Aug 19,2021Curtis Stock for Horse Racing Alberta
Minus the nefarious undertones, Alberta's leading trainer Tim Rycroft mimicked Marlon Brando in 'The Godfather' when he gave jockey Enrique Gonzalez 'an offer he can't refuse.' Gonzalez was Vancouver's Hastings Park leading rider on two occasions but Rycroft lured the former Mexico City champion jockey to Alberta by promising Gonzalez first call on his powerful stable.
Rycroft also told Gonzalez he would pay him to gallop his horses in the mornings. Century Mile's one-mile track was also a big selling point given that is the size of the track Gonzalez was more familiar with in Mexico at Hipodromo de las Americas, Mexico's only racetrack.
Add all the pluses up and it was simply too good of an offer to refuse. So far the decision to leave Vancouver where he led the standings in 2013 when he won 12 races over the final four days and then again in 2019 when he tied Antonio Reyes - each with 57 wins but Gonzalez with substantially less mounts - is paying off.
Gonzalez and perennial Alberta leading jockey Rico Walcott are having a torrid battle. Walcott went crazy winning five races last Friday but Gonzalez didn't wilt riding a hat trick of winners on Sunday. Heading into this weekend at Century Mile, Walcott has 36 wins; Gonzalez is just one behind.
"It's been really good," said Gonzalez, through his interpreter, fellow jockey Jose Asencio. "Tim has some very nice horses. It's a new experience. A very good new experience. All the people here are very nice."
Gonzalez, who is in his first full year at Century Mile, would like nothing better than to emerge atop the jockey standings this year. "It will be tough but it would be very important for me to win the jockey title and to beat Rico (Walcott). Rico has been the leading rider here for a long time."
One of Gonzalez's Sunday's trio of wins came with Rycroft's Greek Geek, who set a track record for a mile and a sixteenth (1:42.36) when Gonzalez was able to slow down the pace down the backstretch and then had a ton of horse left for the stretch run. It's the second track record Gonzalez has set this year having earlier won the six furlong Journal Handicap in June in a blazing 1:07.51 with Stone Carver, also trained by Rycroft. "Stone Carver is my favourite horse to ride. He handles very easily."
"Enrique is a very smart rider," said Rycroft, whose brother Riley is Gonzalez's agent. "He knows where he's at and he knows where he wants to be. He's good on the lead but he's really good down the stretch. He finishes so well. Like Rico, Enrique can go anywhere and win races. I'm just glad I talked him into coming to Alberta."
As well as winning with many of Rycroft's horses, Gonzalez is also the regular rider for Kirk Sutherland's Tony's Tapit, the early favourite for the September 11 Canadian Derby. After coming up from Phoenix, Arizona, Tony's Tapit, trained by Jim Brown, has won all three of his races at Century Mile - all fairly handily. And, he has won those three races despite having his share of trouble. In the June 20 Western Canada Handicap he was boxed in and climbing over horses. But once Gonzalez saw a hole, Tony's Tapit shot through it to win by five and a quarter lengths.
Then he broke slow in his next two starts. But he still rallied hard to win winning an allowance race by six and three-quarter lengths and then the August 1 Count Lathum when he hopped out of the gate but still won by a length and a half. "He doesn't panic if his horse doesn't break well," said Rycroft. "Other riders will panic and rush their horses up; Enrique just sits and waits."
"Tony's Tapit is a really good horse," said Gonzalez, a hard worker who gallops eight to 10 horses every morning. "He's the horse to beat in the Canadian Derby. He'll like the mile and a quarter in the Derby," said Gonzalez, who finished second by just a neck to Real Grace in last year's Derby while riding Something Natural, who came flying down the stretch.
"You just have to settle (Tony's Tapit) down and he will run from off the pace. He loves to come from behind. He's mucho caballo," said Gonzalez, 38, which translate to lots of horse. "He's an easy horse to ride. Once you push the button and once you ask him to run he goes. He doesn't have to come from way off the pace. If there's no speed in the race he can lay closer."
Married for 16 years and a father of three children, Gonzalez, was lured to the track by his older brother, Florencio, who is still an exercise rider in Mexico City. "I was just a kid when I first came to the track," said Gonzalez, a very polite but confident individual, who has also ridden in Puerto Rico, Panama and a six-month stint at Golden Gate in San Francisco, California.
"I saw what my brother did and I wanted to do it too." But after exercising horses for a few years, Enrique showed too much talent to just be an exercise rider. At the age of 19, in 2000 he became a jockey. By 2007 he was Mexico's leading rider.
Gonzalez, who won the 2006 $75,000 Puerto Rico Classico Del Caribe - that country's Breeders' Cup - first came to Hastings in 2012. He rode there only two years before heading back to Mexico after getting homesick and with a promise from back home to ride for some big barns. But after riding in Mexico from 2014 to 2016, Gonzalez went back to Hastings in July of 2020 before coming to Alberta last fall. "There's a lot of riders in Mexico. Probably about 35. And they only race two days a week. One day for thoroughbreds another day for quarter horses. It was tough to make a living."
After a slow start at Century Mile last year, Gonzalez got rolling in a hurry. He went one three-day stretch from Sept. 25 to 27 finishing in the top 3 in all of his 13 mounts. He was just getting started winning regularly until a two-year-old he was riding, Jumratan, stumbled while on the lead on October 18. Gonzalez was thrown and broke his wrist effectively ending the season.
It wasn't his first injury. In 2018 in Vancouver he clipped heels leaving the starting gate and broke his left ankle. He was out for seven months. Then this spring Tim Rycroft came calling.
Asked what he contributes his success to Gonzalez, who missed the first two weeks of this season due to Covid quarantines, quickly said "Ride smart and have a good horse. That would be a good combination."
Is it ever. "I'm very thankful to Tim and my agent, Riley. Tim has the horses and Riley finds me other good horses."
"He's a very patient rider," said Riley. "He gets horses away from the gate good, gets them to the head of the stretch in good position and then he finishes very strong. He's got quiet hands and he's really smart. What else can you say? He's just a really good rider."
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