- Associated Press - Saturday, March 22, 2014

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) - As Noberto Arroyo Jr. started to walk away, he briefly turned to watch his family leave following their bi-weekly visit.

Arroyo, once a million-dollar jockey then in the middle of a 2 ½-year jail sentence for cocaine possession, was on the way back to his cell. His partner of nine years, Brenda, and their four children were headed to the shelter they lived in for four months after losing their home because of Arroyo’s troubles.

It’s a moment seared into Arroyo’s memory.

“I screwed up and lost everything,” he said. “I lost everything.”

Arroyo has come a long way since that day in 2010, the day he credits for turning his life around. The jockey, who has morphed from promising up-and-comer to rider on the rebound, appears by all accounts to have learned how to walk the straight and narrow.

It’s been a long time coming for the Puerto Rico native who moved to Boston as a pre-teen before settling down in New York and later beginning his riding career in the state - a career that’s seen his mounts earn more than $41 million.

The 35-year-old, who was released from a New York prison in 2011 after serving 14 months of his sentence, is among the leading riders so far this year at Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park. With 28 wins already, Arroyo has ridden his way to nearly $1 million in winnings.

He’s driven to make amends for his past - both to himself and those he loves.

“I know how hungry I am, what I put my family through, the mistakes I made,” Arroyo said. “I know I’m going to be as dedicated as ever.”

Arroyo’s early career was filled with equal parts success on the track and incidents of violent behavior away from it - eventually leading to a 39-day jail sentence for second-degree assault in 2003.

Arroyo said he saw a series of horrors as a child in Puerto Rico, including murders and drug use that “was a normal part of life.” Arroyo credited his strict parents for keeping him out of trouble and his career flourished at Aqueduct - where he was the leading rider in New York in 2000 with 188 wins.

That only lasted for so long.

He was arrested in late 2009 following a traffic stop near New York’s Saratoga Race Course, where Arroyo had been riding during its six-week season.

Police said they found about 12 grams of cocaine stuffed in a sock, and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board suspended Arroyo’s license after the arrest - with him eventually pleading guilty to a drug-possession charge.

These days, Arroyo readily acknowledges past faults and says getting caught was the best thing that ever happened to him. It wasn’t the alcohol or cocaine, he said, that was his addiction as much as it was the women.

“I was a party freak,” Arroyo said. “I started using drugs because of women and got into the habit of using coke while having sex with women. … It was my downfall, and I’m not going through that again.”

He was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison, though the time was reduced to 14 months because of good behavior and a 180-day stretch in a military-style boot camp.

His struggles continued once he was released from prison on March 10, 2011, with no ability to earn a living as a jockey because his license remained suspended.

Arroyo applied to a host of minimum-wage jobs. His final application was at a shoe store near his parole office in Hempstead, N.Y.

Meeting the store’s owners, Richard Leggio and David Tanzman, was a turning point.

Tanzman was a racing fan and was quickly drawn to the possibility of hiring Arroyo.

“In basketball terms, this would have been like having Michael Jordan work here,” Leggio said.

Though Leggio was desperately seeking a Spanish-speaking employee, he was unsure about hiring Arroyo. Leggio did his research and was aware of Arroyo’s past, and he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of losing Arroyo to the horse racing world at any moment.

Through his persistence and outgoing personality, Arroyo eventually swayed his future boss.

Arroyo spent a year at the shoe store, during which time a return to his riding career became a mission for Leggio and Tanzman along with the former jockey. The owners did everything they could to help shorten his parole, even going so far as to help Arroyo financially with loans after he received an exercise-rider license in Kentucky in early 2012.

“We pushed and pushed and pushed, just doing whatever we could to help him,” said Leggio, who still talks with Arroyo. “He became my friend. He was young, making a $1 million a year and found trouble. … It happens to a lot of young people, but he went through that stage and got out.”

After six months with his exercise license, Arroyo returned to racing in 2012 at Turfway Park. His license was a conditional one, filled with drug-testing and substance-abuse meeting requirements, and he was limited to racing in Kentucky for a year.

Arroyo earned leading rider titles during a pair of meets at Turfway, and he won his 1,000th career race in December 2012 aboard Mac the Man.

It was while in Kentucky that Arroyo caught the eye of trainer Cody Autrey, who was seeking a quality rider for his 33-horse stable at Oaklawn.

After spending all of 2013 in Kentucky, Arroyo agreed to ride at Oaklawn after Autrey promised him “the bulk” of his horses.

Arroyo won four races on the track’s opening day.

“A lot of these guys, they’ve got the God-given talent,” Autrey said. “As long as they have their mind on business, it comes back to them so quick. All they need to do is get on some live horses.”

Arroyo’s experience at Oaklawn hasn’t been without its share of mishaps. Always known as an aggressive rider, Arroyo is appealing a trio of three-day riding suspensions for careless riding. But he’s stayed away from trouble off the track.

“He’s focused, he knows what he’s looking for and as far as he’s concerned every time he leaves the paddock, he’s coming home first,” Oaklawn Racing Secretary Pat Pope said. “As a trainer-owner, how could you not like that?”

Much of Arroyo’s down time is spent at his weekly substance-abuse recovery meetings, as well as quietly doing what he can to prove he won’t fall back into old habits. He visited a local orphanage last month, delivering groceries and toys - and later invited the children to the track for a day out.

The rider, who rode Song of the Sword to an 11th-place finish in the 2004 Kentucky Derby, has no doubt where his once-derailed career is headed now.

“I know I’m going to win the Kentucky Derby, I know I’m going to win the Triple Crown,” Arroyo said. “I feel and I know it, and I believe. I have faith in it. I know I will. My life has been up and down, but at the end of everything, I know it’s going to be up.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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