by Jennie Rees, Courier-Journal
Jockey Chris Landeros — winner on his past three mounts at Churchill Downs, including mutuels of $69.60 and $74.20 — is considered a patient rider. And this year he’s had to test that trait off the racetrack as well.

The 26-year-old Landeros, one of the top riders in Texas, made the jump to Kentucky after spending the winter in New Orleans for the first time. He has won 1,076 races, for purse earnings topping $17 million. But in Kentucky, he was almost starting over.

Landeros won four races out of 69 mounts his first Churchill meet, though on the plus side, they came in an overnight stakes and three allowance races.

“It was tough in the spring; no room for error around here,” he said recently on the Churchill backside. “There are a lot of guys just waiting for different spots, and with the limited horses and (short) fields, oh, my gosh, there’s some talent in the jocks’ room just sitting there. So when you get an opportunity, you have to capitalize on it.”

A big opportunity came when seven Churchill riders went to Saratoga for the summer. Landeros did well at Ellis Park (winning 16 of 90 mounts to be fourth in the standings) and Indiana Grand, getting into more Louisville-based stables.

“I’d drive to Ellis, and then I’d drive back two hours to work horses in the morning,” he said. “I did that every day because I felt I just needed to step it up more than what guys did before to help build up for the fall.”

Landeros was shut out on four mounts at Kentucky Downs Wednesday — his first time at America’s only European-style course — but said he really enjoyed the experience and learned a lot for when he returns Saturday. He won on his only mount Thursday at Indiana Grand for trainer Kenny McPeek.

Trainer David Carroll, who started riding Landeros in New Orleans, said he likes how prepared the jockey is.

“He rides a great race, is extremely patient, finishes strong,” Carroll said. “He can come back and tell you a lot about a horse. He’s obviously come here to try to prove himself. Even when things got slow this spring, he was always focused and determined to stay the course.”

Landeros grew up around San Francisco, the son of a trainer and grandson of racehorse owners. He rode his first race at age 17 at Turf Paradise in Phoenix.

He was settled into the Northern California circuit when he got a call out of the blue in 2009 from agent Scott Hare, who was looking for a young rider to have year-round in Texas.

“I was like, ‘Where is Lone Star? Texas? Whoa, I’m a California boy,'” Landeros said. “I told my (California) agent the next morning, and he said, ‘Pack your stuff and go. This guy can lead you on the right steps.’ There I was a month later, riding almost everything for Steve Asmussen, some for Bret Calhoun — people I dreamed of riding for.”

Hare says it was Landeros’ idea to go to New Orleans, where they won 33 races, and then to Kentucky.

“I said, ‘Let’s go. All they can do is starve us out,'” said Hare, who says he’s never had a rider quite like Landeros.

“He’s never missed a work, never been late,” he said. “And on payday, he’ll actually drive to my house to give me money. You don’t find that these days.”

Landeros hopes to buy a home in Louisville when he returns from New Orleans next spring.

“Friday night, it was just so nice to be back,” he said of the opener of Churchill’s September meet. “You’ve got the big TV and the crowd and the night racing and you see the Twin Spires. I thought, ‘Man, this is so cool.’ Sometimes you don’t realize how much history there really is.

“I am so glad I’m here — you wake up at 6 o’clock and get to come to a place like this.”

Landeros is dating trainer Ian Wilkes’ daughter, Shelby. But Wilkes, for whom Landeros won on 34-1 Handy Candy last week, said he would not be using Landeros if he wasn’t a good rider and wanting to get better.

“Anyone who has ridden over 1,000 winners already and he’s young, you know they can ride,” Wilkes said. “It’s learning how to ride against better riders — understanding that you’ve still got to let the horse do it… He’s a smart rider. He’s got the instinct. Now he’s just got to polish up. And sticking it out here, that’s what you do.”

Indeed, Landeros knows how Corey Lanerie worked his way up to being the winningest jockey at Churchill the past few years; how Brian Hernandez Jr. gutted out the lean times and was rewarded by winning the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2012 aboard the Wilkes-trained Fort Larned.

“It probably was a good thing for him,” Wilkes said, “Have a little bit of a tough time and appreciate what he’s got and keep moving forward.”

McPeek calls Landeros “an impressive young man,” predicting, “I’ll wager he’s going to be hard to get in the next five to 10 years.”