BY JIM WELLS
His throat and mouth were so dry that he could barely spit. His stomach acted as if he were on the Wild Thing across the way at Valley Fair, and the muscles in his arms and legs were in knots.
“I couldn’t even move in the paddock,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
Eighteen years old and riding a race for the first time, Erik Esqueda was aboard a 2-year-old filly name CC Senator Page in the opening race on Friday’s card. He scanned the crowd as he and the horse circled the paddock ring, seeing little and hearing nothing but the buzzing of bees that invades the mind at such times.
Not until he reached the racetrack did the alarm bells ring and bring him back to the moment and what was about to occur.
The first race is always like that, no different than a fighter crawling between the ropes for the first time, a singer debuting on stage, a comedian staring into the haze of the audience out front. The mind goes blank and the body moves as if on automatic pilot.
Once he reached the track for the post parade everything started to fall into place, return to normal. “It seemed just like being on the track in the morning then,” he said.
Esqueda took his mount out of the no. 1 hold for trainer Jason Pascoe and when they crossed the wire seconds later they were not among these who hit the board, but race one was behind him then, out of the way.
Esqueda had a mount in the second race as well, but was delayed more than once by well wishers on his way to the jockeys’ lounge after his debut.
He started toward the steps but turned to greet railbirds saluting him, and then reversed course to retrieve some goggles as mementoes for young fans surrounding the winner’s circle.
There were accolades yet to come from young sons of quarter horse trainers at the track, Austin Hardy, 10, and Ryder Olmstead, 9.
“Hey, great race,” said Hardy.
“Way to go,” added Ryder.
Esqueda was in a hurry to reach the jockeys lounge and don the necessary silks for the second race. In his haste he started to make a left hand turn into the photography studio before correcting and turning into the lounge.
“Hey, he doesn’t even know which way to go,” his young admirers chuckled.
With race no. 1 behind him, Esqueda donned the blue and white silks of his owner, Marshall Wier, for race two and was given a leg up on a 4-year-old mare named Valiant Suzy.
As he reached the track a different feeling overcame him this time, as he looked toward the rail and saw his mother, Veronica, and sisters, Emily, 13, and Allie, 8, who had made the 10 hour drive from Ligonier, Indiana.
“I had no idea they were coming,” he said. “That was beautiful, just great.”
It was a special race for the entire family as Erik rode Valiant Suzy hard to the wire, losing by a neck to Cristian Esqueda, his older brother, and Mansory.
“Hey, that makes us one-two-three,” chirped the young Olmstead, after Ry Eikleberry piloted One Famous Ocean from the same barn to third place in the race.
The Esquedas will enjoy a brief family reunion with their mother and sisters over the next two or three days. But there is work to do, as well.
Cristian has mounts in the first three races today.
Erik, the newest jockey in the family, has been named on a filly named La Tabaquera , an also eligible, for race two.