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Tampa Bay Downs jockey returns to his first love

James Frank Lopez has been around horses for as long as he's been alive. His father was a jockey. His father's father was a jockey. He has wanted to follow in their footsteps since he was 3.

So he did, quitting high school at age 16 against his father's wishes and working years to establish himself as a top jockey.

It all seemingly came to an end in 2005 when he fell from a horse and it rolled over on him, shattering his collarbone and crushing his desire to ride.

But seeing one of his friends win the Kentucky Derby in 2007 changed all that.

Now, Lopez, 31, is using the 83rd racing season at Tampa Bay Downs on Race Track Road just east of Oldsmar as a stepping stone to see if he still has the drive to push horses to the wire.

"I love being around horses," Lopez said. "This is the way I feed my family. I had to give it another chance. I just had to."

• • •

Lopez knew that being a jockey was difficult. As a child, he bounced between New Orleans and Kentucky as his father followed the horse racing circuit. He started galloping horses himself at age 12.

"I really didn't want him to ride because I knew how tough it was, but he wanted to ride," his father, Joe Lopez, 65, said in a phone interview from Kentucky.. "I wanted him to finish school before he started to ride, but no, no, no. He said he'll finish school in between races."

At the same time, Joe Lopez saw his son's natural ability.

"He knew I had a knack with horses," James Lopez said. "He wouldn't let me ride if I couldn't. He could see I had that ability."

At 16, James Lopez quit school, obtained an agent and start riding professionally. He traveled between Kentucky and Arkansas racing horses.

He won some races. There were injuries. He has a plate with six screws in his shoulder. There were bruised hips and a broken foot.

"I haven't seen a rider who hasn't broken his or her collarbone," Lopez said.

He married Kelli Gregg, a horse exercise rider from Oklahoma, in 2002. On Oct. 29, 2003, son James Aaron Lopez was born.

Lopez broke his wrist while having his best season ever in 2002-03. At the time, he was the leading rider at several tracks, including Churchill Downs. Then in 2005 came the collarbone injury. Lopez had had enough.

"I was tired and burned out and so many injuries took a toll on my mind and body," he said. "I wasn't happy doing what I was doing."

Lopez stopped racing and wanted to spend more time with his family. They moved to Kansas, where he started building scaffolds on an oil refinery. He passed the General Educational Development test and received his high school diploma, something he did for his father.

Then, while sitting in his living room in 2007, Lopez saw his friend and fellow jockey Calvin Borel standing in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby.

"I saw how happy he was and the excitement on his face," Lopez said. "When you cross the wire first, there's not a feeling like it. It's something you can't explain."

In the meantime, the marriage wasn't working out and the couple divorced in 2008.

In late 2008, Lopez started racing in meets in Kentucky. At 5 feet 6 and 110 pounds, he is now at Tampa Bay Downs where there are 100 jockeys and more than 1,460 horses. One meal a day helps him maintain that weight.

"It's a great feeling," Lopez said. "I can go to work everyday and do what I love. You encounter different horses and they always teach you something. You never stop learning."

• • •

At Tampa Bay Downs, a typical day starts at 6 a.m. for Lopez and he's there with a smile. He chums it up with the trainers. He says hello to everyone.

"He's a hard worker and a very talented rider and he has a good personality," said Mark Mace, Lopez's agent. "That's the key, trainers gotta like you. There are a lot of politics in this game."

During the morning work, jockeys exercise horses in the hope that they will be allowed to ride them in a race later.

"Jim can come back and tell me how the horse is running, and how it feels," said Robert O'Conner II, a trainer from Louisville, Ky., after Lopez exercised one of his horses. "He comprehends what a trainer is trying to get out of a horse. He's a very diverse rider and can ride any style."

By 8 a.m., Lopez has ridden several horses for different trainers. He's made his rounds at the Downs and by 10 a.m., he's back at the Westchase apartment he shares with another jockey.

A short nap, some History Channel, then he's back at the track by noon and ready to race in as many races as his agent can get him.

On this day, he gets four races. He wins two of them. He comes in second and third in the other two.

• • •

His return to racing has been challenging but rewarding, Lopez said.

As the season ends at Tampa Bay Downs, he's one of the top riders, having won some 35 races and $500,000 in purses. A horse that he won a stakes race with in Tampa, General Quarters, is a probable starter in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

"You are only as good as your last ride," Lopez said. "You are hero today and a zero the next. Every single race and day is different."

The next stops for Lopez will be Delaware and Virginia, then back to Tampa in December.

"I'm so proud of him," his father said. "He rides horses much better than I ever did and he looks much better on a horse than I ever did."

James Lopez has another task at hand, though. He's trying to make sure that his son doesn't follow in his footsteps.

But like his father and his father's father knows, it's hard to keep your child away from the life you love.

"Nobody wants to see their son or daughter get hurt," Lopez said. "It's scarier for the parent than the child. If he's got the talent, I'll be behind him 100 percent. But I'd rather he go to school, become a doctor, a veterinarian, anything but a jockey."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com

FAST FACTS

Tampa Bay Downs

11225 Race Track Road

Main Phone (813) 855-4401

Toll Free (866)-TBDOWNS (823-6967)

The track has four more live racing dates: today, Tuesday, Saturday (Kentucky Derby Day) and May 3 (Fan Appreciation Day)

Tampa Bay Downs jockey returns to his first love 04/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2009 3:06pm]
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