It’s hardly unusual for an apprentice jockey to enjoy great success.
Yet what 19-year-old Evin Roman has done in the last few months falls into a much more unique category.
On July 4 when Santa Anita Park’s spring-summer meet came to an end, the jockey standings showed a tie at the top between Flavien Prat and Roman, which produced a storyline last mentioned nearly 70 years ago.
After registering 41 victories, the total Prat matched with two wins on the July 4 closing-day card, Roman became the first apprentice to win a riding crown at The Great Race Place since 1949.
That feat alone was quite impressive, yet it becomes even more remarkable with an understanding that Roman did not ride in his first race until Jan. 1 in his native Puerto Rico and did not debut in the United States until Feb. 9 at Santa Anita.
And now, about six months into his riding career, he owns a title at one of the nation’s premier racetracks.
Talk about an auspicious start to a career.
“It’s a great achievement. It’s amazing,” said Roman’s agent Tony Matos. “It’s one thing to win a title near the end of your apprenticeship when you are established. But he’s been riding for six months. This is like a golfer winning the Masters in his first year of playing golf or someone winning Wimbledon a year after picking up a racquet. It’s a great achievement. It’s amazing. It’s hard to believe he can be this good this fast.”
Considering how Matos has worked as the agent for a list of riders that includes Hall of Famers Angel Cordero Jr., Laffit Pincay Jr. and Victor Espinoza, his words cannot be taken lightly. Roman surely has miles and years to go before anyone can compare him with a Hall of Famer, yet he certainly has started his career in a manner rarely seen at a major circuit.
“When he first arrived earlier this year, he was talented but very green and he probably had a little too much thrown at him right away. His development over the past three months has been phenomenal,” said Mike Willman, Santa Anita’s director of publicity. “Horses obviously run for him, but he’s not in a hurry and just as importantly, especially for an apprentice, he’s not often in trouble. Full credit to Tony. He’s done an absolutely tremendous job in bringing him along. He appears to be a very level-headed kid and he handles himself very professionally. No question, he’s got a great future in front of him.”
Roman, who now rides with a five-pound weight allowance, clearly has been a quick learner in a relatively short period of time. In particular, Matos said Roman was helped by three suspensions he racked up shortly after arriving at Santa Anita. The young rider learned from his mistakes and sought advice from veteran riders to improve his techniques.
“When he first got here he needed some pointers. He had three suspensions,” Matos said. “He worked hard on his riding and got a lot of good advice from great riders. Mike Smith, Gary Stevens and others were very helpful to him and played a key role in his development. He’s turned out to be an outstanding rider, even in the big races without a bug (weight allowance) which is very, very good. I believe he’s getting better every day.”
Matos was also quick to praise the Escuela Vocacional Hípica, a school for jockeys in Puerto Rico which has produced a string of successful riders, including the Ortiz brothers, Jose and Irad Jr., Manny Franco and Luis Ocasio, the Eclipse Award winner as the top apprentice rider of 2016.
“First of all, credit goes to the riding school in Puerto Rico,” Matos said. “They have turned out so many amazing riders. In two years they learn all the techniques from the bottom up.”
In assessing what has made Roman so successful so quickly, Matos pointed to the young rider’s knack for getting a horse out of the gate smoothly.
“The main thing about him is how he comes of out the gate. He’s gifted. Every time he gets out of the gate well with his horses,” Matos said. “He’s also good on turf.”
In the course of winning those 41 races, Roman became a popular choice for Santa Anita’s top trainers. Among many others, he’s ridden for Bob Baffert and Peter Miller. On June 25, riding without his five-pound weight allowance, he notched his first stakes win, guiding West Point Thoroughbreds’ Street Surrender to victory in the $75,000 Southern Truce Stakes for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
Now with Del Mar opening on July 19, Roman’s talents will be put to an even bigger test at the famed racetrack where the turf meets the surf. Yet Matos is confident Roman can enjoy another stellar meet.
“I have my Del Mar condition book and I’m booked in about 90% of the races,” Matos said. “I’ve worked for a lot of top riders, four Hall of Famers, and I’ve never seen the kind of business that I’m getting with him. We can pick between four or five horses in a race. Unless something unforeseen happens, he should have an outstanding meet at Del Mar.”
And if Roman can continue to rack up wins at Del Mar, it will only strengthen Matos’ belief that he has a special talent on his hands.
“I’ve been blessed to work with Cordero, Pincay, Espinoza, Kent Desormeaux, Corey Nakatani, even Gary Stevens and so far everything looks good for Evin,” Matos said. “All the signs are very positive. If he keeps improving, it’s hard to say how good he can become.”