Chop Chop at the Top

“That’s one thing about New York,” said Jorge Chavez, the jockey who won the Kentucky Derby. The 4-foot-10-inch, 39-year-old man with chestnut skin, thin lips and sharp, dark eyes smiled slightly as he waited to race at Belmont Park on May 10. “When you win, when you do good, they all be happy for you,” he said. “They all clap for you; they’re rooting for you. It’s a wonderful thing …. The second you get beat, some guys come over and call you names.”

If Mr. Chavez wins the Preakness on May 19, much of New York will be clapping and rooting for him when he comes back to Belmont with a shot to win the Triple Crown on June 9. If he loses, the bettors lining the rail or camped out in the shaded paddock will be calling him names–and not his racetrack nickname, “Chop Chop.”

The racetrack population–from the white-haired day-trippers on the sun-baked benches near the finish line to the Jimmy the Greek types in the clubhouse lounge–say, This just might be the year . This could be the year that a jockey and a horse come to the post at the Belmont Stakes, the longest and final leg of the Triple Crown, to become not just winners, but legends. Horse-racing fans have been staking that prediction for the last 23 years. Not since Affirmed in 1978 has a horse won the back-to-back-to-back competitions. And without a bona fide equine hero, horse-racing mania among the general public has suffered.

But this might be the year. Monarchos, the horse swaddled in a blanket of red roses in Louisville on May 5, pounded into first with a time just shy of the great Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby record. Secondly, Mr. Chavez–”George” or “Georgie” to his friends, “Chop Chop” to his fans for his adamant, masterly use of the whip–will be riding once more, and he may be the most underrated jockey in America. He was the leading rider in New York from 1994 to 1999, meaning he cranked more horses into first place than any other jockey. In 1999, he won the Eclipse Award, given to the jockey of the year.

This is a turning point for Mr. Chavez. For 15 years, he consistently won riding titles at most of the tracks he worked. But that was quantity, and in the stratified world of racing, what counts is getting on the finest thoroughbreds–the kind who win the big-money stakes races and qualify for the Triple Crown. Then a rider can earn millions more, a place in the history books, and fame that extends from the track all the way to the little girls who dream about horses and spend their Saturday afternoons cantering around stables.

Four years ago, Mr. Chavez began putting a plan in motion to reach the top. He replaced his longtime agent with a new one, ex-jockey Richard DePass, who set out to prove that Chop Chop had finesse. In 1999, Mr. Chavez broke through with two prestigious Breeder’s Cup races, on Artax and Beautiful Pleasure. Then he set the Kentucky Derby as his next goal.

Earlier this year, Mr. Chavez discovered the horse that he believes is the greatest he ever rode. “Monarchos,” he said. “That’s my best horse.”

Mr. Chavez has made miracles happen before–turning himself from a Peruvian street urchin into a multimillionaire. So if Monarchos has the power on May 19–if, as they say, Mr. Chavez “has horse”–then the jockey’s will alone could push him across the finish line first. His fans believe he has such special gifts. At 8 years old, he was living in the streets of Lima on his own, earning 50 cents a day at a bakery. When he speaks now, he still gives off a flicker of wariness that illuminates the streetwise kid.

He started life in the house of his father and his father’s girlfriend in the destitute nearby port of Callao, with a brood of older brothers and sisters who bullied him. “I was never part of a real family,” he once said. “Since I was the smallest, I was beaten and denied food and clothing.” He couldn’t bear the cruelty and left home. No one ever came after him. He worked where he could, collecting bus fares, washing cars. When he couldn’t find a friend to stay with at night, he would climb into the back seat of a car to sleep.

After a few years, he managed to locate his biological mother, whom he had never known, in a different section of Lima. By that point, she had 12 other children. He tried to join their lives, sleeping sometimes 20 to a room. When one of his half-sisters killed herself, the family seemed to take its sorrow out on him, the outsider, and he went back to the streets.

When Mr. Chavez was 20, a friend suggested that he try to be a jockey. He applied to the Hipodromo Monterico and got a job “hot-walking” horses after races and mucking the stalls. “The first time I was on top of a horse, you get this feeling like you can fly, like you’re a bird,” he said. “That was what I feel. I don’t know if other people feel that. Sometimes you hear nothing, because you just think what are you going to do.” Two years later, he got his riding license; inside of 12 months, he had become Peru’s top jockey.

