Apprentice jockey DIego Herrera has found success with both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses in Southern California
Several months ago, agent Derek Lawson told his new apprentice jockey he’d had a great idea for a double: the All-American Futurity and the Kentucky Derby, the premier races for Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, respectively.
“At that time it was just blowing smoke, but now it doesn’t seem as far-fetched,” Lawson said.
Diego Herrera, just 17 years old, was originally booked to ride 13 horses on Sunday, Jan. 2. He began the afternoon with the first turf win of his career at Santa Anita Park, taking a starter allowance race aboard Phil D’Amato trainee Solo Animo.
He ended the evening by picking up a 14th mount just 30 minutes prior to the Grade 1 Charger Bar Handicap at Los Alamitos. The apprentice easily guided Juan Aleman trainee Kiss Thru Fire to a half-length victory, earning the first graded stakes win of his career.
“It was pretty cool,” Herrera acknowledged.
Though his official riding career began in 2021, Herrera has been involved in match racing since he was as young as 11. Prior to that, he and his pony “Sparky” would dream up match races on the beach near the family home in Inglewood, Calif.
“I’d pretend that somebody else was running against me, I’d run him about 10 yards, then stop him and turn him back and do it again,” Herrera remembered. “He was the sweetest pony ever, just let me do whatever with him, and he was pretty fast, too!”
That’s not to say that Sparky didn’t enter his fair share of match races, too, some right along the river bed where Herrera had learned to ride.
“Match racing is a part of the Mexican culture,” Herrera explained. “ Wherever we can race a horse against a horse, we do it!”
If he wasn’t riding Sparky, a young Herrera was practicing his form atop a bale of hay, or following his father around on jobs with his landscaping business with the hope that they’d be able to stop at the racetrack on their way home.
“I never wanted to be home,” he said. “When I was four years old, I’d hear my dad wake up and go to put on my little boots and want to go to work with him.”
Herrera’s father, from Agua Caliente in Mexico, worked cattle aboard horses on his family farm, and since moving to the U.S. has owned racing Quarter Horses for years. When his son was old enough, the family traveled as far away as Washington and Colorado so that he could ride in the match races.
Since school was important to Herrera’s mother, he committed to finishing his high school diploma at the charter school of Lennox Academy. The arrival of the pandemic in early 2020 made it a bit easier for Herrera to get a job on the racetrack in the mornings, then head home to complete his online studies.
“My parents both busted their bum to give me a better life,” said Herrera. “I knew I needed to respect that.”
Continuing his education even while working at the track and riding as many as two tracks in one day, Herrera earned his diploma last month.
Meanwhile, his racetrack education had continued at Los Alamitos under the tutelage of the Andrade family, first as a hotwalker and a groom, and eventually as an exercise rider. Oscar Andrade Sr. was once a rising superstar in the Quarter Horse jockey ranks, setting a record that still stands when he rode seven winners during a single night at Los Alamitos on June 5, 2001.
Sadly, tragedy struck just months later when Andrade Sr. was paralyzed from the chest down in a racing accident. His wife, Elena, began training in 2004, and they’ve remained major players in the Quarter Horse industry in Southern California.
“I owe a lot to them,” Herrera said. “They taught me that you never stop learning in this business, and that every horse is different every single day. They taught me the discipline, and that you have to be open to learn new things and never stop learning.”
April Ward, longtime assistant to Hall of Fame (Thoroughbred) trainer Bob Wheeler, has been with Herrera from the beginning of his professional career and books all his Quarter Horse mounts. However, Los Alamitos racing director Scott Craigmyle suggested the young jockey try Thoroughbreds, as well, and introduced Herrera to agent Vince DeGregory, a legend in his own right. The pair began making the rounds at Santa Anita Park.
“I just fell in love with the place,” Herrera said.
DeGregory helped Herrera get his first mount on Thoroughbreds, and though Herrera is now represented by Lawson, he’ll never forget the influence of the older horseman. DeGregory’s resume includes jockeys like Angel Cordero Jr., Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr., Bill Shoemaker, Alex Solis, Jacinto Vasquez and Jorge Velasquez, in addition to Victor Espinoza, Darrel McHargue and Joel Rosario.
“He told me never to put myself below these other riders,” said Herrera. “We all go out and do the same thing, and we’re all in the same game, so I should always be confident in myself.”
Herrera quickly learned how much he enjoyed the strategy that is such a crucial part of the Thoroughbred game.
“In Quarter Horse races you get a clean break and you go on with it,” he explained. “The Thoroughbreds are so different, with different strategies and techniques, so I think that’s one of the big reasons I like it so much. I get the same adrenaline rush going 300 yards as I do turning into the stretch in the longer races.”
In 2021, Herrera rode 44 Thoroughbred winners from 376 starters, as well as 25 Quarter Horse winners from 198 mounts, according to Equibase. He plans to keep up with both breeds for the time being, letting Ward work out the scheduling with Lawson.
“Most people are surprised when I tell them he’s only 17 years old,” Lawson said. “His work ethic is impeccable, and the fact that he pays attention to what he’s told when working the horses in the morning and in the afternoon is impressive. It’s refreshing to see that kind of development in somebody so young.”
“I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, become a better and smarter rider, then hopefully after the bug is gone (in April) I can stay at Santa Anita and continue to be successful,” said Herrera. “I have to be on my A-game, and make sure my mentality is right every time I walk out of the jock’s room. I may ride a lot of longshots, but I try to be very confident in my horse and in everyone behind the scenes.”
Gentry Farms’ Kiss Thru Fire wins the Charger Bar Handicap and is the first repeat winner in this race since champion Quirky in 2015-16. Jockey Diego Herrera also wins his first G1 stakes. Juan Aleman trains the multiple G1 stakes winner Kiss Thru Fire. pic.twitter.com/auhZk19X4M
— Los Alamitos Race Course (@losalracing) January 3, 2022
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