Hawthorne Racecourse (3/14/12)
Contact: Ron Uchman
FINDING HIS BEST STRIDE
Milestones are important. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and goals attained. We lavish praise and gifts, at least a pat on the back or a hearty handshake, on those who reach and exceed expectations.
We missed one.
While we weren’t watching, Julio Felix scored the 2,500th win of his career. The fact that he did it at Turfway in Kentucky while we were “dark” in Illinois isn’t an excuse. This isn’t the Dark Ages. The internet does exist.
“I just went to Turfway for a few weeks to stay in shape while we were dark here,” said Felix. “I think I needed nine or 10 winners to reach 2,500. Before I knew it, I was only two or three away. It happened so fast. But, at least I did it on a horse from here. I rode J Pa for Brad Rainwater.
“It felt good to do it with a horse from Chicago. This is home. This is my fourth year here. I would have rather done it here but you have to win when you can.
“Last year I won about 130 races (in the top 100 in North America) between Hawthorne and Arlington. I finished third in the standings at Arlington and won stakes at Arlington and here. It feels good to do well here because there are very good riders here. Those here are very tough. They can go anywhere in the world to ride and win.
“My career really started in 1992. I had the `bug' in 1990 at Calder and rode there for a couple years but didn’t really get going until I went to Cleveland. I’ve won 105 stakes race in my life, 78 of them on the Ohio circuit, but I’ve also won in Illinois, Kentucky, and other places.”
Among Felix's stakes scores is one graded event, the 1994 Sabin Handicap (G3) at Gulfstream Park with Hunzinga. He holds six meet titles from Thistledown beginning in 1992 and twice, in 1992 and 1994, was the track's leading rider for the full year.
Felix was born in New York but the family is originally from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and returned there when Felix was very young.
Although Felix had never been around horses, his best friend was a jockey and talked him into learning to ride. “He was a good rider but he got too tall, almost as tall as him (pointing to the gigantic Jim Miller) and encouraged me to learn to ride. I was about 15 years old.
“I was always good at sports. I wanted to play basketball but I never grew. I wanted to play baseball but I never grew. So, I kept following my buddy to the track. One day he fell and broke his leg, he was just too big, and he pointed at me and said: `You. You should be a jockey.'
"I loved it from the beginning. The first horse I got on started walking and I fell on my head. But I got back up and got back on.
“Before school, at about 4:00 am, I would ride my bike to the racetrack, get on five or six horses, and then ride my bike to school. After school, I would ride back to the track. My best friend, the former jockey, was now a trainer and was teaching me some things but I had to learn a lot on my own.”
Felix rode a few races in the V I (Randall James Racetrack) over the course of a year and then went back to high school to earn his diploma. He moved to Miami in 1989 and got his first win in the United States at Calder Race Course that year.
“I used to go home every winter and trainers would bring me kids that wanted to learn to ride. I believe in giving back so I would always do my best to help them.
“I’m the first one from the Virgin Islands to win so many races. They treat me well when I go home. I’ve taught a lot of good riders from there including my cousin Victor Lebron, one of Turfway’s top riders. Kevin Krigger, currently at Santa Anita, is another that I taught to ride. Stanley Ecoy, guy who taught me to ride, brought Krigger to me. Kevin won the first race he ever rode.
“I always ride hard. I don’t go out there without expecting to win. That’s my motto. I give them the best shot that I can. You never really know how they are going to run. I’ve won with horses that paid over $200, when nobody but me expected them to win. If you don’t try, you never win.”