On a vacation to Florida in 1988, a friend suggested that he try riding at the local tracks. Mr. Chavez started winning, and the bigger money convinced him to stay in the United States. His reputation for roughness took shape from the beginning. That first year he received long suspensions, although one of the first violations was more comic than calculated. A trainer hired him to ride a horse and told him it couldn’t be beaten. But at a crucial point in the race, Mr. Chavez dropped his whip. As he passed another jockey, he asked him, “Do you have any horse?” The friend said no and gave Mr. Chavez his whip. That infraction put him on dry ice for a month. “You have to go fishing,” said Mr. Chavez.

Still, he won riding titles at the three major Florida tracks. He moved up to New York in search of better horses and, with his accomplishments down South to back him, picked up mounts from the start.

“Eddie Arcaro, they said he had a stopwatch in his head,” said one Chavez fan, who wished to remain nameless, as he sat at a table of fat-cat gambling friends in the Garden Terrace Dining Room at Belmont, flashing manly jewelry. “Cordero rode the same way. Mr. Chavez has the same mentality. He knows exactly the time schedule.”

“If you polled New York fans, I guarantee you he would win by 90 percent as the No. 1 rider,” said H. James Bond, one of the first trainers to use Mr. Chavez regularly, and the one who put him on the great stakes-winner Behrens. “George is always trying. He’s trying as hard for third as he will to win. That’s his patented thing. A lot of riders that can’t win just say, ‘Well, another day.’ George is always trying to get the best bang for your buck, whether it’s a $14,000 claimer or a Grade 1 stakes horse. Everyone feels they have a great chance when George is up for their $2, and the owners and trainers feel the same way.”

In a profession of small men and women, Mr. Chavez is extremely small–4 feet 10 inches and 108 pounds. But small and quiet do not add up to demure on the track. Immediately after the Derby, John Velazquez, the competing jockey who was riding Invisible Ink, asked officials to disqualify Mr. Chavez for cutting him off in the last stretch. But officials concurred that Mr. Chavez hadn’t bumped Invisible Ink, just charged by him. (Only one Derby winner has ever been disqualified; Dancer’s Image was bumped to second in 1968 after testing positive for butazolidin, a painkiller.)

“Jorge has been my No. 1 rider for many years,” said Mr. Bond. “If you put him out there in the afternoon, he’s just ferocious as a beast. He gets a lot of run out of a horse.”

“He’s solid as a brick,” said Mike Marlow, who oversees Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ stable at Belmont. “He’s good at getting a horse away from the gate, and he helps them finish.” Sometimes his aggressiveness can look harsh. “Oh, he can crucify a horse,” said John Toscano, a Belmont trainer. “He’s known for that. Some of the trainers don’t like it.”

John Ward, Monarchos’ trainer, insists that what looks like a severe whipping style is an illusion. “He had a reputation for riding a horse hard, and that is in direct opposition to how my wife and I feel we want our horses ridden,” said Mr. Ward. “We watched Jorge ride and we put him on a couple of horses and … he cruised around a lot, but he really doesn’t hit a horse that hard. As a matter of fact, he’s very light on a horse. So we started having success.

“Jorge, by being very short-legged, doesn’t have the leverage and momentum that a tall rider does. A tall rider can really push on a horse and make the horse extend–follow through the way a diver does off a diving board. Jorge uses a very quick motion with his body and his hands to keep a horse in a good, long, full stride, and while he’s doing it he’s waving his whip, and the whip is coming very, very close to the animal, but he hardly ever touches the animal. He might brush it against him. But he doesn’t just reach up and do the chop-chop.”

By the end of last year, Mr. Chavez had earned a total of $103,144,082 for his owners, trainers, agent and himself. Still, he managed to keep friendly relations with the other jockeys. “A lot of these jocks can’t speak English, so they just accumulate in the corner there until they get loose,” said retired jockey Angel Cordero, who dominated the New York scene in the mid- to late 80’s, when Mr. Chavez first arrived. “He was very quiet. He never complained. He was always a gentleman, and he showed me a lot of respect from the beginning, so you get to like people like that. We became good friends. We see each other six times a day all year round, from 6 o’clock to 12 o’clock–more than we see our families. You either like a person or you don’t.”

