The Hall of Fame names are all around him in the Del Mar jockey’s room. Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, Kent Desormeaux, Victor Espinoza. The stars of today are there as well, such as last year’s riding co-champions Rafael Bejarano and Flavien Prat.
Yet the 19-year-old wunderkind lines up right beside them all and continues to flourish. Evidently what surprisingly took place just this past meeting at Santa Anita was no fluke. Evin Roman already has proven he belongs.
After becoming the first apprentice to win a riding title in Arcadia in 68 years when he shared the jockey championship with Prat, Roman is already leading the pack early this season at Del Mar. He scored his ninth win Wednesday, a runaway victory in the second race aboard 2-1 favorite Lea’s Reward. He has been in the money here with over half of his mounts (23 of 45) and is winning at a 20-percent clip in his six-month career (71 of 355).
Many longtime track observers are saying Roman (pronounced Row-MAHN) is simply the best young rider they have seen in many years. His veteran agent Tony Matos, who counts among his former clients legends like Laffit Pincay Jr. and Angel Cordero Jr., is not being biased when he says: “The kid is just a natural.”
The short version of it goes something like this: Roman had never even been aboard a horse when his father took him to the races in his native Puerto Rico three years ago. Roman told his dad right then he wanted to be a jockey, and so he was enrolled in jockey school.
After cleaning stalls for three months, he was allowed to climb aboard and the success started to come immediately. Matos discovered him watching films of young riders in Puerto Rico and saw him win a race for apprentice jockeys in England soon thereafter.
Roman speaks in broken English, but just like riding horses, he’s learning quickly after a rough start at Santa Anita that saw him draw three suspensions. “I’m very excited to be riding here with these great riders,” he said. “I try to watch them on video and learn something from all of them.”
Earlier this month Matos spoke of how impressed he was by Roman’s ability to adjust.
“He got set down (suspended) three times, which might have done him some good, because he got a chance to settle down and look at films of his races,” the agent told press officials at Santa Anita. “A lot of jockeys here helped, like Santiago Gonzalez, Gary Stevens, Corey Nakatani, Mike Smith and others. They went out of their way to give him some pointers.
“… It’s important to remember than Evin has only been riding since the middle of January. Even though he went to jockey school (in Puerto Rico), this advice has opened up his eyes, he developed quickly, and I think the best is yet to come.
“He’s getting better and better every day. He still has a couple of things he has to adjust to, but right now horses run for him, he wins races, and he’s very good out of the gate. Even on a slow horse, he breaks in front out of the gate.”
With his newly-found reputation preceding him, Roman — who as an apprentice jockey gets a five-pound weight advantage — broke slowly from the gate at Del Mar, failing to win a race the first two days of the meet. But after four frustrating second-place finishes, he had his coming out party last Friday, winning three races. He scored in the fourth race that day aboard 4-1 shot Texas Wedge to get things rolling.
He has hardly slowed down since.
“I don’t know how good he eventually could be,” Matos said Wednesday. “But he’s as good as he possibly could be at this stage of the game.”