From The Star Tribune

Coady PhotographyExhausting hours, constantly watching weight, risks of injury and a vagabond existence are just some of the challenges of life on the track 

Just after 10 on a Thursday night in late July — with only a sprinkling of fans still scattered around Canterbury Park — jockey Leandro Goncalves pulls Spell Winder into the winner’s circle.

Goncalves, wearing bright green and black silks and yellow helmet, sits atop the thoroughbred and poses for a celebratory photo. He smiles while fighting back the exhaustion of a day that began 17 hours earlier.

“Lots of people don’t realize how hard jocks’ lives are,” Goncalves says. “If you’re doing good, people see how much money you make, what you drive, how you dress and the lifestyle. But it’s nothing easy.”

Jockeys endure financial hardship while facing constant danger and battling injuries. Battling weight and an uncertain future can prey on their minds. Goncalves, 33, has ridden through success and failure in the up-and-down life of a jockey.

For now, times are good. He ranks second among jockeys at Canterbury with 47 victories in 203 races, finishing second or third in 60 others. It’s the latest year in a career than has seen him among the leading riders at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Gulfstream Park in Florida.

In 2011, Goncalves was the third-leading rider in North America, winning 298 races.

The native Brazilian enjoys the victories and accolades. He’s done well enough that, unlike many jockeys at the track, he has his own apartment and car. But the harsh realities of life persist.

Within the first two months of his career, when Goncalves was off preparing for just his second race, his parents divorced. A few years later, his father died. For a long time he had no contact with his mother.

Goncalves was once left jobless when the owners of a stable where he worked were charged with illegally moving horses and drugs. He’s gotten divorced and quit riding for 1½ years amid what he called depression.

Still, he says, “I love what I do.”

Into the routine

On a typical mid-July day, Goncalves awakes at 5 a.m. and takes a five-minute drive to the backside stables at Canterbury.

Before he leaves, he eats the only real meal he will eat during the day — red meat and a couple of eggs over easy. Goncalves also drinks his once-a-day coffee.

Though he loves to eat, Goncalves must make the 120-pound weight requirement for jockeys to ride. Just this month he had his first burrito in seven years.

“I paid for it in the hot box,” he said, talking about a jockey’s version of quick-weight-loss, sweat-inducing sauna.

When he gets to the track Goncalves meets with Joel Berndt, a trainer in the Tom Amoss Racing Stable.

“Every day, no matter what place he goes, since I know Leandro, he gets there at 5:30 to work the horses no matter what,” said Berndt, who has known Goncalves for more than five years and worked with him in Indiana and New Orleans.

By the time Goncalves makes his way to the track to “breeze,” or work out, his first horse, the sun begins to rise over the southeast corner of the Canterbury complex.

In the spectator’s box along the backside of the track, Goncalves’ agent, Chuck Costanzo, talks into his phone: “We’ve got Leandro on Lunar Gaze …

“Leandro’s the complete package,” Costanzo said. “That includes being an impressive person. Character is a big piece of the puzzle, and Leandro is a very strong professional. You couldn’t scour the backside and find one person who doesn’t like Leandro.

“He’s also a great athlete, a natural on a horse.”

It’s Costanzo who arranges Goncalves’ schedule — “Like playing chess,” he says. Trainers sometimes call him at 5 a.m. and tell him they need Goncalves to work two horses that morning.

“That happens a lot. The schedule, I guess it’s never firm, until pretty much that morning,” the agent said. “You’re always moving workers and fixing the schedule. … It’s like a liquid deal where I have work slots that I have to fill. It’s like a breathing document, that schedule.”

During one breeze, a horse gets out from Goncalves a little bit on the turn, and the jockey grabs the inside reins with two hands. After the session, Berndt asks Goncalves if he should race the horse on the outside during races. Goncalves says no. He doesn’t think the horse will act out during a race.

Most afternoons he takes a three-hour nap. Goncalves doesn’t eat lunch, but on race days he’ll have an energy bar around 2 or 3 o’clock.

A long journey

Goncalves started racing when he was 7 years old on a farm in Brazil. Almost two years later, he was chosen from a group of 20 boys to travel to Cuiabá to ride in a quarter-mile match race.

“They went there and tried to get the youngest and lightest kid they could get,” Goncalves said. “I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my horses and dogs. I went, and for 45 days they teach me how to ride. I didn’t know anything. I rode and I won.”

Goncalves doesn’t remember how much money he won in the 60-second race, but it was about the same amount his father made on the farm in an entire year.

Another owner saw Goncalves race that horse, and offered his father money for Goncalves to ride in a race 60 days later. Goncalves stayed. But in those 60 days, Goncalves’ parents got divorced, and his mother moved 1,000 miles away.

At age 16, Goncalves attended Hipodromo de Cidade Jardim, Brazil’s top riding school, where he became the school’s top apprentice with 78 wins in 11 months.

“It’s very hard being a jockey,” said Goncalves, who in 2004 moved to England to ride. “We move around too much, and it’s very hard when you have family. When you have kids in school, they cannot move around like that.

“I don’t know if my career made me become divorced … maybe. That’s the reason why I don’t want [my son] being a jockey because I don’t want for him what I went through.”

Race night

On July 23, Goncalves arrives at Canterbury at 5 p.m. and immediately shaves before heading to the hot box. He reads through the night’s program and studies the horses he will ride. He stretches.

Goncalves’ son Guilherme, who is visiting for more than a month, accompanies him to the racetrack. Goncalves and Guilherme have spent time riding Jet Skis and go-carting in Minneapolis. On this night, the 13-year-old Guilherme passes time by playing table tennis in the jockeys’ room.

At 5:50 p.m., Goncalves weighs in, just a little overweight. He heads back to the hot box.

Cutting weight is a constant in many jockey’s lives. The threat of injury is another.

The Jockey’s Guild is trying to catalog falls taken by jockeys during races but admits participation isn’t complete. Sometimes a jockey isn’t seriously injured during a spill. Sprains and strains account for 26 percent of injuries, according to the guild. Fractures are at 25 percent and concussions at 9 percent. The guild has reported 150 jockey deaths in North America since 1940.

The hot box trip begins a tough night for Goncalves, who finishes with two fifths, a fourth and a sixth in his first four races. He makes $75 a start but receives only 4 or 5 percent of the purse from any race he wins.

For winning on Spell Winder, Goncalves receives almost $350, and Guilherme gives a thumbs-up to the photographer.

“I’m the happiest person in the world,” Goncalves said. “I’m living the dream having him here.”

But the harsh reality sets in as his son plays behind him.

“Now he’s getting big and he wants to be a jockey, too,” Goncalves says. “I say, ‘Stop right there.’ He wants to come out in the morning and ride the ponies. And that’s how it starts.

“I know when you get in that mind-set, you can’t stop.”