ARCADIA, Calif. — With more than 5,500 wins to his credit in a career dating back to 1988, Joe Bravo, a third generation jockey, enters 2022 as a full-time member of the Santa Anita jockey colony and perhaps the early favorite to win the 73rd George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award as one of five finalists along with Glenn Corbett, Julien Leparoux, Rodney Prescott and Tim Thornton.
Bravo, 50, a 13-time leading rider in his native New Jersey, made national news when he decided to shift his tack to Southern California this past summer. “Jersey Joe” sat down for an extensive Q & A to address his past, present and racing’s future Friday morning.
Q. Your father and grandfather were both jockeys. Being around the business your entire life, when did you know this is what you were going to do?
A. Really, before I could walk, I kinda knew I was going to be a jockey. There was no way at anytime in my life I was going to be a basketball player, I’ll put it like that. I was kind of built for this game. All I ever wanted to do was learn about horse racing. Not too many people know this, but between the ages of 10 years old and 16, I spent that time in Texas. That was kind of my schooling, riding match races and that’s where I kind of learned all my skills before I was legal age to start riding.
Q. Would you agree, that for any young jockey, there is no substitute for riding races?
A. It’s the experience you get. It’s like going out and doing any job, every day you learn something. That’s one thing my grandfather told me, ‘You can be a 100 years old in this game, and every day, you’re going to learn.’ You gotta be a sponge. These horses don’t talk, but you gotta listen to ’em.
Q. As a young guy coming up in the business, was there any one jock or several jocks that you really admired and respected?
A. Yeah, my father (George Bravo). He really took me by the hand and took me to the right place. Every day, you learn from all these guys. The Hall of Fame riders, the Bill Shoemaker’s, the Pat Day’s the Jerry Bailey’s, Mike Smith…But one thing you gotta know, jockeys don’t make horses go faster. There’s no jock that can make a horse go quicker but a jock can make mistakes and you gotta learn by each one you ride out there. You go out there, give it your best learn to read your animal, that’s how you get the most out of ’em.
Q. You’re approaching your 34th year in racing. You don’t appear to be a big self-promoter. Safe to say you’re a guy that likes to let his work, morning and afternoon, speak for itself?
A. The real start to the game is the horses. We’re just blessed to be able to be a part of their team when they go out to race. What makes you a great rider is sitting on good horses. So if you go out there and try to ride 10 horses a day that are 30-1, some people might think, ‘That’s a really bad jockey cause not one of ’em won.’ But most of them probably weren’t in the right spot. Every horse can win a race but they have to be in the right (race). That’s where a good agent and a good jock come together and try to make sure your chess pieces are in the right place when the gates open.
Q. Beyond riding good horses, what are some of the intangibles that make a top rider?
A. It’s the experience that comes from reading your horse. You know what wins or loses races? Tell me how much of a turn of foot the horse has. All horses are fast…But it’s being able to read them. Some horses are big, long and lanky and you can’t get ’em shut down in behind horses. ‘Why did that jock lose ground?’ Well look at (the horse), he’s built like a basketball player and he needs to get rolling. Other horses are compact and if you put them outside, they’re not going to sustain a long run. And that’s where experience comes in and you know the animal before the race even starts.
Q. Let’s talk now. You’ve won 22 riding titles in New Jersey. Thirteen titles at Monmouth Park and nine at the Meadowlands. You’re forever going to be Jersey Joe. When the New Jersey Racing Commission instituted the radical change with the use of the whip last year, you voted with your feet and came to Southern California last summer.
A. That’s pretty much how it was. Jersey will always be home. I’m blessed to be called Jersey Joe. I love it there. There’s no better place to live in the summertime than the Jersey Shore and I love Monmouth Park. But with the change in conditions, it makes it tough. (Looking ahead), I’m just hoping that all states follow the same guidelines for safety, medication and riding crop rules. It’s almost like watching football and every time you go to a different state, they (would) have different rules. Why should horse racing be any different? I think we should all abide by the same rules, state by state.
Q. Looking back to last summer, you hired Matt Nakatani as your agent and you caught on quick at Del Mar. You ended up fifth in the standings with 21 wins and three stakes. One of the reasons you got off to a fast start was your tremendous ability on the grass. It just seems like win or lose, you have your horses rolling late, when it counts.
A. I do agree, I can win a lot more races on the grass than on the dirt, especially at a big meet. It’s being in the right spot at the right time. It’s just having a horse with a good turn of foot, you can be last turning for home on the grass…As long as you can punch through pockets when you need to. That’s where experience comes in, just being able to read all of that. I take my hat off to Matt Nakatani. He got things all set up and we had a great summer.
Q. As you know, the problem now, is inventory. It’s gotta be tough on a guy like you, who’s used to riding live horses and riding regularly.
A. I’m gonna be honest. I’m having a little mental problem, having four days off a week. I’m a part time jock again, three days a week, it’s tough…Mentally, I just need to take a step back. I am 50 years old and I don’t need to be riding 10 races a day, but to have a five-day schedule would be really wonderful in a perfect world.
Q. That said, have you made a decision about where you’re going to ride full time for the remainder of the year?
A. For right now, here. I’m here and we’re seeing how everything plays out. Like I say, I can’t tell you what tomorrow’s going to bring. But it’s a good living, it’s California…We’re all looking for that one big, good horse. And there’s a couple here…We’re looking for the next, best horse.
Q. Speaking of top horses, one of your greatest moments came here at Santa Anita in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Distaff with a longshot named Blue Prize. You got the jump on the even money favorite, Midnight Bisou, what did that win mean to you?
A. That was my first Breeders’ Cup winner after riding for 30 years and it really was the icing on the cake, but that will tell you what special horses do. I was able to ride her in a few starts leading up to the Breeders’ Cup and she was a very erratic filly, very strong filly. I was able to channel all of that on that afternoon and it’s just nice to be able to get on good horses like that.
Q. Finally, the Woolf Award has been presented by Santa Anita since 1950 and most of the greatest names in the history of our game have won it. At this stage of your career, what would it mean to you to win it?
A. A close friend of mine told me that your life’s like a painting. Everything you do in life is on that painting at the end of it. Wow, having that award on it, would really make it one helluva career. I think there would only be one other honor that would be bigger, and that’s the Hall of Fame. So we just have to go out there and everything we do, hopefully contributes to receiving those kinds of honors.
The 73rd George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winner will be determined next month by a vote of jockeys nationwide. The winner will be announced in a Winner’s Circle ceremony at Santa Anita sometime this spring.
Santa Anita Press Release
Photo: Joe Bravo/Benoit Photo