Lopez Wins First Race in Return to Gulfstream

After sitting on the sideline for nearly a month, jockey Paco Lopez couldn’t wait to get back to the Gulfstream Park winner’s circle March 16. He didn’t have to.

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The 24-year-old jockey, leading the Gulfstream standings when he was injured Feb. 18, won aboard his very first mount, guiding Smart Sting to a fast-closing 1 1/2-length victory in the featured eighth race.

“I’m happy, really happy. I’m hungry, going three weeks without riding,” said Lopez, who finished third on Dreaming of Rose in the ninth race. “I’m not tired. I’m hungry.”

Lopez seemed unstoppable in his drive to defend his Gulfstream Park riding title before he was involved in a a spill. Atop the jockeys’ standings by 13 victories at the time, Lopez was sidelined with a left elbow injury.

The 24-year-old rising star returned to action tied for third in the standings with Rajiv Maragh, nine wins behind Javier Castellano and six in back of John Velazquez. While he still is very much alive in the jockeys’ race, the modest Lopez is just happy to be back riding.

“I’ll try. Everyone has the same opportunity to win,” he said. “There are a lot of good jockeys here. Castellano is tough; Johnny is tough; everybody here is tough.”

Lopez suffered the injury in the same spill in which Eibar Coa injured his C4 vertebra. Lopez had crossed under the finish line second aboard Precious Lady in the maiden turf race when his mount fell and unseated him. Coa was unseated when the horse he was on, Lady Chesterfield, was unable to avoid the fallen horse and fell.

“People were talking that my horse clipped heels. My horse did not clip heels. My horse was tired. She crossed the wire, then…boom,” Lopez said. “She was absolutely tired.”

While recovering from his injury, Lopez has paid frequent visits to Coa, who is currently in the rehabilitation wing of Memorial Regional Hospital South in Hollywood. Lopez said he is encouraged by his fellow rider’s progress.

“Coa is moving everything and the therapy is good,” he said. “He feels good.”

Lopez was hardly sitting back waiting for his left elbow to heal. He worked diligently to stay fit by riding a horse exerciser for an hour a day at home, as well as running on the sands of Hollywood Beach.

“It was no vacation, seeing the doctor and doing the therapy three times a week,” said Lopez.

Lopez, who began riding at bush tracks in his native Mexico, immigrated to the U.S. in 2006 and began riding at Calder Race Course in 2007. After riding 171 winners the next year, he was honored with the Eclipse Award as the country’s leading apprentice jockey. Lopez rode 174 winners in 2009, his first full year as a journeyman, during a season that included a riding title at Meadowlands. He went on to achieve national prominence in 2010 by winning titles at Gulfstream and Monmouth Park.

Named to ride seven mounts March 17, Lopez said he wasn’t sure where he would ride following the Gulfstream meeting. He will choose between Monmouth, Belmont Park and Churchill Downs.