Luis Cardenas said he wanted to be a jockey ever since he was a child living in the Lima district of Punta Negra in Peru. In 2019, he had the chance to fulfill his dream, making the first three starts of his professional career. In 2020, those incremental steps led to big things, as Cardenas posted 41 wins to lead all apprentice riders on the NYRA circuit.
Last year was full of milestones for the now 23-year-old Cardenas, who notched his first win with a come-from-behind effort aboard Solitary Gem in the eighth race at Aqueduct Racetrack on January 10. In total, 2020 saw Cardenas post a 41-51-50 ledger in 582 mounts at NYRA tracks for earnings of more than $2.2 million while competing in a jockey colony that boasts Eclipse Award champions and American Classic winners.
“I had a nice start at the beginning of the year and so many people on the backstretch who I worked for were real supportive,” Cardenas said. “I recently watched my first ever race on replay and I think to now and I see the improvement. That’s the key. You just have to take care of your own business. It’s one of the best colonies in the world and I always wanted to compete with the best, and it’s taught me a lot.”
Cardenas moved to the United States when he was 12, settling in New Jersey. His father worked with harness horses, though Cardenas said being a jockey remained his goal as he got older. His first foray into the career came when he worked as a groom and hotwalker at Monmouth Park.
He then trekked to South Carolina to work at the Webb Carroll Training Center, providing a background knowledge that proved invaluable when he came to New York in 2017 to work as an exercise rider for trainers such as Leah Gyarmati, Bruce Levine and Randi Persaud.
“I always had the thought growing up in Peru from the time I was 6 years old that I wanted to ride,” Cardenas said. “My dad was an exercise rider there and my grandfather was a jockey. They used to take me to the racetrack. I was 12 when I told my dad I wanted to be a jockey. I didn’t care too much about anything else, I wanted to pursue that dream.
“When I moved to the United States when I was turning 13, my dad worked with harness horses instead of thoroughbreds, so it was a little difficult because I didn’t have any connections at the racetrack,” he added. “But at Monmouth, I started hotwalking and grooming horses, and it helped a lot. I learned how to take care of horses and when I decided I wanted to ride, I went to South Carolina and I learned how to break babies and it helped my career a lot.”
His hard work in the mornings paid off with a career highlight last summer, as Cardenas won the opening race at the prestigious summer meet at historic Saratoga Race Course aboard Grit and Glory on July 16. Cardenas won two additional races at the Spa, which attracts some of the world’s best jockeys, with wins aboard Vinda Machine and Big Package.
“The first day at Saratoga, I opened the meet with a win for [trainer] Linda Rice, who gave me a great opportunity. It was amazing,” Cardenas said. “I felt like I was a superstar. It was a great experience to ride there and I just feel very fortunate.”
Cardenas, who still maintains his five-pound bug, also overcame injury setbacks. In February, a hand injury suffered during training at Belmont Park cost him a couple of weeks, and a mild concussion prevented him from racing during part of the Saratoga meet after his hot start.
But Cardenas shrugged off those issues and had a strong Belmont fall meet. Working with agent P.J. Campo, Cardenas made the most of his mounts, posting eight wins at the Elmont-based track, before closing his 2020 with 14 wins from the start of the Aqueduct fall meet to New Year’s Eve.
“Hopefully we just keep taking the right steps forward and getting the trust of the trainers and go forward,” Cardenas said.
Press Release and Photo: NYRA