honors: winning 13 stake races in Miami within four months during a four-day a week racing schedule and sweeping the Florida Stallion Stake Series at Calder Race Course aboard Big Drama on Oct. 18, 2008 — his 23rd birthday.

In Lopez’s first meet last year as a journeyman rider, a rank reached after apprenticing as a jockey for one year after their fifth race — he won races on a regular basis. He became in demand among some of the best trainers in the country, Moran said.

Lopez’s dreams for a better life as a child didn’t include horses, though. Growing up in a home without without electricity or running water in Veracruz, he jsut knew he wanted more.

He left home at 12, moving to Tierra Blanca to live with one of his three sisters — he also has two brothers — led to horses. In Tierra, at first he made $30 a week shining shoes and working at a car wash. One day, a customer approached him and asked if he knew of someone who could clean stables and care for horses.

He said to the man, “Yeah, I’ll go.”

Soon, he was cleaning stalls and riding quarter horses without a helmet on bush tracks, Moran said.

“Mexico has all those crazy races there,” Moran said. “There is no pari-mutuel (mutual betting), no stewards (judges) and no regulations . . . no nothing.”

They’re like match races — it was a straight-shot run with a starting gate, he added, laughing.

“He (Lopez) started winning all the races down there. It got to be where he was like the king of quarter horse races in Mexico.”

He won more than 5,000 races by the time he was a teenager and won 13 races in one weekend alone, Lopez said.

Dressed in a dark blue polo shirt, jeans and a Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 baseball cap, Lopez spoke softly as he answered questions, with Moran assisting as a translator because Lopez’s English is spotty.

“I wanted to be a jockey when I won the race and heard the people clapping and cheering,” he said.

In 2006, he moved to South Florida to pursue his dreams of riding professionally. After riding bush tracks in West Palm Beach, he found his way to Calder, where he meet Moran.

His goals are simple now, Lopez said. He wants to own his own ranch in the United States and live there with his wife, Elizabeth Lynn (Nobles) Lopez, he said. They married in April.

He doesn’t drink or use drugs, Moran adds, laughing, referring to the hat.

Lopez saves his money to help his family in Mexico. They’re using the money to fix up their old house while building another one. They now have electricity and running water and his siblings watch his races on a computer, Lopez said. “Paco is very simple,” Moran said. “He’s simple. He can sleep on the floor. The bed will be there but he’s very like Crocodile Dundee.

“Can you imagine going from being dirt poor to winning an Eclipse?” Moran adds.