Had he followed the paths of Angel Cordero Jr., or John Velazquez, two jockeys who ventured outside of Puerto Rico to seek fame and fortune in the United States, Juan Carlos Diaz might have won a Kentucky Derby or two by now.
Those who saw Diaz dominate at Hipodromo Camarero marveled at his natural talent, and Diaz won more races in Puerto Rico than any jockey ever, more than 4,500 at last count.
He was encouraged more than once to ride in the U.S., where the money is greater than it is in Puerto Rico. He could have become the next Cordero, the next Velazquez, they told him.
“He had the talent to come here,” said jockey Edgard Zayas, who grew up watching Diaz in Puerto Rico and now rides in South Florida. “He was one of my favorite riders.”
But, aside from a brief attempt at riding in New York in 2007 and another short stay riding at Calder Race Course in the summer of 1998, always Diaz balked. Diaz was content to flourish in Puerto Rico forever. Puerto Rico was home.
“I had my family there,” said Diaz, a 40-year-old married father of two children. “I was the leading rider. I earned good money. I liked the weather. I lived well there.”
But then came Hurricane Maria, turning Diaz’s life upside down.
The storm left him with no water, no power and no livelihood. It left Hipodromo Camarero — Puerto Rico’s only race track — in ruins. Not only was the track badly damaged, but also threatened the welfare of the horses stabled there.
Some didn’t survive. Others were flown to the safety of the U.S.
“The glass in the grandstand was broken and roofs over the stalls were gone,” Diaz said of the track where he was king. “The hurricane destroyed a big part of the island and also the race course.”
When Maria shook the walls of his apartment, he was scared, and jockeys don’t scare easily. They are 115-pound men and women who put fear aside to ride unpredictable half-ton animals, the only sport in which an ambulance is always lurking in the rear-view mirror.
“We felt the force of the hurricane,” he said. “It was scary.”
But Diaz and his family survived unharmed. What he found impossible to avoid was the loss of income. With the track inoperable, there was no racing. And no racing meant no paycheck.
And so Diaz did what he had refused to do for so many years. He gathered his family, packed their suitcases, and flew to Miami to begin riding. His first day was Friday when he rode Cindy’s Candy to a fourth-place finish at Gulfstream Park West, the track formerly known as Calder.
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On Dec. 9, he’ll ride Justiciero in the Caribbean Classic at Gulfstream. Justiciero won Puerto Rico’s Triple Crown.
Beyond that, Diaz doesn’t know what he’ll do.
He could continue riding in South Florida. He could go to New York to ride there. He could return to Puerto Rico if Hipodromo Camarero re-opens.
For now, though, he’ll live out of a suitcase in a nearby apartment he rented.
“It’s going to take time to get the track up and running again,” Diaz said of his home track in Puerto Rico. “Meanwhile, I’m going to try here.”