By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports
Ten days ago, jockey Emanuel Nieves was feeling good.
He had earned more than $1 million this year and was the third-leading rider at Louisiana Downs.
Then came 2:43 p.m. and the third race, on a scorching hot July Saturday. Eight fillies and mares were getting ready to run about seven and one-half furlongs on the turf.
The starting gate opened, and Nieves soon settled his mount, Sneek Peek, into third place. That’s where they ran for much of the race, staying within striking distance of the two pacesetters.
As the field turned for home, Nieves swung his No. 7 horse to the outside, and moved into second. By mid-stretch, the 6-1 betting choice was in full stride, and gaining on the tiring favorite, Empty Net.
“Everything was perfect,” Nieves remembered.
Until it wasn’t.
“She just broke the leg, and you don’t have time for anything at that point.”
Horse and jockey crumbled in the path of six other horses, and immediately in front of veteran jockey Calvin Borel and his mount, The Missing Piece.
“I got lucky,” Nieves said. “She went over the top of me, and I did not get run over by nobody. Thank God.”
Nieves spent the next two nights in the hospital. After a battery of tests, his most severe injury was a broken right arm.
As bad as this accident was, Nieves says it wasn’t as bad as when he went down three years ago. That was early in the 2019 meet, when Nieves was sitting tall in the saddle.
The Puerto Rico-born jockey was coming off his first riding title, to go along with a career-high $1.8 million dollars in earnings.
But just one week into the meet, he suffered a career-worst injury.
“When we broke from the gate, someone came down on me and dropped me,” Nieves said. “I broke my shoulder, and also hurt my hand and knee. I was home for six months. I had been riding for 10 years and thank God, I had never had to have surgery. But that’s what happened that day.”
Just like that, Nieves was outside the rail. All he could do was look. And even that was difficult.
“I didn’t want to watch the races, because I wanted to be there,” he said. “I saw a lot of horses that I had ridden that were winning races. I just had to wait.”
Nieves’ patience was rewarded. Last year, after a sub-par 2020, he had his second-best year financially, earning more than $1.6 million.
“I work hard,” the 29-year-old said. “Everybody knows I work hard every day. It doesn’t matter if I win one race or 20 races, I’m (at the track) every day. My agent always tells me to be good with everybody and be out there every day. “
Nieves’ work-ethic was born when he was young. He’s learned the craft which has provided a comfortable living for him, his wife, their two-year-old son, and a soon-to-be-born daughter.
“My daddy and me, we always had horses. They raced in Puerto Rico. I always loved horses. Him and my mom always told me to go to the jockey school. I knew the leading rider over there for many years, and he’s the one that brought me to the school.”
After two years of learning, Nieves was on his own. He began riding in the United States in 2012, at Finger Lakes in Farmington, New York. But it wasn’t long until he got the call to come south. Nieves has been riding at Louisiana tracks ever since.
“I’ve been to every track in Louisiana, and I always do good. My first time in New Orleans (Fair Grounds) was last winter. I won 30 races, so I enjoyed that.”
One of the trainers Nieves rides for is Joey Foster, who knows a thing or two about success. Six times since 2013, Foster has been ranked among the Top 100 trainers in the country.
“He puts himself in the right places, not the wrong places,” Foster said of Nieves’ riding style. “When the gates open, it’s dangerous out there. He puts his horse and himself in a good position and doesn’t get in a lot of trouble. It’s just a couple of minutes long, and a lot of (things) can go sideways real fast. He’s a smart rider because he takes care of your horse and puts himself in a good position where he can get all the run that’s possible out of the horse.”
Foster believes another reason for Nieves’ success is that Nieves continues to learn from his agent, Ronald Ardoin, who retired with 5,226 wins and is among a group of elite jockeys in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
“When Emanuel messes up, Ronald will damn sure scold him. And so will I,” Foster said. “But we’re all human. We all make mistakes sometimes. But there aren’t many with Emanuel. There aren’t a lot of excuses when he comes back (from a race). He’s honest. He will not lie to you. He is a hard worker.”
Nieves makes his home in Opelousas, where he is recovering from his most recent spill. Nieves expects to miss the rest of the Downs’ meet, but looks forward to getting back on the track.
“I love competition,” Nieves said. “I always want to be the leading rider. Some people say they don’t want to be this, they don’t want to be that. But when you are the leading rider one time, you always want to be there. That’s the best thing that can happen in your life is to be the leading rider.”
Until that 2019 accident, and his latest spill, Nieves may have taken his sport, and his career, for granted. Not anymore. He now appreciates each bugle call, each mount, and each turn into the stretch.
“Every race I pass the wire (finish line), I say ‘Thank God’ for letting me pass the wire. Thank God we are safe, because racing is pretty dangerous.”
Louisiana Downs races Saturday-Tuesday. Weekend post time is 1:45. Weekday post time is 3:05.
Contact Tony at SBJTonyT@gmail.com