A Horse Racing Comeback That Turned Into A Train Wreck

February 12, 2020

Norberto receiving the Jockeytalk360.com Comeback Jockey of the year award at Santa Anita

The 9 Lives of Norberto Arroyo Jr.

Some people never realize their dreams no matter how hard they dedicate themselves and put their mind to it. For some it comes a bit easier as they possess natural talent. To be a top athlete it takes determination, dedication and never-ending commitment. To be a jockey it takes more. It takes the same preparation of any other athlete but with sacrificing your body’s nutrition, dangerous weight shifts and purging, all while having to maintain enough strength to control a 1200 plus pound horse. Jockeys often face a lot of injuries in their careers, as it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Drug usage, alcohol abuse and overuse of pain medication are not uncommon to follow suit in the life of a jockey. The most successful ones either avoid these demons altogether or learn to conquer the beast and shy away from these pitfalls. Some allow their demons to take control and free fall into oblivion.

Norberto Arroyo Jr. was a young kid working in a Foot Locker shoe store. While on break one day, he was browsing through a Sports Illustrated magazine and he noticed the front cover had a photo of a horse that had won the Kentucky Derby. It was then that his dream was born to become a jockey. No prior experience under his belt but the determination to make that dream a reality was in full effect. It was at Rockingham Park where he hopped a fence and started walking around the backside asking anyone that would listen; “how can I get the chance to become a jockey.” As one would figure this was a tall ask for a kid that had zero prior experience. Knowing what I do about Norberto, he could charm a snake and quite possibly if you were on the phone with him on a Monday and he told you it was Friday by the end of the call you would believe it was Friday.

Max Hall was an agent based at Rockingham Park at the time and that is where he met Norberto. At the time Max didn’t think much of this young cocky kid but Norberto did have his attention. Norberto begged Max to find a way to get him on a horse. Max obliged his request and the rumor has it the very first time he got up on a horse he fell off and this obviously didn’t impress Max much. One-word Norberto Arroyo Jr. is not familiar with is the word NO. He kept coming back day after day until Max got sick of him asking and Norberto eventually started galloping horses.

Max took it slow with Norberto until Max felt as though Norberto was ready to begin serious workouts and then follow that up with an eventual first start in a real race. Norberto won his first race and the bug had bitten him even harder as he was convinced at that point that becoming a jockey was what he wanted to do. Anyone that knew Max Hall would know he wasn’t one to rush things and he was in no hurry with this young talent. He was trying to build a foundation under Norberto. He thought that by placing him on big longshots that had little to no chance to win, it would allow Norberto to get more practice in without blowing his bug. Norberto went on to lose over 180 races in a row after that first win until one day that all changed. It was at this point where he began to light up the tote board with these longshots and Max figured he was running out of time with him at Rockingham and they decided to move tack to Aqueduct.

Max Hall and Norberto Arroyo Jr. blazed their way to the top in 2000 and they were in the hunt for Eclipse Apprentice rider of the year as they had amassed 188 wins from 1,165 mounts with 6.9 million dollars in earnings. It was at this point in Norberto’s career when he started to notably get into trouble with several highly publicized fights, severely beating a cab driver and assaulting someone with a pool stick in a bar. I thoroughly believe that Norberto would have won Apprentice rider of the year over Tyler Baze had he not found himself in so much trouble that year, hindsight is always 20/20. The voting was very close, Norberto had out earned Tyler Baze that year and did so under multiple suspensions.

Missed Opportunities

As I previously stated with the Apprentice Award, Norberto’s behavior on and off the track dictated his career. Someone with so much natural talent and probably one of the best positional riders in the country missed out on prime chances. Norberto was known for having to be pushed to get out of bed in the morning and because of his partying habits it became harder for him to show up for workouts in the mornings. What many do not know is that he had the opportunity to ride FunnyCide in the Kentucky Derby. Due to not showing up to work out the horse, the mount was given to Jose Santos Sr. and as you know Jose won the Kentucky Derby as well as the Preakness with FunnyCide.

Norberto was also supposed to ride Scrappy T in the Preakness against Afleet Alex. He wasn’t able to ride that mount after his previous stakes win in NY on Scrappy T due to legal issues.

Saratoga 2009 Debacle

I was up at Saratoga on a sunny August day in 2009 hoping to see Norberto; however, as I was sitting next to my father prior to the races being run we were going through the daily scratches and I heard that Norberto was taken off all mounts for the day. He had been pulled over by the NYS Police and while conducting a search they discovered 12 grams of cocaine in his sock. He was charged with possession and sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.

Life after Prison

Norberto successfully completed his prison sentence and decided to turn over a new leaf and seemingly found a new lease on life. He started working horses out at Turfway Park in Kentucky and soon was back in the saddle winning two meet titles. He moved his tack to Oaklawn Park and right out the gate he was in the lead for another meet title until he just disappeared a few days prior to the meet’s conclusion. He subsequently gave up potentially winning the meet because of it. Some speculated what his disappearance was about however without firm proof I will not mention it. He was escorted off the grounds with about a week to go and told never to return. To this day he remains barred for life. He showed up next having a lackluster Keeneland meet with only a few wins and then faded away again. Another absence and I could see the pattern all over again.

