Living the Dream: From being broke to riding in the Kentucky Derby

May 22, 2020

It was something he would’ve never envisioned growing up in Venezuela. 

And even though horses have always been a part of his life, the thought of riding in the Kentucky Derby was not even remotely considered by jockey Samy Camacho. 

But life’s vagaries show us how rapidly our fortunes can change. On March 7, 2020, Camacho’s life would never be the same. That day, he rode a son of Uncle Mo to a stirring 4 ¾ length victory in the 1 1/16 mile Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby Grade 2 according to Equibase. Sent off as the third longest priced horse in a field of 12, and under confident handling by Camacho, King Guillermo cruised to an impressive victory, removing all doubt about the horse’s ability and allowing the rider to embrace the reality which had been an objective he had hoped to achieve, but the moment itself when it finally happened had a surreal quality. It was a visceral experience for the rider from Caracas. King Guillermo was sent off at odds of 49-1, with his connections having far more confidence in their horse than the bettors that afternoon. King Guillermo is trained by Juan Avila and owned by five-time Major League Baseball all-star Victor Martinez’s Victoria’s Ranch. 

King Guillermo Winners’ Circle Tampa Bay Derby

“I had a lot of faith in my horse before the race,” said Camacho. “After the race, I was crying. It was very emotional. I’m very happy about the victory because it was a stakes race I had wanted to win from the very beginning, when I had first started riding at Tampa Bay Downs. My dreams have come true. There’s no stakes race at Tampa Bay Downs that’s more important. That stakes race is sending me to the Kentucky Derby.”

Martinez purchased the horse from the consignment of Gene Recio at the 2019 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company Spring Sale of 2-year-olds in Training. 

King Guillermo and Camacho followed up that effort with a strong second place finish in the 1 1/8 miles Grade One Arkansas Derby’s second division on May 2, 2020, with the bay colt already having stamped himself as one of the best of his generation. Camacho’s partnership has taken on added significance with King Guillermo’s owners’ Victoria’s Ranch, who have chosen to stay with the rider, one who’s locally based at Tampa Bay Downs, rather than opting for a jockey with a higher national profile. 

“It’s amazing for me and my career, my team and the horse,” said Camacho. “There’s no race more important than the Kentucky Derby. I love this horse. He’s like a warrior. The horse has a big heart. He’s amazing. He’s a small horse, around 1,000 pounds. He’s not very big. He doesn’t weigh very much. He’s perfect for me.”

The jockey, trainer and owner are all from Venezuela, making King Guillermo’s victory more poignant. Camacho has watched the colt’s progression and marvels at his evolution and his growth, not only physically but mentally. 

“It’s amazing that everyone is from the same country,” said Camacho. “I’ve had so many people from my country call me and text me. It’s unbelievable. I knew the horse had power, but he showed me he was all class when I rode him in the Arkansas Derby. He hadn’t fully matured yet. He came into the Arkansas Derby stronger. He was more horse. Everything was better. I’m so happy for my horse and everybody from my country.” 

However, having a dream is the first step in creating a lifestyle that you’ve always envisioned. Camacho possessed the necessary attributes to make his dreams a reality, and an intrepid quality that would help him overcome whatever obstacles he found in his way. 

It was far from being an overnight sensation for Camacho, who made his first foray into the United States as an apprentice, with the native of Venezuela riding at Monmouth Park in 2011, winning 32 races. He would return to his home country more polished, winning 120 races. But at the same time, Camacho had an intense desire to return to the United States, there was unfinished business, and he knew within the depth of his soul that he would find success and reach new heights, the next time he stepped foot in the U.S.

When he did return to the United States, the destination would be Ocala, a place where he had family. Florida would play a pivotal role in the jockey’s future. Camacho possessed all of the desirable attributes one would want in a jockey. He had a tremendous work ethic, indefatigable spirit and an unquenchable desire to win. 

He would find himself riding at Donald Dizney’s Double Diamond Farm and T. Paul Buhlmann’s GoldMark Farm in 2016. 

“I didn’t bring any money with me to the United States,” said Camacho. “I went to the farm, galloped horses and broke babies. At the time, I didn’t have any money, and I had to make money to support my family and to bring my family to the United States.”

Camacho galloped horses at Double Diamond for about six months, and in June 2016, he would make the transition to galloping at Goldmark. 

“Todd Quast gave me the chance to ride horses there,” said Camacho. “I began galloping horses at GoldMark Farm, and in November of that year, I started riding at Tampa. I was galloping at the same time (in Ocala). In 2017, after riding at Tampa Bay Downs for three months, I won my first race on February 28.”