Mr. Chavez is quiet, by dint of personality and subtle language difficulties that haven’t been negotiated even after 13 years in New York. After the Derby victory, said Monarchos’ trainer John Ward, “We just kind of did a high-five. You can’t understand Jorge too well when he’s happy. I said, ‘Is everything O.K., Jorge?’ He said, ‘O.K., O.K.'”

“Most people don’t understand that you work for one trainer in the first race,” said Mr. Bond, “and that horse maybe doesn’t break well or gets shut out, and in the second race you have to go look Jim Bond in the face, and he’s about to throw you up on a good horse …. You think about how a top rider like a Jorge Chavez rides seven or nine races a day and works for possibly five to seven different trainers a day, and still has to be emotionally that charged–it’s really amazing. Jorge gives you a great sense of confidence when you walk into the paddock.”

When Beautiful Pleasure, one of Mr. Ward’s horses, was beaten in a stakes race with Mr. Chavez riding him, “Jorge was so emotional, he couldn’t talk,” said Mr. Ward, he was so upset “that his favorite horse got beat.” Mr. Chavez told the trainer he had to go home to be with his wife, Margarita. “Some of the riders get off and say, ‘Where did you get this bum?’, and that really irritates you,” said Mr. Ward. “But Jorge is an extremely genuine rider. If his horse is running last, Jorge is still back there trying to figure out some way to better them.”

In the world of jockeys, there are a few standard horror stories: These athletes usually endure a cruel schedule of laxatives, marathon exercise sessions, fasts, hours in the 130-degree hotbox and induced vomiting, known as “flipping,” to stay around the regular riding weight of 105 pounds. But with his height, Mr. Chavez makes just one sacrifice: He eats only one meal a day. Most jockeys are reglued versions of themselves, shattered from dozens of death-defying collisions. But Mr. Chavez has only sustained a broken collar bone and ankle. And many jockeys, having weathered horrifying physical ailments, turn to drugs or alcohol to soothe the pain. But Mr. Chavez appears to have avoided that problem. His self-discipline is so great that, during his youth, he actually went to college for a couple of years before dropping out; that means living on the streets of Lima from age 8, sleeping in the back of cars, he still forced himself to attend school regularly.

In the late 80’s, Jorge Chavez met Margarita Chavez in Peru, when she came to interview him for an article. A year later, they ran into each other and became friends, but she was married to another man. But about 10 years ago, she surprised him by showing up one day at Belmont. She had gotten a divorce and moved to New York. They married and now share a large house in Franklin Square, Long Island, with their five children–two from her first marriage, one from his first, and twins who were born just 19 months ago.

Mr. Chavez cherishes that family, and they help make up for the deficits in his childhood. Six days after his Derby win, Mr. Chavez still was waiting to hear from the folks back home. “My father, he don’t call me, but he will call me,” he said. But his family “was very happy–they all call me and all come to my house. My friends … I tried to be close, but it don’t work out, so I don’t mind. It’s my past. I don’t want to talk about my past.”

Mr. Chavez and his wife make large donations to an organization for homeless children in Peru. They fly down twice a year to make sure the money gets where it should. He also lavishly tips grooms and hot-walkers at the track. “The stable area, they love him,” said Mr. Cordero. “Everybody is ‘Chop Chop.’ He’s the Chop-Chop man. If he ran for President on the race track, he’d get a lot of votes.”

But he’s got a long road ahead of him before he can come back to Belmont on June 9 for that beautifully fickle brand of New York love.

“I believe in a little bit of everything,” he said. “I believe in God. I believe in your talents. I believe in the horse and I believe in luck, too. Because … you can have the best horse and you get blocked, and something happens and you lose the race. Everything has to be working in the race. It’s like a team. So you got to be everything perfect.”

He has everything New Yorkers like in a hero–a relentlessly positive attitude, an intense work ethic, an underdog life story, an aversion to dredging up the past and a driving style that would incite the envy of any cabbie. Everything perfect.