More than 30 years ago, when he was making a name for himself as a top rider in New Jersey, Jose Ferrer had the good fortune to learn from some of the best.
Jockeys such as Ferrer’s uncle, Carlos Lopez, Sr., and his cousin, Charles “C.C.” Lopez, were eager to share their insights. And when Ferrer left New Jersey to ride at the winter meeting at Aqueduct in New York in the 1980s, he found Hall of Fame members Angel Cordero, Jr., and Jorge Velasquez willing to pass along knowledge to their rapt pupil.
Ferrer already grasped the value of utilizing past performances to determine not only his own mount’s preferred racing style, but that of their rivals. One lesson he absorbed from the grand masters that has remained with him through the years is the importance of devising a strategy for when the best-laid plans blow up, as often happens in Thoroughbred racing.
“They used to tell me I needed a ‘Plan B’ and a ‘Plan C’ to go with ‘Plan A,’ because you never know what is going to happen in a race,” said Ferrer, selected earlier this week as the Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month. “That’s what the old-timers taught me, and that’s the way I’ve approached my races since then.”
Ferrer’s “Plan A” is usually a mixture of his own thoughts on the setup of a race, his previous experience (if applicable) on a horse and the instructions from the trainer. But when a jockey is told to lay second or third early and the horse encounters trouble at the break, the rider better have a back-up plan to keep their chances intact.
“If you get squeezed out of the gate or your horse stumbles, you have to turn to ‘Plan B,’ ” Ferrer said. “And if something unexpected happens during the race, you might have to go to ‘Plan C.’ So each plan is always in the back of your mind.”
The 53-year-old Ferrer’s vast experience and his superb fitness have enabled him to stay competitive at Tampa Bay Downs, where he is tied for ninth in the standings with 29 victories, and at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, where he finished third last year with 66 victories.
Ferrer has ridden 4,112 winners since starting his career in 1982, with 26 graded-stakes victories, including the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga in 2000 aboard Stormy Pick. He won with his only mount on today’s card, piloting the 8-year-old horse Smart and True to a front-running victory in the fifth race on the turf for trainer Dennis Ward and his Ridenjac Racing outfit.
Ferrer’s conditioning level allows him to work several horses in the mornings, gleaning valuable insights he can employ during the races. “For me, it is mostly physical (observation). As soon as I get on a horse, it’s pretty much like a mechanic checking your car,” he said.
“The first two jumps, I know what to do with a horse. I might think, ‘I used to ride a horse similar to this one,’ so I start thinking I’m going to ride the horse a certain way because of how it feels. It’s like a mechanic who can hear the engine and figure out right away what’s happening.
“I find myself like that – I can feel it as soon as I get on. I can tell how the horse’s mouth is, how they feel underneath, what kind of attitude the horse has. A bunch of things go through my mind right away, and from there I can tell whether a horse is going to need strong handling or a light mouth or I need to ride aggressively.
“There are a lot of things going on in the first couple of jumps, and you have to pay attention to the horse in the morning to figure out what you’re going to do in a race,” Ferrer said.
From the way he sets a horse down during a stretch battle, to his impromptu teaching sessions with Tampa Bay Downs’ younger jockeys, to his lively interactions with fans along the rail, Ferrer’s passion for the sport of Thoroughbred racing is nearly always on full display.
Even his off-days are filled with action and excitement. On April 6, Ferrer and his agent, Steve Worsley, drove to Augusta, Ga., to attend the first round of the Masters golf tournament – with Ferrer returning the next day to ride two winners.
Ferrer’s enthusiasm flows from a cherished source: the love of his wife Steffi and their sons, 2½-year-old Derek and 15-month-old Joseph.
“Just to see the way my wife and two boys look at me when I’m on top of a horse is an amazing feeling,” he said.
His devotion to keeping himself as fit as riders half his age enables him to continue securing quality mounts. “I think I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I always say the horse is 85-to-90 percent of winning, but you have to be physically strong as a jockey and right now, I feel better than ever. I take care of myself better, I work out better, I get on horses in the morning and I take the right vitamins and eat the right foods, so I feel dynamite.”
Ferrer’s workout regimen includes strapping Derek and Joseph in a cart on the back of his bicycle and taking them to a park three miles from home on off-days.
“I want my boys to enjoy those moments at the racetrack for a few more years,” said Ferrer, who also has four grown daughters. “Their looks are what keep me coming back for more. Their reaction when they see me riding is priceless.”