After the Fire

It was in July of that year that Norberto surfaced once again. He was still in Kentucky and unfortunately his house burned down. He and his family were left homeless as they struggled to find a place to stay. Norberto had seemingly separated from them and was alone. We connected back and forth a few times over the course of several months. I would send him pictures of his wins from years past reminding him of who he was. I could tell in his responses he still had that fire and wanted to compete and was determined to make a go at it. It was January of 2016 and he attempted to go back and ride at Oaklawn Park but they weren’t having it. They refused his entry and having a racing license in peril, he decided that going to Turfway Park was not his best option. If Kentucky denied him a license it would unilaterally kick down to all other jurisdictions.

I could tell at this point he was at his wits end and felt like the world was against him. We had a long conversation and I remember telling him, “you can do anything you want in horse racing, you just have to get on the horse.” “You’re far too good to be sitting on the sidelines watching as you grow older.” Norberto was dead broke, no money nor a stitch of hope, but he still had friends surrounding him. One that comes to mind was Pat Day. Norberto spoke fondly of Pat all the time to me, what a great man he was. Pat had an influence on Norberto because Norberto respected and admired him. It was in this conversation where we mapped out and talked about the plan. The comeback of all comebacks! I told him I just have a feeling you will ride again in California.

The only chance at the time was returning to racing via New Mexico. It wasn’t his ideal landing spot but hey it was a start. He shipped in around April, winning races in bunches at alternating tracks. He was happy to be back doing what he loved, race riding. We still had hope and we still had the plan and the plan all along was to end up at a larger circuit again. He had a great support system in place as it was not only me but two other close friends that shall remain nameless. We were a band of 4 who supported him, helped him with whatever he needed to get back to his riding days, paying fines, licenses and travel expenses, you name it he had the support.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

I used to say don’t call it a comeback Norberto, you’re just back. It was indeed a comeback and one of epic proportions and severe disappointments. Fast forward to July of 2016 about 6pm I get a call and it’s Norberto calling me, “I have some news brother, after the last race here I’m moving my tack, I’m coming to Del Mar to ride the summer meet.” Of course, we were all excited. The plan we spoke of was unfolding perfectly before our eyes. His brother Nelson Arroyo had been working behind the scenes and they had made amends. Nelson finally saw what he needed to see out of his brother to want to take initiative and an interest in his career again.

Norberto’s return to the top ranks of racing was really nothing short of spectacular. I never met anyone in my life that had 9 lives like this kid did. No matter what he did previously he always found his way back. We had high hopes, and after a great Del Mar summer meet, we hoped to see a potential Breeders’ Cup mount but unfortunately, he didn’t get that chance. Norberto rolled on through the rest of the year racking up wins. What he did get was the award for Comeback Rider of the Year by Jockeytalk360.com. I believe John Velazquez told him; “you only get one of these.”

Although Norberto was disappointed in not having Breeders’ Cup mounts that year, we knew that if he just stayed the course, he would be in line for some serious mounts the following year. You have one job, just stay out of trouble. The last time I saw Norberto we were out at dinner and I will never forget the words he said to me. “California is so easy”, “I got this locked in out here”. Knowing what I know about Norberto, I knew this was a bad omen. Sure enough, less than 60 days later, Peter Miller parted ways with Norberto. This had major repercussions because Norberto then lost the mount on Stormy Liberal and potentially could have ridden him in both Breeders’ Cup wins. Things were starting to implode at this point and it was evident that Norberto’s past demons were back, drinking and drugs.

Norberto had recently gotten engaged and the last time we were together he had introduced me to his fiancée at the time, they seemed very much in love and happy. Little did I know the call I was going to receive months later which still haunts me to this day.

I was in Las Vegas and my phone was ringing from a number I did not recognize, so I didn’t answer. Nine calls in a row later I decided to answer as someone was desperately trying to reach me. I picked up the phone and it was Norberto’s fiancée, Elizabeth. I could barely understand a single word she was saying, she said “look at your text”, and when I looked, I saw a picture that was so horrific I felt sick to my stomach. It was a photo of her with her face beaten in. I said who did this to you? She told me that Norberto had held her down, punched her repeatedly in the face and slammed her head against the floor. The reason was unclear and whichever reason it was is irrelevant as there is never a reason for this type of behavior.

I was in a pickle because he was my friend and I felt so bad for her because she needed help. It was at that moment that I made a decision to help her and over the course of a year was supportive of her and tried to guide her to break free of him because maybe the next time she wouldn’t survive. She has told me numerous times that I saved her life; however I don’t feel that way nor do I feel like a hero. I never felt great about any of it. It was just a mess. One that I found myself involved in and to this day I am unsure as to why.

