Last Dec. 30, five days after her 22nd birthday, Vicky Aragon climbed aboard a 23-1 shot named Big Bounty in a cheap claiming race and began her career as a jockey at Santa Anita. She finished seventh in a 12-horse field.
Still, it was Santa Anita, where the best jockeys on the West Coast ride the best horses. When she left the track 20 months earlier, she was an exercise girl. She left carrying used boots and used whips and a pair of riding pants that Bill Shoemaker had given her, and she headed for Longacres, outside of Seattle. Aragon had heard it was a place where a girl jockey could get a shot.
The shot came, but not because she was a girl. It came the way shots usually come—she went out and created it—and in less than two seasons she had established herself as the best rider at Longacres. And now that she was back at Santa Anita, no one was saying she didn't belong.
"The first time I ever saw her was in September of 1985," said Gary Stevens, who won purses worth more than $11 million in 1986 and was Santa Anita's leading jockey. "I went up to Longacres for the Gary Stevens Classic. They had a day up there to honor me. They bet me off the board, and then she almost won the race. We had ourselves quite a duel coming down the stretch. It took everything I had to beat her.
"She rode very tough, all the way through. People say girl jocks don't finish well, but Vicky's strong. She finishes as strong as anyone on a horse.
"Ever since she's been here, it's the same thing. She doesn't get many rides yet, and the ones she does get are long shots, but if she's sitting on a live horse at the top of the stretch, she's going to be there at the end."
Getting live horses to sit on became a problem for Aragon at Santa Anita. So three weeks ago, after riding too many 50-1 shots, she headed north to Bay Meadows, near San Francisco, where she had ridden last fall and where she can pick and choose her mounts. But no one at Santa Anita doubts that she will eventually be back.
"All she needs to do is stay the same," said Stevens. "Obviously she has what it takes. She doesn't need to force things.
"Forget that she's a girl. I could always pick a girl out in a race—even my own wife, who was a jockey when I met her. I think maybe it's the way they sit. But I can't pick Vicky out. She looks as natural and relaxed as anybody out here. And she rides tight, she rides a fine line. She isn't going to give anybody breaks out on the track."
Keeping that in mind, let's go back five months, to Sunday, Sept. 21, the third race at Longacres. A very pedestrian 33-year-old jockey named Victor Mercado takes an equally pedestrian horse—possibly of the same age—to the outside as he is turning home. There is another horse and another rider in the space Victor wants. The other rider is Vicky Aragon, who, as Gary Stevens pointed out, doesn't give anybody anything on a racetrack. Especially space.