By Michael Valiante
Young Trainer Jesse Cruz Looks to Build a Future in the Game
“Brick by brick, my fellow citizens, brick by brick.” You might recognize this quote from the movie Seabiscuit. It is originally attributed to a Roman emperor who was laying the groundwork for his citizens who were taking on the job to rebuild the city after a great fire. It’s meant to convey the fact that long hard tasks can be accomplished with diligence and patience. I thought about this quote after recently meeting Jesse Cruz, a young trainer originally from the mid-Atlantic region whose name you may not be familiar with. He’s not Bob Baffert, nor does he necessarily aspire to be. He is however, like many people in this industry, a tough, hardworking individual looking to make a livelihood in a sport for which he has a great passion.
Jesse learned the ropes originally from his mother Daisy Tobin, a former assistant trainer, and his stepfather, Lewis Craig Jr., a trainer at Charles Town. During our talk we discussed a handful of topics.
“The biggest thing my parents instilled in me was working hard, to get up early and go forward with your day. Training horses is an all-day event and typically that means arriving at the barn at 4:45 AM. I enjoyed working with them but you know how it is when you are working for your parents. You ultimately want to seek out and do other things. I then moved on to galloping horses for Ollie Figgins III who was a big mentor for me. I was an assistant for him at the time he had Dance to Bristol and went all over the country with her including when she ran at Saratoga and Santa Anita. After she retired I took a few summers and galloped horses for Bill Mott, Mike Maker and Joe Sharp. I kind of picked up bits and pieces from each operation and I put some of what I learned from them into place when I began to train on my own. It was especially valuable since Mott and Maker are two very different kinds of trainers, so I learned a lot.”
“I was twenty-three years old when I went out on my own two years ago. My next goal is to have a 20- to 30-horse stable and make a good living. It’s possible, but certainly not as easy to do as someone who starts out with million-dollar horses. You have to claim the right ones, keep building connections, and keep your head down and work hard. I’m two years into the process of reaching that goal and I’m shooting to double my win total from last year. I’m currently handling horses for a client (Wasabi Ventures) at Oaklawn and that experience is great. I plan on coming back to Delaware Park later this year and ultimately, longer term, have a string of horses that could compete in Maryland as well.”
Developing as a Trainer
“I’m always learning. Early on I may have been guilty of issuing too many instructions to jockeys. One time I gave JD Acosta a whole book of instructions at Timonium. He laughed and said ‘you know this is a bullring.’ I said, ‘You’ve won more races than I have, you just take him around there.’ I placed my horses a little more aggressively last year at Delaware Park and that worked well for me and my owners. When I claim, I concentrate on consistency, possible improvements I can make with equipment changes, as well as watching the horse itself trying to see something that will catch my eye.
Both of my major clients last year, Wasabi Ventures and Bell Gable Stables are active in the claiming game. They’re involved with the horses but they also give me flexibility to train horses generally as I think best.”
“I’ve always been hands-on with my horses and I plan on remaining as hands-on as I possibly can. I gallop all my horses and given my experience I think I am a pretty good hand on the back of a horse. I also enjoy it. It’s hard at times to gallop and watch all your horses train but I like being on the track and it helps me figure things out with my horses. My stepdad, Lewis Craig Jr., always told me that there’s no book that instructs you how to train every horse and being active helps me figure each horse out.”
The Long Day of a Trainer
“It’s a very busy life. On race days after working horses out in the morning you might at best be able to shower and get back to the track. I also typically handicap races my horses are running in. I watch replays too. TK Kuegler from Wasabi Ventures is very much a proponent of getting good eyes on horses before we drop a claim. The game takes up most of my day and does put pressure on my personal life. From a relationship standpoint every girl I’ve dated has been involved in the game. My close friends understand that the game does hinder personal relationships at times but they have known me since high school and have gotten use to the fact that I put a lot of my time into the game.”
I came away with a good feeling after talking with Jesse Cruz about both his future and the way young people like him can have a positive effect on the game. As I noted earlier, he is not Bob Baffert. The everyday handicapper realizes that our sport also needs the solid group of claiming and allowance trainers like Wayne Potts and Ollie Figgins for the game to thrive. Keep an eye out on this young man as he strives to become one of the building blocks in the great game of horse racing.