You’re supposed to step up and help someone how can you turn a blind eye? As a human you have a duty to do what is morally right. There really was no decision, I just did it.  

Friendships were fractured, relationships were ended, and a promising career was seemingly on the rocks once again. Norberto had another chance even after all of this, she was never going to press charges and it would have gone away but his constant and consistent badgering and verbally abusive calls and texts to her ended up sinking him.

He was arrested in Arcadia in April of 2019 and they confiscated his phone. When searching through his phone they went through facebook messages between him and his former fiancée. The police were able to surmise based on the conversation between them and photos of her face that she was the woman who showed up at a hospital in Arcadia one night months earlier when they were on the scene taking a report. As one could imagine they finally found out who the person was that his fiancée wouldn’t name that night at the hospital.

The 9th life  

I have never seen anyone in my life that has had more lives than Norberto. If he truly has 9 lives what happens next has to be the 9th and final one. Out on bail for well over a year and dealing with ongoing legal issues, Norberto was still trying to ride and still trying to hold on to what he knew best. I believe it was at this point where he was too far gone in terms of his demons and riding with a court case looming over his head and the drug and alcohol abuse just took over. Unfortunately, he ended up meeting someone new and got engaged again. I had spoken with his prior ex a few times and I remember she would cry and tell me that she was afraid for the next person. That he would do this again. She was right. Norberto was arrested this past December on a series of charges stemming from domestic violence of his new fiancée and this time it included her child. He was arrested in San Diego County and somehow managed to post bond and get out. My sources tell me he was arrested at the courthouse he arrived at for his other pending case in Los Angeles in which he is taking to trial.

He was previously offered a plea deal in LA county of 3 years and he refused to take it forcing them to prepare for trial in which I was told they would be seeking a minimum of 10-15 years if convicted.

The Agent

Nobody was more instrumental in not only getting Norberto licensed, back in the saddle, and a leading rider than his younger brother Nelson Arroyo. Nelson helped Norberto get licensed in Kentucky after he had been banned from racing. He orchestrated a comeback that saw Norberto lead the standings in his first two meets back after 4 years away from riding, 3 of them in prison. Sure, you have to be able to ride, but your agent has to also get you on the right horses. Norberto fired his brother after those meets and went to Arkansas by himself. Nelson took care of his daughter regardless. Norberto was off to a hot start but cooled off by the middle of the Oaklawn meet. He was asked to leave and not return to the grounds. After surfacing in New Mexico and riding at Sunland Park Nelson helped him again bringing him to Southern California and taking his book. In all, Nelson handled his brother’s book for 6 complete meets. Norberto was leading rider in three of them. He won the Bing Crosby meet at prestigious Del Mar after not being top 10 at Sunland Park not long before. With a history of closeness that goes back to childhood, ultimately Norberto’s demons were too much for the relationship. Nelson loves his brother, and would do all a brother would for him. He also had to do what he had to do for himself, and that was separate himself from Norberto professionally. Nelson continues to enjoy success as an agent currently representing Heriberto Figueroa at Santa Anita and Jorge Velez at Santa Anita.

Norberto being interviewed on Arkansas TV after arriving at Oaklawn

I never met anyone in my entire life that had so much natural talent that let it all slip away because he couldn’t control his demons much less so many squandered chances and redo’s in life. How many can you get before you run out? There is no definitive magic number on that; however, I can assure you most aren’t lucky enough to get as many as he has had. It’s a shame on so many levels. It’s a shame for the victims involved and for what could have been one of the greatest comebacks in the history of horse racing had he just played his cards the right way.

Norberto Arroyo Jr. could have been whatever he wanted to become had he exercised control of himself. He could have been a champion prize fighter as he was taught how to fight by the great Roberto Duran, Norberto’s father was Duran’s ex sparring partner for many years. The sad reality is that Norberto beat himself, in the end he was his own worst enemy.

Contributing Authors

Nick D’Agostino

Nick grew up In upstate New York near Saratoga. This afforded him the benefit of being able to embrace the ambiance  of the premier summertime...

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Comments

  1. ferrara.tony33@gmail.com Feb 13, 2020 at 9:47 am

    Great article Nick, just wish it had a happier ending. “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent, and the choices that you make will shape your life forever. But you can ask anybody from my neighborhood, and they’ll just tell you this is just another Bronx tale.” – Calogero ‘C’ Anello (A Bronx Tale, 1993)

    1. Nick D'Agostino Feb 14, 2020 at 4:39 am

      Thank you for the compliment, I’m not sure what was harder writing or publishing it.

  2. Shaun Broderick Feb 13, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    Nick I never saw anyone that had as much talent as him , I compare to cordero the kid was great on the lead , off the pace he was the full package just a shame to see such a talent go wasted .

    Shaun from saratoga springs ny

    1. Nick D'Agostino Feb 14, 2020 at 4:27 am

      Immense talent, as I saw a term today via twitter and thought to myself this really summed it up, “he was a riding savant”.

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