Blessed Edgard Zayas found horse racing, started a family and won 1,000 races. But, for the 24-year-old, this is only the beginning of his journey.

By Mason Kelley

Edgard Zayas is smiling.

It is a few minutes after noon when the 24-year-old opens his front door. He is wearing a brownish gray, long-sleeved shirt, blue jeans and a pair of brown shoes.

He invites the visitor in with a handshake.

Over in the living room his wife, Ashley, is holding the couple’s two-month-old daughter, Lilly. In a few minutes, he will head toward Gulfstream Park. He has already spent an early morning working – he was at the track by 6 a.m. But right now, this is the only place he wants to be, spending a few more precious moments with his young family.

Zayas picks up Lilly and walks her over to the mamaRoo, an infant rocker that bounces and sways, a parent’s best friend when raising an newborn. As the machine works its magic, Zayas hovers over his daughter.

He is still smiling.

The minutes tick by and it is time for Zayas to head back to work. But first, there is a quick family huddle in the kitchen. A kiss for Ashley and one for Lilly.

He grabs a Red Bull from the fridge – a little liquid energy for the drive, the second half of a long day – but before he heads out, he opens a door. He walks over to a work bench. This is where he builds his drones, a hobby he tinkers with when time permits.

But he doesn't linger. It is time to go. He has a 30-minute drive back to work, so he needs to get going. As he steps out his front door, he is still smiling.

He has plenty to be happy about these days. He is a father, a husband and a jockey building a winning reputation after recently capturing win No. 1,000. He bought his family a house and drives a comfortable car.

Each milestone has been something he has worked for since he left Puerto Rico for Florida five years ago, a journey that began with a simple proclamation he made as a teenager: “I want to be a jockey.”

For Zayas, who builds drones in his spare time, it is always tough to leave his daughter and head to work, but everything he does these days is to provide a good life for his family.

Decision time: 'I want to go to jockey school'

As Zayas drives east toward Hallandale, he is asked about how he became a jockey, what drew him to horse racing.

Growing up in Canóvanas in Puerto Rico, he lived just five minutes away from Hipódromo Camarero.

“My grandpa (Carlos) used to go and watch the races all the time,” Zayas said. “I liked it.”

But as a child, he was initially drawn to other sports.

“I’ve always been into sports,” he said. “But every time I was in a sport – I played basketball, volleyball, all kinds of sports in school – I was always the smallest one on the team. It was very hard.”

“I’ve always been into sports,” Zayas said, who tried several sports as a child, but was always "the smallest one on the team."

While he lacked the size for a future in many sports, he had a competitive drive he was determined to satiate. Outside of trips to the track with his grandfather, his family had no connection to horse racing. His parents, Lucy and Carlos, have owned a beauty salon for 25 years.

But, despite a lack of family history or riding experience, Zayas was intrigued by the idea of being a jockey as he got older. He knew he wouldn’t have to go far to start the process, there is a jockey school at Hipódromo Camarero.

So he made a decision.

“When I turn 16, I want to go to jockey school,” he said at the time. “I want to be a jockey.”

He didn’t get much positive feedback.

The most common response he heard: “You’re going to be a little bit too tall.”

Zayas refused to listen.

“I don’t care,” he said. “I’m going to be a jockey.”

“I don’t care,” Zayas said when told he may be too tall to pursue a future in horse racing. “I’m going to be a jockey.”

His mother insisted on one thing.

“Mom didn’t want to let me go to jockey school until I finished high school,” Zayas said.

So he waited. Once he graduated, though, he didn’t hesitate.

“I wanted to be a jockey, so I went to jockey school,” he said.

For the better part of the next two years, Zayas started at the beginning. He had only been on a horse “once or twice” growing up, so he had to start with the basics.

“The first year they have a barn and they assign each student a horse,” Zayas said. “The student has to take care of that horse. It helps you have a connection with the horses."

What started with a basic connection advanced to on-horse training. He spent the second year working every morning. He rode an average of 10 horses a day, 1,000 that year.

“You get a lot of experience,” he said.

He received so much training, he decided he was ready to race before he finished his second year of school. He moved to Florida.

Zayas knew it was the right choice, but it wasn’t an easy one.

“I had no family there at all,” he said.

But, despite a tough transition, Zayas is smiling now, because the path that required a little extra effort has produced success and happiness well beyond what he expected when he left Puerto Rico.

'What am I going to do?'

Zayas is excited. He is about five minutes from Gulfstream, but he’s deep into a story about a trip to the Dubai World Cup earlier this year. Ashley was pregnant with Lilly. The timing worked well, because the trip fell just before Ashley would have been too pregnant to travel.

The jockey talks about the brand new Range Rovers provided to transport people from the hotel to points of interest. He talks about the giant aquarium at the mall and the massive indoor skiing facility. He talks about experiences he never considered a possibility.

Horse racing brought him to Florida and it is taking him around the world. But there were days he questioned his decision.

When he first moved, he lived with his agent and had to commute from Palm Beach Gardens. It was a long drive. He didn’t have a car. He wanted his own place. Then he moved to a hotel.

“I was living in a hotel where I was even scared to go in,” Zayas said.

He was working hard at the track. He was improving, but his living situation was a challenge.

“It was very uncomfortable,” he said. “It was very hard. When I got out of the races, I wanted to be alone at the house.”

When asked how challenging his living situation became, he said, “If I had a dog, I wouldn’t have even walked it.”

At his lowest point, he asked himself, “What am I going to do now?”

“I stayed focused and I got over it,” Zayas said. “There are a lot of people who would just give up. I stayed here and kept working.”

He missed his life in Puerto Rico, but he didn’t quit.

“I stayed focused and I got over it,” he said. “There are a lot of people who would just give up. I stayed here and kept working. I got past it.”

