OCEANPORT – Hector Diaz, Jr. has never been willing to settle for second best ever since his late start on a career as a jockey, but in this instance he’s inclined to make an exception.
The 31-year-old journeyman currently sits second in the Monmouth Park jockey standings with 12 wins – well behind runaway leader Paco Lopez, who is on his way to a seventh title at the thoroughbred track with 26 wins, but also ahead of notable veterans Joe Bravo, Jose Ferrer, Antonio Gallardo, Nik Juarez and Trevor McCarthy.
It’s potentially a significant achievement for Diaz, who finished fourth in the track’s rider standings a year ago, according to a press release.
“Monmouth Park has a great jockey colony. It’s a very tough colony,” said Diaz, who is listed on four mounts when racing resumes at Monmouth Park with a six-race twilight card on July 31.
“There are so many great riders and I feel grateful to be second now. I know it’s going to be competitive and a challenge to stay there.
“I just have to focus on myself and keep working hard and remember the things that have me second now will be the things that keep me second,” he said.
In part because he is late to the profession, Diaz has an appreciation for every accomplishment now, big or small.
Though he grew up with a father and brother who were jockeys, and with cousins Irad and Jose Ortiz, in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, Diaz did not enroll in the Escuela Vocacional Hipica jockey school until he was 23.
“My dad did not want me to be a jockey, but in my heart I knew I always wanted to be a jockey,” Diaz said.
Some of the motivation for finally setting on his professional path came from his brother, Hector Miguel Diaz, who was paralyzed in a spill at Camarero Race Track in Puerto Rico.
“He was just 21 when he was paralyzed,” Diaz said. “I decided I needed to do this and do it for him.”
Diaz had mixed results as an apprentice in the ultra-competitive New York arena before shifting to Monmouth Park.
“It’s hard in New York, but I can’t say it didn’t really work out because of the opportunities I got there,” he said. “If I didn’t get those opportunities I might not be getting the opportunities I have now at Monmouth. Those trainers come here to race. They know me. New York was part of the process that has helped me be where I am now.
“I believe you build your career every year and you do that by continuing to work hard. Last year was a good year for me. I won a couple of stakes races and I finished fourth in the standings at Monmouth Park. I think that has helped me get off to a good start this year,” he said.
Diaz, who did not start riding professionally until he was 27, is not bashful about his long-term goal.
“I want to be leading rider here someday,” he said. “Paco is tough to beat. “He is always tough to beat. So maybe it won’t be this year and maybe it won’t be next year, but I believe I can do it. I always believe in myself. I always bet on me all the time to succeed. I will continue building my career and I won’t stop trying to reach my goal.”
Diaz matched his personal best with 74 overall victories last year while earning a career-best $2,802,843. He is certain he can exceed those numbers this year, according to the press release.
“The trainers have been trusting me. That’s a big part of this,” he said. “My agent (Shawn Klotz) is doing his job and I am doing my job in the mornings, but it’s about opportunities. You’ve got to work hard to earn those opportunities, but owners and trainers have got to support you. They have to give you a shot.”