“It wasn’t really my plan from the beginning to be a jockey, it kind of just happened”
It was an emotion-packed win for Mauricio Malvaez on Sept. 27, 2020. Coming around the final turn in the Grade 3 Canadian Derby at Century Mile, Malvaez looked around him. To his surprise, no one was passing him.
Hmmm, he thought. Where are they?
He describes it as a surprise, even a shock, that no one passed him on the way to the finish line at the Nisku, Alberta, track. Riding Real Grace, he had successfully fought off race favourites Synergy and Something Natural.
He wasn’t the only one surprised by the outcome.
Real Grace, the three-year-old gelding co-owned by trainer Shelley Brown, Jean McEwan, Bette Holtman and Bernell B. Rhone, was dubbed a long-shot winner … and so was Malvaez. The underdog apprentice rider from Edmonton, Alberta, riding in his first Canadian Derby, also marked his first major win and 10th career victory, this one at 18-to-1.
“I wasn’t expecting it myself,” says Malvaez, reflecting on that race. “I know that it is rare for an apprentice to even ride in the Derby, let alone win the Derby, so yeah, it was a shock to me. But I was so happy, you know, filled with emotion.”
It’s all about taking chances notes Malvaez’s father, Marcos Malvaez, a retired trainer and jockey. When he heard his son had a mount in the Canadian Derby, he says he was immediately hopeful – noting with a wry chuckle that at least “he has a better chance than if he were watching the race.”
“[At the Derby] I was jumping and falling down and I’ve never been so excited in my life, to tell you the truth,” says Marcos. “That’s what racing is all about; it’s not always the best horse who wins.”
Malvaez, 24, notes that his surprise win has since earned him a great deal of local and national attention; it was the highlight of a whirlwind year, with 16 wins leading all apprentice riders in Canada in 2020. He also took home the Sovereign Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey at the virtual ceremony on April 15th.
Despite his recent successes, Malvaez notes his racing career has not always been a straight trajectory.
“It wasn’t really my plan from the beginning to be a jockey,” says Malvaez. “It kind of just happened.”
Instead, Malvaez says initially one of his first passions was boxing, which saw him earning medals at the nationals, winning the national Golden Gloves in his weight class and competing in the Olympic qualifiers in Montreal in 2015.
It was only a few years later that Malvaez says he had to make a tough decision and choose between racing or boxing.
“I went with horse racing…but [boxing] sort of laid the foundation for my hard work and discipline around the track,” explains Malvaez, who notes that a race in 2018 was the turning point which motivated him to enter the racing industry. “I rode this amateur race at Century Downs. It was to raise money for prostate cancer. That really sparked my interest in race riding.”
Dad Marcos remembers witnessing his son coming back from that race in 2018 with “his eyes wide” for racing.
A jockey himself who rode the Alberta circuit before retiring in 1993, Marcos says he gave his son his full support, even though he knew the challenges in the industry.
“Mauricio has always been very dedicated to everything he does…I was happy that he took this challenge,” notes Marcos. “I’m super happy with the results so far, extremely happy.”
As Malvaez entered into his first season, he notes that things were initially really tough. He says he experienced a number of challenges, such as not getting mounts.
“I struggled to get my license even, and just getting okayed from the gate, it took me a little while,” says Malvaez. “I rode about 21 races and most of them were for my dad… I didn’t even win one race.”
Things started to turn around in 2020 though, explains Malvaez, as he got a head start during spring training and acquired some early wins. One of those came aboard a 50-1 longshot named Fairy Barb on June 28th.
On top of the support from his dad, Malvaez notes that family friend, Ron Grieves, whom he worked for as a kid, helped him out considerably during this time.
“That’s how I broke in,” says Malvaez. “He gave me a lot of horses to ride, and I won four races for him last season… It’s kind of cool, ’cause that’s who I started for when I was really young.”
Grieves and the Malvaez family go way back. With Mauricio growing up just blocks away from Northlands Park, he started working for Grieves at the track at the age of nine, cleaning tack and working his way up, eventually graduating to grooming when he was 15 years old, and then galloping at the age of 19.
From there, Grieves offered Malvaez a number of different horses to start.
“I wanted him to do good and I just had horses I could give him a try on,” explains Grieves, who says that over the first few years he saw Malvaez improve exponentially. “When he first started riding, he was like all of us ‒ he was no good ‒ but it didn’t take him long to get better.”
When Malvaez rode Real Grace to victory in the Derby, Grieves was cheering him on with the rest of his family at Century Mile.
“I was thrilled for him and his dad, his whole family. The fact that he just had a Derby mount was great,” says Grieves. “But don’t worry, I’m old enough that I still keep him in his place. I can always tease him, and he always has a smile.”
Marcos appreciates the high degree of support for his son from the racing community, something which he says definitely contributed to Mauricio’s big Derby win.
“At his Derby interview [Mauricio] said all the racetrack is his family, and it’s true,” says Marcos. “The racetrack has been like his family, he grew up there.”
The next big chapter for Malvaez is his imminent move out east to Woodbine; a move which has, for now, been put on hold due to the pandemic.
“I was supposed to go early this spring and I decided not to, and then the restrictions got pretty heavy out there, so I kind of just decided to stay here for now until I hear anything concrete about racing,” explains Malvaez who notes that the COVID-19 closures on racing facilities have definitely made things more challenging for the industry.
The move to Toronto is his next big goal, and a chapter he is looking forward to as a new place to grow and develop his career.
“I want to challenge myself more, get outside of my comfort zone and go somewhere where I have never been,” says Malvaez. “My next goal would be to win some more stakes, progress, get the most of my potential…I definitely love what I do and I’m looking to continue for a while.”