Social media has been abuzz lately with the arrival of apprentice rider Sofia Vives to Woodbine’s jockey colony, and with good reason. The 20-year-old rider has already secured several wins within her first month of racing at the Rexdale oval.

If you type ‘Vives’ into the jockey section of Equibase, you will notice two other names pop up: Lazaro Vives and Juan Carlos Vives. As Sofia points out, these two people have heavily influenced her career choice.

“My dad and uncle were both jocks, so ever since I was a little kid I knew this is what I wanted to do,” said Vives. Sofia’s dad, Lazaro, and her uncle, Juan Carlos, rode south of the border at tracks including Penn National and Garden State, to name a few.

Born in Walterboro, South Carolina, Vives was raised in Ocala, Florida, which is home to its fair share of racetrackers and equestrians alike. While some naturally find their footing in the industry through the family business, Vives dipped her feet into Thoroughbred racing by way of her father’s career path.

“When my Dad stopped riding races, he worked for Mark Casse for twenty years, so I was always on Mark’s farm growing up.”

“I used to stop on the lawn mower and peek at the track to see everyone training because I knew that’s where I wanted to be one day.”

Mark Casse is a household name in the racing industry. The stark red stable cloths worn by his fleet of trainees in the morning are an ever-present force at Woodbine, while the winner’s circle is seemingly a second home to the leading trainer at the track. Outside of Woodbine, Casse runs horses consistently across the border at various US tracks, most recently capturing the Gr.1 NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Wonder Wheel. Casse’s operation includes a beautiful training centre in Ocala, Florida. This is where Vives’ dreams of race riding started to take shape, and where she found herself taking on a different role on the farm at the age of 16.

“I actually worked in maintenance for him, and you can ask Richard [Lowe], the head of maintenance, how good I was with the post-hole digger because I think one year we probably planted over 700 bushes on the property. I planted bushes and mowed the lawn every day and I was so tired of it! Early in the mornings I used to stop on the lawn mower and peek at the track to see everyone training because I knew that’s where I wanted to be one day.”

With the assistance of Casse, the budding rider was able to begin learning the ropes in hopes of becoming a jockey. “When I first started, I was just about to graduate high school, and I was just learning a little bit. Mark said ‘if you want to learn, you can come learn with me. The only rule is you have to graduate high school.’ As soon I graduated high school it kind of just took off, and when he gave me that opportunity how could I say no? It’s Mark Casse and it’s always been a dream of mine to work for him.”

“I think when I graduated high school I was only 70 pounds … when you are that little and you’re a girl – how can someone trust you on their horse?”

This industry is all about taking chances, and Vives was well aware that it wouldn’t be a cake walk breaking into the industry.

“We always bought and sold our own horses but I never really rode much. I was big into sports and I was always a little kid. I think when I graduated high school I was only 70 pounds. So it was hard for someone to give me the opportunity when you are that little and you’re a girl – how can someone trust you on their horse?”

Yet, someone did take that chance, and Casse is quite candid on why he did in Vives’ case.

“Her determination, her size. When you see a young person and they are struggling with their weight before they even get started, I don’t think that’s a great thing. I liked her attitude, her work ethic. I’ve known her for a long time, since she was a little girl. Her parents worked for me before she was born, so that definitely gave her a little edge. She had a foot in the door.

“I kind of try to give anybody a chance that shows they love the game and they have determination. Declan Carroll, who is also riding up at Woodbine, is another one that started under us,” said Casse.

Working horses in the morning is challenging, but race riding requires physical strength and mental acuity to get the most and best out of your mount. Casse has watched Vives progress from one stage to the next over the last few years.

Sofia at trackside. (Alex Zhang photo)

“She’s worked for us for over two years as a [work] rider, and we’ve taken her to different places and tried to prepare her – to Ocala, to Saratoga, and then South Florida, and then to Toronto, and back to Saratoga. After this last August meet, I said to her, ‘I think you are ready to ride.’”

Standing 5 feet and weighing 109lbs, Vives rode her first race on October 29th and finished second aboard Kevin Attard’s trainee Basalt Street. A day later, she won her first race aboard Bodacious Miss for trainer Steve Owens. Since then, Vives has captured two more races, including a win for Casse and owner Gary Barber with Swinging Mandy back on November 5.

Support from family and friends is evident with her parents tagged in her first few wins on Facebook. For Vives, wearing Barber’s hot pink silks feels like an accomplishment in itself.

“For Halloween, when I would dress up as a jockey I would wear a pink shirt because it was Gary Barber. To be able to ride for him has always been one of my dreams.”

Casse is pleased with Vives’ start at Woodbine. “It’s great. Maybe too good! The reason apprentices are given the bug and given the weight advantages is because they need to learn.”

Apprentice jockeys have a 10-lb weight allowance for their first five winners. After securing a fifth win, apprentices will be granted just a 5-lb allowance, which they can hold onto until the following forty winners, or for a year from the date of their fifth winner, whichever comes last.

While Casse acknowledges that Vives still has a lot to learn, he seems confident in the young rider’s future. “I think if she continues with her determination and she has ability I would think next year she could possibly win the Sovereign Award at Woodbine for leading apprentice rider. Her size is good, she sits on a horse extremely well, and I’ve always felt she gets a lot of run out of horses. Some people get horses to run faster than others; even in the morning workouts I always felt like her horses over-performed. I don’t know why but they do. You’ve already seen a little bit of that in the few races she’s ridden.”

Vives knows what it feels like to win, but when asked what has been her best experience so far, the rider reflects on a narrow loss on October 30th.

“The most memorable was Baytown Elvis, 33-to-1, getting nailed on the wire. Still to this day, I think about what I could have done different. Could the stick have helped me do better? It’s always in the back of my mind.”

Making tough decisions on and off the track is a delicate dance horsepeople do every day. In Vives’ case, it involves the apprentice weight allowance; she has decided to stop riding after her fourth win, which she secured on November 11 aboard Coltons Dream for trainer Norman McKnight.

“To call it off is a hard one. In Canada, since they don’t offer year-round racing, you can essentially ‘freeze’ your bug, so I can stop at four. Next meet, I can ride the full seven months of the meet, and then in winter I can freeze it and come back in 2024 with five months left of my bug. So I can have my bug this year, next year, and 2024.”

Along this journey, Vives acknowledges several important mentors that continue to provide support, guidance, and insight into the industry.

“My dad for sure, he is my best friend. Anytime something happens in a race, the first person I call is him, always. Junior Alvarado, he is a huge coach of mine, and I look up to him. Mark Casse, if I ever need anything. And there’s also an older gentleman, Joseph Brocklebank, from Ocala. He used to be a jockey and anytime something happens I can always call him. He is wise and his perspective on things is very different. He can look at a race and tell you ten things that you did right and those two little things you did wrong that cost you.”

In the jock’s room, she notes the support of several jockeys. “At Saratoga, I was in the jock’s room every day and John Velazquez, Junior Alvarado, and Ricardo Santana would come help me on the Equicizer. They were very welcoming and here, I’ve had Kazushi Kimura and Declan Carroll help me.”

From a childhood dream to full-blown reality, Vives is living out a career she feels she was destined to follow. And while there is more to come with this story, the apprentice rider remains keenly aware of what drives her to keep going and continue the daily grind in the racing game.

“My dad and my uncle. I believe they didn’t get to finish what they had started, and I don’t want their last names to be the last Vives. I think that I can carry on the journey as far as they needed it to go.”