All three male members of the Rivera family share the same first name, Juan, so it seems obvious to wonder how the Senora of the household summons one of them. The question was put to her youngest son on Sunday, “how does your mother, Margarita, know which Juan to call when she wants one of you.”
Juan Rivera, Jr., a well regarded member of the Canterbury Park jockey colony the last several years, said simply:
“Well, she calls me “Gabby,” ( a derivative of his middle name, Gabriel). She calls my brother Pichy.”
And what, pray tell, does she call your father?
“Juan,” said the youngest Juan in the family.
Juan Rivera, Jr., has a nickname in addition to Gabby, one applied by track announcer Paul Allen: “Smiley.”
The name was applied a few years ago when Rivera was going through a prolonged slump. “He was 0-for-50 and yet all he would do was smile,” Allen recalled.
Slumps of that nature are a rarity for Rivera, who has yet to win a riding title but is generally in the top echelon of riders, at Canterbury Park and at Turf Paradise.
Rivera was born in Puerto Rico and fell in love with racing at the hand of his father, who owned horses, was a trainer at various times and a riders’ agent, too.
Riding school is mandatory in Puerto Rico, so at age 16 Juan, Jr. enrolled in the two-year program, graduating 10 days before getting his first mount, on Jan. 1, 1999 at the former El Nuevo Comandante.
Rivera lost his bug by the end of that first season and headed to San Houston in Texas. “I had agents calling from New York, Chicago and Florida,” Rivera recalled. “But I had never been in the United States. I was scared.”
Houston sounded best because Rivera knew the agent who would represent him there. “It was tougher getting mounts in Puerto Rico after I lost the bug,” he said, “so I knew I had to try someplace different.”
He lasted in Houston only one meet and landed in Shakopee for the first time in 2000 and hasn’t missed a meet here since. He tried the racing in Indiana, Florida, and Oklahoma before heading to Turf Paradise in Phoenix in 2004, where he has ridden since, during the autumn and winter months, returning to Canterbury in the summer.
He, Lori Keith, Scott Stevens, Adolfo Morales, Patricia Trimble and others like the combination of Turf Paradise and then Canterbury on their annual riding calendars.
“I liked it here right away,” Rivera said. “I like the track, the management, the way people treat you. And I liked the riders. I learned a lot from Scott Stevens and Paul Nolan.”
Rivera’s consistency keeps him in trainers’ plans season after season. “He doesn’t have bad meets,” said jockey room custodian Jerry Simmons. “He’s always in the top bunch of riders.”
Rivera’s first year in Shakopee he competed for the title going into the final weeks but fell out of the running after breaking an ankle. “That was sad. ”
Rivera, who’ll turn 33 this month, at one time had trouble letting go of incidents on the track, bad decisions, misfortune. He takes it all more in stride today.
“If I get injured now, I get a little vacation,” he said . “It’s the only time I get any time off.”
Trainer Tim Padilla met Rivera in Phoenix several years ago and used him extensively at one time. When Rivera lost his agent five years ago, Padilla introduced him to Richard Grunder, who appreciates Rivera for reasons other than his riding traits.
“No baggage, no drama,” Grunder said.
Padilla says there are other reasons to like Rivera this year.
“This is the best I’ve seen him ride,” Padilla said. “He’s riding a lot more aggressively this year.”
Through Sunday’s racing, Rivera had ridden nine winners, three seconds and five thirds from 32 mounts. That tied him for wins with Tanner Riggs (his stablemate in the Grunder fold) behind defending champion Dean Butler and Bobby Walker, Jr. who have 10 apiece.
His immediate goal is to stay that close to the front of the pack all summer. He has set a modest long term goal.
“I’m getting close to 850 wins,” he said. “I’d like to reach 1,000.”
OLESIAK INJURED IN SPILL
Former Canterbury rider Jordan Olesiak was seriously injured in a five-horse spill in Lincoln, Neb., on Friday.
His brother Justin, a trainer at Canterbury, said Sunday that Justin suffered a break in his lower back, a broken hip on one side and a dislocated hip on the other.
“He won’t ride again this summer for sure,” Justin said. “But he’s doing a lot better,” Justin said after speaking with Justin.
NEW OWNERS SEMINAR
Want to own a racehorse?
The Minnesota Thoroughbred Association will sponsor a seminar on the process next Saturday at 11 a .m. on the Mezzanine level of the grandstand. MTA members will attend with information on partnerships and other ways of getting into horse racing. Contact the MTA at 952-233 4802 for additional information.
This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.