It’s been a wild ride for Ignacio “Iggy” Puglisi. In more than 20-years as a jockey, he’s won hundreds of races, from some of the most well known tracks to the obscure. He’s shined on the big stage and has overcome enormous setbacks. One thing that has never changed is Puglisi’s intense love for the sport of racing.
If you follow him on Twitter, you already know he’s always approachable, engaging and supremely positive. In this intimate and revealing edition of Jockey Journals, Puglisi shares some of the experiences and people who have shaped his life, career and love for horse racing.
Whenever I’m at the track and see a new or old face I haven’t met before, I wonder to myself, how did they end up at the track? Did someone bring them as a child? Was their family already involved in racing? What is their story? Mine isn’t the typical jockey story that you might imagine.
Most people think I must have grown up on a farm surrounded by horses, but that was not the case. I was actually born in the small city of Rosario, in Argentina. I did not stay long. My parents brought my sister and I to the U.S. when I was still a toddler. I grew up in Temple City, just miles away from the great race place. My first memories of the track were when I was five or six. I remember going to the races with my parents on the weekends. I was immediately attracted to the entire sport. The horses, jockeys, silks and watching my parents excitement on the bets they put in. Fast forward a few years and not much had changed other than my love for the sport grew stronger and, more than anything, I wanted to become a jockey.
I remember seeing an advertisement in the Daily Racing Form for a jockey school. It was called the “World Jockey Association.” I could not believe it! It was exactly what I was looking for, seeing as I had no hands-on experience with horses. I kept seeing this ad for a few more years and called when I was finally old enough to be accepted. This school turned out to be a godsend. It is there that I really began to live my dream. I remember finishing the eighth grade and going directly there that same summer.
My riding instructors and I were extremely surprised at how quickly I took to riding, considering I had no previous experience. Perhaps it was from all the racing I had watched as a child. I was there for about a year before I was told I was ready to get a job riding horses. Unfortunately, I was still too young to work at the track so I lied about my age and got a galloping job on a farm in Hesperia, CA. During this time, I was still growing and didn’t know how much taller I would get. This haunted me. I was in desperation mode to become a jockey, even if for just one year before the inevitable happened and I became too big.
By the ripe age of sixteen, I had met Ray Crabagna, a jocks agent at Santa Anita. I explained my story to him and the rush I was in. He was good enough to lend a helping hand. He sent me to his hometown of Spokane, WA. This is where it all began – my first mount, my first win and my first time being in the real world as a jockey.
When I saw my name on the overnight it was surreal. It was a five eighths of a mile track and I remember it feeling so compact compared to the activity of just working horses in the morning. I ran fourth in my first mount. I thought it was the greatest experience of my life. It took me thirteen rides before I won my first race on a horse named Jimmy Ward. I had waited my whole life for this and it was nothing short of exceptional. I was immediately addicted and because of my hard work I quickly made a name for myself.
I began riding several horses every race card. From there, another agent, originally from Phoenix, AZ, approached me. He told me that I had some skills and asked me to take a shot with him by heading down to Turf Paradise. I promptly agreed. Things moved at a rapid pace from there.
I had won quite a few races at Turf Paradise and was once again hustled by a big time agent. His name was Wayne “the brain” McDonald. He was from Golden Gate Fields. He had Ron Hanson, one of the leading riders there. I learned quite a bit from both of those gentlemen about the politics of the game. I took in as much as I could from these true veterans of the sport. Wayne suggested that I go to Canada while the northern California fairs were running. He thought I could polish up my skills there and return when the Bay Meadows meet started. I took his advice and headed to Northlands Park in Alberta. I ended up falling in love with the place.
I was set up with a big barn and began winning right away. After about a month of being there, I picked up a mount in what is considered their biggest race – The Canadian Derby. Lo and behold, I won it as an apprentice. This is very rare since you can not claim the apprentice weight allowance in stakes races. I thought to myself, this is it, I’ve made it! I’m riding in the big leagues! Little did I know what my future held. Around that time, Wayne called and wanted me back at Bay Meadows. My response? “No way, I’m not leaving this place! I’m doing too good.” In hindsight, it might have been a mistake to not go back to California. But at seventeen years of age, I thought I was on top of the world.
Like most of the stories you hear about athletes, there were a lot of ups and downs in the years that followed. I was torn between being at home with my family, and now wife, or continuing to further my career elsewhere. As much as I loved horse racing, something was missing and I wanted to return home. I decided to go home for the winter when the tracks in Canada closed due to weather conditions. I started galloping and working horses in my hometown track of Santa Anita. I didn’t think much of it. All I knew is that I was home and I was happy, even if it was just morning activities for a while. This is when the story turns a little.
I met a guy at the track who introduced me to Paul Aguirre. To my surprise Paul knew my story. He knew I was a regular rider in Canada and that I was just wintering here until spring. He tells me “why don’t you work some horses for me and maybe I can ride you on something.” I jumped at the opportunity and said I would love to do that. Luck was on our side. We started off strong and winning on what seemed to be everything he put me on. I thought, Yes, I’m finally at the place I’ve dreamt of riding at all my life!
I was racing at the top. Top horses, trainers and, of course, top jockeys. I was riding with my childhood idols. I remember one of my first mounts here. I was loaded into the gate, looked to both sides of me and see Laffit Pincay to my right and Chris McCarron to my left. It was another surreal moment for me. A dream come true! I had watched and studied replays on VHS of these guys my whole life. After taking it all in, I got over being star struck and was considered just one of the guys in the jocks room. We played practical jokes, shared stories, played cards, ping pong or whatever kept us amused until the next race.
Racing meets seemed to come and go so quickly riding at the California Circuit. Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and, of course, the Pomona Fair that I love so much. Why? It’s a five eighths of a mile track, just like the one I learned to ride on. The highs and lows continued. The highs were winning The Fantasy at Oaklawn Park, The Long Acres Mile in Washington and, my biggest win to date, the Delaware Oaks for a cool $500,000 purse.
The lows came when I started slacking at work and, as a result, stayed in the same patterns while other jockeys flourished. Other lows were sustaining injuries, as all jockeys do. I had back surgery, knee surgery and many broken bones. I began to question myself. How much did I still want this? Like most strong jockeys you didn’t think about it for too long. One month out of action and I couldn’t stand myself. I felt like a fish out of water. I must ride again!
By the time I was ready to come back from my spill, I had lost some of my business. I got offers to ride at other places but it wasn’t as easy to leave this time around. I had gotten a glimpse of what it was like to ride here and was blessed to be able to share it with the people I love. I realized the most important thing was to be happy. Despite the obstacles that I had to overcome, I decided to stay in southern California. The fact is champions are made here. The horsemanship and racing quality are impeccable. I am determined to ride out my racing days at this circuit. There’s no other place I can imagine riding.
I am now 39 and I feel rejuvenated. As a rider, I feel stronger, smarter and healthier than ever before. As a human being, I have purpose and I’m excited to prove that I do belong here. My journey has been amazing but I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all that I did if it wasn’t for the person who has lead me through this big maze of life. That is my better half. The one who was there to support me when things got tough and constantly told me I could do and accomplish anything. That is true love and happiness. And that is who I dedicate this short story of my life to – my wife, Michelle.
The Jockey Journal solely reflects the words and thoughts of Iggy Puglisi. We thank him for taking the time to write this piece for DanonymousRacing.com and wish him continued success. You can follow Puglisi on Twitter @IggyPuglisi.