2014: Rafael Bejarano and the Six San Gabriels
Back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, two jockeys dominated Southern California racing: Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano.
They spent a lot of time trading meet titles between stops at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. Business constantly came their way, and that inevitably meant each rider would find themselves on good horses, which in turn meant more wins.
Bejarano in particular did quite well at Santa Anita, winning multiple jockey titles during that period. As a result of his top rider status, it was inevitable that Bejarano would find success in the stakes ranks. He did just that, taking classic events like the Frank E. Kilroe Mile, La Brea Stakes, Palos Verdes Stakes, San Antonio Stakes, and the Santa Anita Handicap.
But of all the stakes Bejarano captured during his tenure in Southern California, one was particularly special to him. He came to know it very well, because he won it more times than any other jockey.
What's more, he could not be stopped in that race for a number of years.
The first San Gabriel Stakes win for Bejarano came in 2008. Aboard the solid favorite, Proudinsky, Bejarano piloted him along the inside for much of the race, well within striking range of the front. The pace was slow in the mile and one-eighth Grade II event, but Bejarano had Proudinsky saving ground for the stretch run.
At the turn for home, Bejarano got Proudinsky off the rail, not wanting to risk being blocked on the inside. The duo found an opening as they straightened, and Bejarano immediately sent his mount through it, taking the lead and winning by about a length in a race that saw the rider use good strategy along with making all the right decisions en route to victory.
Bejarano and Proudinsky were back together one year later in the 2009 San Gabriel. Among the principal contenders in that renewal, they followed the legendary Cal-bred Lava Man around the Santa Anita turf course. Lava Man, who competed in what turned out to be his career finale, was in control for more than three-quarters of a mile. But Proudinsky and Loup Breton took over in the stretch. Both horses ran with an abundance of heart, but Proudinsky, who ran in the four path, gutted out a successful title defense, heading Loup Breton by a half-length. That gave Proudinsky the distinction of being just the fourth horse to win two San Gabriels, joining Romarin (1995, 1996), Brave Act (1998, 2000), and Irish Prize (both wins came in 2001). Among the horses Proudinsky beat in his second San Gabrel victory was Acclamation, who would go on to become a two-time California-bred Horse of the Year.
Proudinsky would not win the San Gabriel again. But Bejarano was just getting warmed up.
Exactly one year removed from the 2009 iteration, Bejarano was back for another San Gabriel in 2010. Proudinsky was in the field as well, but the Peruvian jockey was in the irons for Jeranimo, winner of the Grade II Strub Stakes the previous winter. Settling in around 4-1, Jeranimo and Bejarano were well off the pace early. But they moved into an inside path as the race went through a crawling pace (the half-mile was :49.26). By the time they turned into the straight, a path along the rail opened up. Bejarano guided Jeranimo through it, urging him as the Florida-bred colt put together a nice finishing kick in the last furlong to win convincingly(Proudinsky took second). That marked his initial appearance on the Santa Anita turf, but Jeranimo had no problems with it as he scored another Grade II trophy. Like Proudinsky, Jeranimo defeated a Cal-bred champion, this one being The Usual Q.T., who took home the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association award for Top Three-Year-Old Male in 2009 (he would later win Champion Cal-bred Older Male and Turf Horse as well).
With his third San Gabriel in as many years, Bejarano made history. No other rider had won the race in three consecutive years, and he joined the likes of Johnny Longden, Corey Nakatani and Gary Stevens as a winner of the race three or more times.
But more was in store for Bejarano.
The San Gabriel was not held in 2011, but it was back on the calendar in 2012. Jeranimo showed up for a chance at a repeat victory, but he would have to do so without Bejarano. The jockey was part of the race, but he had the call on Norvsky, winner of the California Cup Classic at the 2011 Oak Tree meet. The second choice at about 3-1, Norvsky was initially in the back early on, but the small field of six became closely grouped going around the clubhouse turn. Jeranimo, the 3-5 favorite, guided the field through a slow tempo. He found a challenger in The Usual Q.T. at the top of the stretch, but rebuffed his bid.
The trouble was Norvsky was ready to run.
Bejarano kept him on the outside as they navigated the turf course, and they had the outside lane all to themselves in the stretch. With Bejarano pumping the reins, Norvsky proved to powerful for either horse, moving by them strongly to take the San Gabriel. Once again, Bejarano made the right decision in regards to position, putting Norvsky in the right spots as they got to the wire first.
Fast forward to 2013. Bejarano reunited with Jeranimo as he went for his fifth San Gabriel Stakes win. Assigned post seven, which was the far outside slot in this instance, the duo broke well but stayed several lengths behind the leader in last place. But Bejarano was already at work, guiding Jeranimo over to save ground. The move proved sagacious, for the San Gabriel moved at a faster clip than it had in years past. The opening quarter-mile went by in 22.98, the half in 46.75, and six furlongs in 1:10.98. Bejarano and Jeranimo steadily caught up to the pack, and started passing horses as they rounded the turn. A wide journey in the stretch awaited them, but Jeranimo was unfazed. He sped down the turf on the extreme outside, motoring past all of his rivals in a brilliant finish while winning by multiple lengths. That allowed Jeranimo to join the San Gabriel's two-time winners club, and Bejarano equaled the race record for wins held by Gary Stevens in what was another historical running of the San Gabriel.
As 2014 rolled around, Jeranimo returned for the opportunity to take an unprecedented third San Gabriel. With Bejarano in the saddle again, Jeranimo went off as the chalk at around 6-5. Just as they had the year before, the duo stayed at the back of the field for a good part of the race. But they moved up steadily in the backstretch to be closer to the leader, not wanting to risk having too much to do later on.
With the stretch run looming, the San Gabriel appeared to be unfolding for Jeranimo and Bejarano as it had the year before. They were on the outside again, and winning the race meant having to deal with another wide trip in the stretch. But Jeranimo was up for the task. He found another gear, inhaling his opposition as he overtook everyone with ease to win by a length while setting a new race record of 1:46.00. That also gave Jeranimo the record for wins in the San Gabriel outright, and that also went for Bejarano, who now occupied the top spot by himself with his sixth consecutive win in the race. And he did it by putting his mount where he needed to be throughout the race. Just like before, those decisions paid off as Bejarano celebrated what will likely be an unbreakable record.
Bejarano's record in the San Gabriel is symbolic of the dominance he had over the circuit for many years. But it also gives racegoers a glimpse into his talent as a jockey. He knew where to place his horses during each race, and he made smart decisions at critical moments that proved to be correct. That run shows why he was a top rider out here for so long. He knew not just how to ride, but when to make a move. It is probably not a stretch to say that he won races long before the camera flashed.
Some jockeys are linked to certain races. For Bill Shoemaker, it would be the Santa Anita Handicap. The Santa Anita Derby belonged to Gary Stevens. And Laffit Pincay, Jr. owned the Hollywood Gold Cup.
As for Rafael Bejarano, his race is undoubtedly the San Gabriel Stakes.