LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The outline of a horseshoe is imprinted on the chest of German Vasquez, courtesy of a near-fatal spill he took 28 years ago. The horseshoe glows red when he gets angry.
Vasquez can’t feel several fingers on his right hand. His right shoulder aches. There are, in fact, few areas of his body that have not been stepped on, torn or otherwise mangled. He has suffered every ailment a jockey can at the track and a few away from it, too: Vasquez recently was treated for bladder cancer.
But Vasquez’s medical history isn’t what makes him a rarity. It’s this: He celebrated his 60th birthday this month at Churchill Downs. He’s the third-oldest rider in North America behind Robert Jones (62) and Terrence McGee (61), and he recently returned from an 11-year layoff following a brutal training accident.
The aches and pains aren’t too troublesome, even at his age. Rolling out of bed at 5 a.m. takes a moment, but the chance to ride each day is worth the bum shoulder, numb fingers and knees that would rather not be tested. The physical problems run a distant second to the spirit of trying to stay young, of proving he’s not too old to compete.
“As long as I can ride horses, I’m going to give it a try,” Vasquez said. “I feel like I have something left. I feel strong, fit, [but] I still don’t feel 100 percent fit like those who ride every day. If I ride a few times a week, that’s fine with me. I don’t need to make a living out of it, but it lifts my spirits.”
Several times, Vasquez wasn’t supposed to return. He was caught under a fallen horse in 1972, an accident that left him so embedded in the track that workers had to dig him out of the sandy racing strip.
He suffered a broken back and a ruptured spleen in a 1977 spill. A colt named Heaven “nearly sent me to heaven” in 1994 in a fall in a morning workout, tearing the ligaments from Vasquez’s shoulder so badly that his arm was left dangling at his side.
Perhaps he should have taken a house fire that torched his saddle in 1987 as the final sign he should retire. Yet Vasquez still is riding under the famed Twin Spires aboard long shots, rebuilding a journeyman’s career that flourished in the 1970s.
Vasquez thinks he must have a few more stretch runs in his lean 114-pound frame. It doesn’t seem much to ask.
“Being 60 years old doesn’t make a difference,” trainer Angel Hyman said. “You’ve got guys playing baseball and football a long time. As long as you’re doing your job, why not?”
The accidental jockey
Vasquez dreamed of becoming a chemist, but an uncle at the racetrack saw potential in a 17-year-old who rode bareback as his everyday means of transportation.
Vasquez had 119 victories over four years before leaving Panama in 1967 for Miami, where his uncle mentored him. Jacinto Vasquez had arrived from Puerto Rico seven years earlier and later rode Genuine Risk and Forego and posted two victories over Secretariat en route to a Hall of Fame career.
However, he refused to speak Spanish even at home, an effort to force German to learn English and expand his career possibilities beyond the small South Florida racing circuit.
After six months of reading newspapers and watching Pat Boone, Joey Bishop and Steve Allen on TV, German was fluent enough to move to the Mid-Atlantic and Chicago circuits, where he competed for eight years.
Vasquez rode stakes winner Naughty Jake, was aboard for My Gallant’s maiden victory in 1972 and rode stakes-winners King’s Bishop and Flying Brick. But accidents often derailed his momentum. He needed a year to recover from a 1977 spill at Thistledown in Cleveland.
“German could ride. He just had some bad luck,” Jacinto Vasquez said. “He has good hands.”
Vasquez switched to the Kentucky circuit in 1984 to be nearer his wife’s family. Finding mounts at a new track proved tougher, and Vasquez eventually settled for steadier paychecks for exercising horses. Morning workouts are no safer, and the 1994 fall was supposed to be career-ending. The shoulder required three surgeries and received a 100 percent disability rating from doctors. Supposedly, his career was over.
“Doctors said I would never ride another horse again,” Vasquez said. “I said, ‘That’s not going to happen to me.’ ”
Finally, a trainer asked Vasquez to exercise a temperamental colt in 2001.
“It was all I needed,” he said. “I put my helmet on and got the feeling again.”
Vasquez rode only a horse or two each day over the first few months, but his stamina finally returned. Cancer delayed his return to the races for two years, though.
He finally asked for his jockey’s license in May. It came back badge No. 666 — “El Diablo,” the racing official said. The starting gate crew started a betting pool trying to pick Vasquez’s age upon his May 27 return. They all guessed low.
Friends and old racegoers threw some money on Vasquez’s unlikely long shot that finished a fitting seventh. A handful of subsequent long shots have followed without success. Still, Vasquez remains confident he can win again.
Incomplete racing records list Vasquez with 229 victories, though 12 years are missing.
Lona Vasquez recently claimed a promising filly, Gold Run Type. Maybe she will let her husband ride it one day. She trained horses for 17 years while her husband rode, an experience that taught her not to mix business with pleasure.
“Oh, he may ride it soon,” Lona said jokingly.
German bumped a fellow rider for a chance to dance with the radiant blonde at a 1972 party. They married less than one year later and remain inseparable.
The business is in her blood: Lona’s stepfather is a jockey’s valet and once was a trainer, and her brother is a trainer. Lona knew racing meant a life on the road and took temp jobs to carry the financial load whenever German was injured.
Now he’s traveling to Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., trying to get Gold Run Type and German Vasquez into the winner’s circle.
After five decades on the track, finishing first still means something — just not as much as simply competing.
“I don’t look back,” Vasquez said. “I look ahead.”