Manny Franco on a day where he scored five of eight on the card. (Walter Wlodarczyk)
NYRA Press Office/Belmont at the Big A Notes
OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Each year, National Hispanic Heritage Month is recognized from September 15 through October 15. As the 31-day celebration continues, Puerto Rico native Manny Franco, the current leading rider on the NYRA circuit for the year,is soon to reach a major milestone as he closes in on his 2,000th career victory, boasting 1,973 wins [including 21 in Puerto Rico per Equibase stats] heading into Friday’s card at Belmont at the Big A.
Franco, a 28-year-old native of Carolina, Puerto Rico, has enjoyed success on some of racing’s biggest stages, including Grade 1 triumphs in the Belmont Stakes and Travers in 2020 aboard New York-bred fan favorite Tiz the Law, and a win at the 2019 Breeders’ Cup with Sharing in the Grade 1 Juvenile Fillies Turf. Additionally, Franco has won eight riding titles at NYRA racetrack meets and was the year-end leading rider on the circuit in 2018-19. Franco is on track for another year-end title with 175 wins on the NYRA circuit as of Friday – a 46-win lead over Irad Ortiz, Jr.
“I feel so blessed that God gave me the help to do what I love, and for all the help that I have had from all the people who have given me the horses to make this possible,” said Franco. “I can’t ask for more, and I want to thank my agent, John Panagot. I knew I was going to work hard for this, and that’s what I’m here for. I’m just happy to have the support.”
Before Franco became a top rider on one of the nation’s most competitive racing circuits, he honed his skills at the Agustín Mercado Reverón Escuela Vocacional Hípica – the Equestrian Vocational School based at Camarero Racetrack, where students learn an array of skills within the sport of horse racing, from riding to grooming to blacksmithing.
Along with learning to ride thoroughbreds, Franco and his fellow classmates were well versed in general horse husbandry, skills that Franco said have stuck with him throughout the past decade since he graduated.
“It’s a big advantage to have been in the school two years and they show you how to take care of horses, from bathing them to cleaning their stall,” said Franco. “You have to take care of their legs and all of that and knowing all that gives you confidence.”
Franco is one of many esteemed graduates of the program, his name amongst a list the school is proud to have watched move their tack to the mainland to become some of the sport’s top riders. Other graduates of the program include Hall of Famer John Velazquez and Eclipse Award-winners Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Jose Ortiz, who studied at the school one year before Franco, was one of the young rider’s biggest supporters both in Puerto Rico and in New York, sharing an apartment with Franco when he first moved to the mainland and mentoring him through his early years. Ortiz ranks third in wins at NYRA this year  and said it has been a special experience to ride alongside Franco as both have found immense success since their graduation.
“We used to spend a lot of time together and lived together for the first few years of our careers. He’s a very good friend of mine and I love him,” said Ortiz. “I’m very proud of him. He’s very sharp, and he puts in a lot of hard work in the mornings as well as in the afternoons. He’s grown not only as a jockey, but as a person. He’s like a little brother to me and I wish him nothing but the best.”
Willie Lozano, Jr., a retired multiple graded stakes-placed jockey who became an instructor at the school in 2019, was still riding at the time Franco entered the program and said it’s no surprise to him that Franco has become the rider he is.
“Manny was a good kid, and he was always talented. I watched him develop from a bug boy to become the rider he is now,” said Lozano, Jr. “In the school, we always pay attention to the kids and all the milestones they get, and we are very happy for Manny.”
Lozano, Jr. said Franco is among the most successful riders to have attended the school in recent years and serves as a role model for each class of new students, exemplary of what a young rider can accomplish with hard work and dedication.
“The students learn discipline both on the ground and on the horse,” said Lozano, Jr. “The work ethic is so important. We share the success of our graduates with all of our new students, and they look up to them. When we start class, I always ask them, ‘Why are you here and who do you want to be?’ A lot of the kids, the first thing they say is, ‘I want to be like Franco.’ They’ve got heroes to watch.”
After Franco graduated in 2013, he remained in Puerto Rico for the first two months of the year, posting 21 wins at Camarero and polishing his approach to riding before moving to New York in March to take on the tall task of competing in New York. It did not take long for Franco to find the winner’s circle, guiding Roaring Seasons to a 10-length score on March 22, 2013, just 13 days into his Empire State endeavors. Just five years later, Franco would earn his first riding title when posting 61 wins at the Aqueduct winter meet.
In addition to Tiz the Law and Sharing, Franco went on to pilot a bevy of Grade 1 winners, including Joking, Yellow Agate, Discreet Lover, World Approval, World of Trouble, Channel Maker, Althiqa, and Tribhuvan. In all, Franco has earned 195 stakes wins, 58 of them graded, with nearly $135 million in total purse earnings.
Franco currently leads the Belmont at the Big A standings [8 wins] by one win over Irad Ortiz, Jr. heading into Friday’s card. He said it is an honor to not only be one of the nation’s top riders, but to be a jockey that all aspiring riders can look to.
“When I came here, I felt like they do and I wanted to be like the top guys,” Franco recalled. “To be a role model for them is a dream come true for me. To have been looking up to those guys and now someone is looking at me – it’s so amazing.”