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It’s been a very long time since the leading jockey standings have been this close. So long ago, in fact, that you probably have to go back to the late 1970s when Don Seymour, Ron Hansen, Rick Hedge and Chris McGregor were battling it out. But here it is 50 years later and the jockey race is tighter than Scrooge McDuck.
Enrique Gonzalez, the season leader, has 29 wins so far this year. Dane Nelson has 27. Rico Walcott, who won the title eight years in a row, has 24.
And then, after four more wins this past weekend, Rafael Zenteno has 23 and Jose Asencio has 20.
“It would be amazing to win the jockey title,” said Zenteno, 30, who is right in the mix. It would show that all the hard work I’ve been doing is finally paying off. My mom. My dad. My wife, Rayann. My daughter, Bella. They would be so proud and making them proud is everything for me.”
Originally from Mexico, Zenteno, who came to Alberta in 2012, had a different goal growing up.
“I wanted to be a professional soccer player,” said Zenteno Jr., who played in division 3.
That was despite the fact that his dad, Rafael Zenteno Sr., 47, was already an accomplished jockey and who, in fact, has also been riding at Century Mile until he was sidelined two weeks ago with a fractured ankle in a mishap in the starting gate.
“I loved soccer. I would play every day. But I had to stop playing because it cost too much. It would have cost $3,500 to play in division 2 and we just didn’t have enough money.”
But he knew he could be a jockey too and that desire became more of a reality and a goal one special day when he was 14.
“One day I went to the track in Mexico and he won a stakes race. Everybody wanted a photograph of him. He was famous. That’s when I thought that I wanted to be a jockey too and follow my dad’s footsteps,” said Rafael, whose younger brother, Edgar, also rides at Century Mile.
“I wanted to be like my dad one day. He also wanted to be the best too.
“He taught me a lot,” said Zenteno Jr., who started riding when he was 18. “We would watch replays every day. He would tell me what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong.
“He would tell me what to do and what not to do,” said Zenteno Jr., who was Mexico City’s leading rider two years in a row.”
If that wasn’t enough to convince Zenteno Jr., the 2011 Canadian Derby sealed it for him when his dad won Alberta’s most prestigious horse race at Northlands Park by five lengths with Alberta-bred Freedoms Traveller.
“I knew then for sure that I wanted to be a jockey too, said Rafael, who won a solid 39 races in his first year in Canada.
Zenteno Jr. didn’t win that many races in any of the next seven seasons including 2017 when he rode the entire year in Ontario winning just 11 races. But he wasn’t about to quit.
It all changed for Rafael in 2020 when he got his frequent flyer card riding at both Century Mile on the weekends and at and Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg on weekdays. Showing his latent ability, Zenteno Jr. won a career best 60 races.
The next year was also big. Again riding in both Edmonton and Winnipeg he won 55 races. “I was riding 25-30 horses a week. Riding that many horses helps you a lot,” Zenteno Jr. said.
This year he now has a solid chance of easily surpassing both of his previous two-season totals.
Zenteno Jr., showed just how much he has improved this past Friday when he posted a hat trick.
He won the opener on the Rick Hedge trained Grady’s Song battling on the inside with two other horses - McKenzie Red and Run Rosco Run - and refusing to let either himself or Grady’s Song quit winning by half a length.
Then he came from second last to bring home longshot Tricky Speedster for trainer Dave Nicholson returning $27.60 to win.
Zenteno Jr. then replayed that come-from-behind victory in the seventh when he again came from second last to win with Silverfoot for trainer Ron Grieves.
Hedge, Nicholson and Grieves, who are all having big years, have been Zenteno Jr.’s three main clients.
Saturday, Zenteno Jr. got his fourth win of the weekend piloting home former Canadian Derby winner Explode ($15.20) in another stirring finish winning by a head with another late stretch drive victory.
“I’m getting to ride a lot more races and the more horses you ride the more you learn,” said Zenteno Jr.
“He’s a very smart rider,” said Rafael’s agent Ken Gilkyson. “He’s getting better and better.”
“Front. Back. From mid-pack. It doesn’t matter,” said Hedge, who is Zenteno Jr.’s go-to-jockey. “I like him a lot. We’ve done really well together.”
Hedge recently put Rafael on his precocious two-year-old filly Big Hug, whom Hedge says could be something ‘really special.’
Big Hug stumbled out of the starting gate almost going to her knees. But Zenteno Jr. didn’t panic. He got Big Hug rightened, got her to the top at the head of the stretch and won going away.
“It’s been like a team: my agent and the trainers and the owners I ride for,” said Zenteno Jr., 30.
“I’ve kept myself focused. I ride the horses like I know they’re going to win and keep the barns I ride for happy.”
Like his dad with Freedoms Traveller Zenteno Jr. would like nothing better than to also win the Derby.
Last Monday at Assiniboia Downs he rode Clancy’s Pistol, who had shipped in from Kentucky, in the Manitoba Derby Trial. While he finished third and no match for the winner Prayforpeace, Zenteno Jr., believes it easily could have been a different result. Or, at the very least, a lot closer.
“We got cut off bad at the starting gate,” he said. “Otherwise I think he would have won.”
Asked what his greatest attribute is, Zenteno Jr. didn’t hesitate.
“I have lots of patience. I can get a horse to relax. That’s the main thing about winning races: waiting for the right time to make your move.”
Zenteno Jr. hopes that patience will carry him forward the rest of the year.
“I hope I can be the leading rider. I’m ready for it. Being the leading rider is my goal for the rest of the year.”
Follow him on Twitter at CurtisJStock