That initial victory would serve as a harbinger of what was yet to come. Camacho’s competence in the irons and fierce determination made him a formidable force in the Tampa Bay jockey colony.

“Tampa gave me the opportunity to develop as a rider and make money, and provided me with the chance to make all of my dreams come true,” said Camacho. 

Killybegs Caption

Among those trainers who gave Camacho an opportunity to ride at Tampa Bay Downs, was the track’s leading conditioner Gerald Bennett. And one charge in Bennett’s barn that Camacho seemed to make an instant connection with was a mare named Pink Mama. Camacho and the Florida-bred daughter of Mass Media found the winner’s circle in their first start, winning a 6 furlong starter allowance optional claiming race on May 27, 2017, which was the rider’s birthday, with an impressive 6 ½ length score. 

“He’s the best trainer in Tampa, Gerald Bennett, I love the guy,” said Camacho. “The owner of Pink Mama is Gerald Bennett’s assistant trainer, Juan Cacho Castro, or Carlos. I had always asked Carlos if I could ride the filly, and two years ago, when Gerald Bennett went to Gulfstream for the summer, he gave me the opportunity to ride Pink Mama. I won seven races with her.”

Camacho’s mercurial rise was hardly an overnight success, his steady and consistent performance kept on attracting a number of barns who were interested in having him ride their horses. And at the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Downs meet, his hard work paid off as he accomplished an objective he had set his sights on. 

 “My first title at Tampa, it was amazing,” said Camacho. “I won the title with Steve Elzey as my agent (his current agent is Mike Moran). He died three months ago. I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news.”

However, Camacho’s first big horse was a Florida-bred by Verrazano, Stirling Drive, who was conditioned by the late Milton Wolfson. The combination of Camacho and Stirling Drive enjoyed great success, as the dark bay gelding owned by N.T.S. Stable broke his maiden in a 7 1/2 furlong contest at Gulfstream Park on Sept. 1, 2018. Camacho and Stirling Drive would win three stakes races on the turf within a year, with added money scores in the one mile Juvenile Turf Stakes at Gulfstream Park West on Nov. 10, 2018, the one mile Not Surprising Stakes on July 6, 2019 at Gulfstream Park and the one mile Showing Up Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Nov. 2, 2019. 

“He gave me a couple of good stakes,” said Camacho. “Before King Guillermo, Stirling Drive was my big horse, but now it’s King Guillermo. But I still love Stirling Drive.”

A son of six-time Grade One winner English Channel gave Camacho his first graded stakes victory. Hoolie Racing Stable’s and Bruce Lunsford’s Admirality Pier, trained by Barbara Minshall, won the 1 1/16 mile Grade Three Tampa Bay Stakes on the turf on Feb. 8, 2020, digging in gamely to win by a nose, paying a handsome dividend of $44.00.

“I will never forget him because he gave me my first graded stakes winner,” said Camacho. “The first time I rode the horse, it was on the dirt (Dec. 29, 2019). He won a nice race, and after that he was put in a stakes race. She (Minshall) told me to put him in front. I followed the instructions and the horse sent me to the wire. I was really happy that day because he gave me my first graded stakes victory.”

Sammy Camacho

Curragh Stable’s Killybegs Captain, already a Grade Three winner, combined with Camacho to capture the added money Pelican Stakes in consecutive years, winning the race in both 2019 and 2020. The two have connected for three victories. The 6-year-old son of Mizzen Mast is trained by John Terranova, II. 

“Killybegs Captain is my other big horse,” said Camacho. “He’s a sprinter, a really fast horse. I love that horse. I know that horse 100 percent. Nobody knows that horse better than me.”

Camacho will be shifting his tack to Gulfstream Park as he has in the past to ride in the late spring, summer and for the preponderance of the fall. His intention is to accomplish another one of his primary objectives and return to Tampa and regain his tile for the 2020-2021 meet. His first day riding at Gulfstream will be on May 28th, his wife’s birthday. 

Sammy and family

“When I go to Gulfstream, I want to be in top shape,” said Camacho. “I want to do my best this year in Gulfstream because I’m going to the Kentucky Derby. My other dream is to win the summer meet at Gulfstream. It’s a challenge but it not impossible. If I have the confidence of the owners and trainers, I have a good chance to be the leading jockey there. I have a lot of confidence, a lot of faith in God, and I know I can do it.” 

By Ben Baugh

Nice score King! @jonathanstettin Well played with the 4 singled on one ticket. 2 times! Big congrats.

Michael R. Snow (@theWynnDough) View testimonials

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