Every now and then, he thinks back to those early days. He has even driven Ashley to a few of the places he lived. Those memories continue to push him forward.

“The good things we have now, we have to appreciate them,” he said. “It’s amazing. I can’t even explain it, really. It’s great. That’s why I keep working hard.”

Valet Nelson Figueroa helps Zayas prepare for his day at the track, while the jockey studies the program.

'A really good life'

It is a few minutes after 1 p.m. when Zayas arrives at Gulfstream. He steps out of his SUV, the steam from another sweltering summer day invades the vehicle as soon as he opens the door.

As he walks across the parking lot toward the facility, he calls Ashley. As he holds the phone to his ear, the case is visible. It is a custom creation. It features a photo of Lilly.

Zayas walks up to the jocks’ room where he is greeted by Nelson Figueroa, who has been Zayas’ valet since the jockey started riding at Gulfstream.

Figueroa is slicing oranges. When he finishes, he pulls out his phone and opens a photograph that commemorates Zayas’ first win. On the drive to the track, Zayas couldn’t remember the victory, but like a proud father, Figueroa has the information in a convenient location.

It was Nov. 17, 2012 when the jockey won his first race riding Five Afternoons.

Zayas listens as Figueroa recaps the race. After the pleasant memory, it is time for Zayas to focus. The first race of the day is closing in fast. Zayas sits down with the program to go over the races. He is often riding horses for the first time, so he relies on all the information he can acquire, since he only has minutes to get acquainted before the start of each race.

“I get to know the horse as soon as I get on them,” he said. “You’ve got to read the program, see how they run. Before the race, the horses show you a lot.”

Zayas leaves the jocks' room and heads out for the start of another race.

He studied the program and watched video of previous races the night before, his study session occasionally interrupted by a request from Lilly. He didn't mind, being a father comes first for Zayas.

But, now in the jocks’ room, as he gets ready to compete, he focuses on “refreshing his mind.”

It is time to race.

It's on you to 'do the job'

This particular afternoon is a struggle for Zayas. He doesn’t win any races. But these days are becoming fewer and farther between as he grows as a jockey.

Looking back on his progression, Zayas said his career really took off when he met his agent Tito Fuentes.

When they started working together, Fuentes had a simple message for Zayas.

“You’re going to be on the right horses,” Fuentes said. “It’s on your hands to do the job.”

So far, so good. With Fuentes’ help, Zayas’ career is taking off.

Zayas must refocus throughout the day, as he moves from horse-to-horse, race-to-race.

“He’s done an excellent job,” Zayas said. “We have a very good connection. We’re like family. I give a lot of credit to him.”

So, now that his career is hitting its stride, what’s next?

He isn’t in a hurry at this point. He is enjoying the journey, building his business.

“I’m not really rushing things,” he said. “I’m taking it slow. I’m pretty comfortable here. I’m trying to stay here as much as I can.”

From his saddle to his belt, Edgard Zayas has customized equipment.

But one day he would like to ride “with the big dogs” in New York. And then there’s the Kentucky Derby. When asked if he would like to one day compete on hallowed ground at Churchill Downs, he smiled and was quick with an answer.

“My goal is to win the Kentucky Derby,” he said.

But that’s in the future. That dream comes with furthering his relationship with owners and one day landing the right horse. That takes time and, until then, he will celebrate each step in the process with his family.

Zayas may need a little prompting to remember his first win as a jockey, but his first victory as a father, well, that’s something he will never forget.

It was June 18, less than a month after Lilly was born (May 24). He was riding Starship Rocky.

“That day I had the two best chances, I lost them both,” he said. “It was her first time at the track and I wasn’t going to win a race.”

Starship Rocky was a long shot, but Zayas thought to himself, “Let’s try to make one run.”

He thought he was trying too hard in his earlier races. He decided to relax.

It worked.

“I was so excited, because she got to be there in her first winning picture,” he said. “I felt like I won a million-dollar race that day.”

Now that he is a father, Zayas thinks a bit differently.

“I try to take care of myself a little bit more than I used to,” he said.

But to win races, he knows he needs to take chances at times.

“At the end of day, in this business, sometimes you have to be very aggressive, so I try to be aggressive, but careful at the same time, so I can come back home to her,” he said. “At the same time, I try to get the wins so I can get money to take care of my family.”

He hasn’t been getting much sleep the past few months, but “I’m enjoying it 100 percent,” Zayas said when asked about being a father.

On days when he has to be at the track early in the morning, Ashley wakes up with the baby. But when Zayas doesn’t have to be up early, he tries to let Ashley sleep as much as possible.

“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I take the night shifts,” Zayas said. “I let her rest a little bit, even though she really doesn’t rest. She still wakes up and I’m like, ‘Go back to bed.’”

The past few months have been hectic, but rewarding.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “Everyone tells me it’s going to be a lot of work, your life is going to be changing.”

When people would say that when Ashley was pregnant, Zayas thought, “Yeah, right.”

“Now I see it’s a lot of work,” he said. “But we love our daughter so much, we just do it because we love her.”

Each time he leaves the track, he rushes home because he misses Lilly’s smile.

“Every time I come home and I see that smile, ‘Oh my gosh,’” he said. “I just love coming home from work. I have something to look forward to.”

Lilly’s smile keeps Zayas working hard. It keeps pushing him toward more success. It is the reason he is always smiling.

“I have a family and my family needs me,” he said.

He credits everything that is happening in his life right now to horse racing.

“It’s given me a really good life.”

“At the end of day, in this business, sometimes you have to be very aggressive, so I try to be aggressive, but careful at the same time, so I can come back home to her,” Zayas said. “At the same time, I try to get the wins so I can get money to take care of my family.”


All photos taken by Mason Kelley

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