By JIM WELLS
There was a chance, for a short time, that J.D. Acosta would have answered to a different bell than the one he now hears when the gate opens.
“I thought I was probably going to be a fighter,” he explained.
Opportunities in Puerto Rico were limited for young men, especially those like Acosta, who is 4-foot-10 and weighs 115 pounds, even less than that when boxing appeared to be his true future.
“I didn’t know what else I could do,” he said. He was working out in the gymnasium owned and run by Felix Trinidad, one of Puerto Rico’s legendary fighters and a former world champion in three different weight divisions. He was getting promising appraisals from those who watched him. His lungs were strong. He had been a runner, and enjoyed the contact and camaraderie of the gymnasium.
Then someone delivered the startling news. “You little guys can’t make any money fighting.”
So, that was that.
“If I couldn’t make any money, there wasn’t any reason to box,” he said. So, what then?
He went to work as a chef, at of all places, a cock-fighting venue in Puerto Rico. He is loaded with colorful stories about his days as a chef, particularly tales of bettors who stepped outside of the venue headed for home after a successful night and were immediately separated from their winnings by armed thieves, who turned a winning evening into a losing one at the point of a gun.
“But that never happened to Tito (Trinidad),” said Acosta. “Nobody bothered him when he won money. He was a hero, to all of Puerto Rico.”
An elderly fellow approached Acosta after he finished his cooking chores one day and suggested that he consider race-riding. “I had not been on a horse before that,” he said. “I was 18 years old and decided to go to jockey school.”
When he finished two years later, it was Trinidad who paid for his tack, giving him a financial leg-up on what was to become a career. Despite his reputation in the ring, Trinidad, says Acosta, “is one of the kindest people he has met.”
“You can’t believe what a wonderful person he is,” he said.
Acosta was carded the other day when he went to a local store to purchase beer for some stablehands. “I don’t drink,” he said, “but I was doing a favor from some of these guys. I laughed when they asked if I was old enough,” he said.
Now 35, Acosta has won more than 3,000 races during a career that has taken him to every racetrack in the East and many others as well.
He is at Canterbury Park for the first time and is still getting his bearings on this new location. Despite a solid career and a respected name in racing, he has yet to win a race despite riding the favorites in several races, including race two on Friday night’s card. Aboard 3/5 first choice Half Dome Dude, seeking a fifth straight win, Acosta’s horse closed aggressively but was nosed out by Fort Lewis Rivers and Nik Goodwin.
As Acosta talked about the race afterward, he mentioned that Goodwin was one of the few riders he knew when he came to Canterbury this year, having ridden with him at Charles Town. “Yeah, and he just beat me,” Acosta added.
Acosta was on the favorite in the eighth race Friday and lost by a nose to Voodoo Storm and Hugo Sanchez in that one as well.
Acosta’s agent, Bill Castle, takes care of matters from Belmont Park, an unusual although not unheard arrangement. “I wish we had started off differently, but riding for good horsemen we’re cautiously optimistic that everything will be fine over time,” said Castle, who plans to visit Shakopee toward the end of the month.
Acosta was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Puerto Rico. He changed his first name when he came to the United States. “I don’t think people would have been able to pronounce Juan de Dios,” he said. J.D. is much simpler.
There was another time in his life that Acosta had his life plan outlined much differently than it has transpired. He has a brother who is a chef in Italy and another who is an attorney in California.
“I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.