Race to the Finish

J.D. Acosta, a jockey at Charles Town Races, hails from Puerto Rico. After being discovered at a gas station for his jockey physique, Acosta went to school, moved to West Virginia and is now one of the best jockeys in the nation.

By Candace Nelson and Matt Murphy | 05/09/2012

Working at a local 7/11 in Puerto Rico during his youth, J.D. Acosta never imagined he’d one day work his way up to become one of the best jockeys in the United States.

He is currently ranked 151st all time in terms of earnings, coming in at $40,267,846 according to Equibase.com. He’s in 41st place so far in 2012 for earnings, at $1,210,005.

Those earnings are a far cry from his humble beginnings in a family of two in Puerto Rico.

“I was happy in Puerto Rico. I thought I was making good money. I didn’t care to change it,” Acosta said. “I never rode a horse before I became a jockey. I maybe saw a horse only a couple times.”

A teacher at a local jockey school noticed Acosta’s physique at the gas station, and after many talks about the school and sport, he convinced Acosta to check out the jockey school, El Comandante.

Acosta was unconvinced that horse racing was for him until he showed up one day in the parking lot outside the Camarero Racetrack in Puerto Rico.

“As soon as we pulled up in the parking lot, that really opened my mind about horse racing. Because for me, I never had a car. And then I saw all those little people with their Lexuses, Mercedes Benz, Jags – nice cars,” he said laughing. “I was like, ‘I want to become a jockey.’”

Acosta attended the jockey school for two years. When the jockeys finish learning their trade, agents seek out the best jockeys to sign contracts. Acosta completed his schooling in December 2001, acquired his agent, and began racing in Puerto Rico in January 2002. Within three months, Acosta had won 28 races in Puerto Rico.

Acosta and his agent decided to come to the U.S. on April 9, 2002 to try their hand at some of the bigger racetracks – Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and ultimately, Charles Town Races.

Ten years later, Charles Town is where Acosta calls home.

“My first four horses I rode here, I won, so I thought this was a really good place to work, so I stayed here,” he said. “I go between the track here and in Maryland every day.”

Larry Dupuy, a state steward at Charles Town Races, said Acosta is one of the best at the race track.

“You always have one or two jockeys at each place who do really well. He’s doing super well; I contribute that to his work ethic and his ability,” Dupuy said. “He’s got a good personality and a good client base – all those factor into it.”

His rank as one of the best in the nation brings him some attention from outside of the state’s borders.

“I’ve had a lot of offers to move around – to go to New York, California, but Charles Town is my home now,” he said. “It’s hard when you make a nice living because I’d have to start somewhere else at zero.”

But it hasn’t been easy. Acosta races twice a day nearly every day of the week.

Along the way, Acosta has had many injuries, including a broken collar bone, multiple broken fingers, a broken toe, broken ribs, and five concussions.

“It’s a very physical sport,” he said. “It’s really dangerous. We have to worry about weather conditions, how the horses feel, the jockeys … some are apprentices and don’t have a lot of experience. You’re on top of an animal with nothing, basically, that weighs 10 times what you do.”

Successful jockeys must have a slight build and weigh very little in order to be more aerodynamic. When the jockeys come in for the day, they weigh in to see if they are the correct weight for that particular race, as the numbers fluctuate. Most jockeys weigh less than 120 pounds, including the saddle and gear.

Many jockeys go to extreme measures to make weight for their races, including “flipping,” or purging, working out excessively or enduring blistering 160 degree temperatures in the hotbox in order to sweat out excess weight.

“This is a sport that’s really beautiful. But it’s not really famous, and for the jockeys who are not in the top, they work their whole life for nothing right here,” Acosta said. “They work really hard, physically, and it’s hard.”

Luckily for Acosta, his build is perfect for the sport. Weighing in at around 106 pounds, he is a very light jockey. Before pursuing this career, he was a boxer, ran marathons and had a solid workout routine that he carried over to his time on the racetrack.

“I don’t diet. Working out is really important to me. I like to keep in shape because I can do my job better,” he said. “Being a jockey is my job. I felt like before, when I worked at the gas station, if I didn’t do my job, they would fire me. So here, I have to do the best I can so they don’t fire me as a jockey.”

As the highest earning jockey at Charles Town Race Track, Acosta probably doesn’t have much to worry about. He credits his successful run as a jockey to his passion and planning the race.

“You have to have passion. You have to know the horses to become a jockey. You have to feel the horses. That connection has to be there,” he said. “You have to make a game plan about how the horse is going to run. If they break fast or slow. You have to study the horse.”

Though horse racing movies tell a different story, most jockeys have very little relationship with the horse they ride. The owners, as well as the trainers, decide which jockey to choose for the race. And while most of the owners want the leading rider, the leading jockey can only be on one horse per race. From there, negotiations are decided with the jockeys’ agents.

“We’re the last person to touch a horse,” Acosta said. “We’re basically around the horse for one minute – but there are a lot of people involved in just one horse.”

For the horses that are more well-known, extra attention is often required to assure that it doesn’t get hurt and cause the owner significant losses.

“There have been a couple of races where I put pressure on myself for the public, because I’ve ridden a couple of horses that are really nice, really famous,” he said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well because I don’t want to let anybody down. But every race is really difficult.”

A Dominican Republic native who moved to Puerto Rico as a baby, Acosta hasn’t had the chance to share his talent with his family in the Dominican Republic beyond sending photographs. He is, however, starting his own family here in West Virginia.

“I’m the only person in my family to make a good living. And I originally thought I’d retire at 35, but I just had a baby girl, so maybe not until 50 now,” Acosta said jokingly. “She’s with me every day. I think she’s traveled more than any baby I know.”

Most jockeys get out of the business before age 30. In the United States, most jockeys’ careers last, on average, two to three years due to the risk of injury. About 2,500 jockey injuries occur each year in the U.S. Acosta has already beaten all odds.

As he continues his path to success, he remains humble and devoted to racing.

“When I retire, I hope to become a jockey agent. I’m wide open to talking with people – everybody and anybody. I think I could stay in the sport and do a good job at it.”

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