TORONTO, March 15, 2023– Sofia Vives’ one complaint about getting aboard 33 Thoroughbreds on a near-perfect Florida morning? She didn’t have the chance to get on more.
With every horse she guided onto the track at the picturesque Casse Training Center in Ocala, the apprentice rider beamed, each one offering the 21-year-old a welcome opportunity to hone her craft.
“When I was done, I headed home and went to sleep,” said Vives. “But it was a good feeling. Any day like that is a good one. I guess the only downside was I wish I could have got on a few more.”
Vives, who will be at Woodbine for opening day of the meet on April 22, has been champing at the bit to see her 2023 season get underway.
Last year, she rode in 16 races, all at Woodbine, before shutting things down to retain her apprentice weight allowance. Apprentice riders receive a 10-pound weight allowance for their first five winners. After a fifth win, they are granted a 5-pound allowance, which they can retain until the following 40 winners, or for a year from the date of their fifth winner, whichever comes last.
Since her last mount, Vives has kept herself busy in the Sunshine State, working dozens of horses in preparation for what she hopes is a memorable year in the irons.
“I’ve had that April 22 date in my mind ever since it was announced. It’s really motivated me to get through the winter. I wanted to stay busy so the time would go by fast.”
In her short time in the saddle, Vives, whose father, Lazaro Vives, and uncle, Juan Carlos Vives, were both riders, has turned heads with the poise and potential she’s shown.
Born in Walterboro, South Carolina, she was raised in horse-rich Ocala, Florida. When her father hung up his tack, he went to work for dual hall of fame conditioner Mark Casse for 20 years.
Sofia often tagged along with her dad and eventually landed a maintenance gig at the trainer’s farm.
While she was appreciative for the work, Vives’ would often find herself distracted.
“I would always sneak a look at the horses going out to the track and watch them flying around out there. I knew that’s where I wanted to be one day.”
Casse, one of the sport’s most decorated trainers, offered both support and opportunity for the aspiring rider throughout her racing journey.
The 5-foot, 109-pound Vives has embraced every lesson and words of advice from Casse and others, grateful for their guidance and encouragement.
On October 29, 2022, at Woodbine, she contested her first race, and finished second with Kevin Attard trainee Basalt Street.
In her next start, the following day, it appeared Vives would net her milestone first win in a 1 1/16-mile Tapeta race.
Sent off at 33-1, her mount, Baytown Elvis, held a head advantage at the stretch call, digging in gamely as 6-5 choice Laraque came calling in the final strides to the wire.
After a photo finish, it was Laraque who came out on top by a head.
Disappointed at the result flashed on the infield tote board, Vives wouldn’t have to wait long to make that first trip to the winner’s circle.
The third time was indeed the charm when Bodacious Miss romped to victory in the seventh race on November 3, a 5 ½-furlong claimer that attracted a field of eight.
There was no need to sweat out a photo finish this time.
“I’ve always wanted to ride races my whole life. When I won my first race, that is something I had never felt before, something almost every jockey would likely say. The first people I thought of were my dad and my mom. My dad has been my best friend through everything. He’s a big idol to me. My mom was actually there for my first two starts, so when I won in my third start, she had gone home the night before. I was so bummed I didn’t get the win when she was there when we got nailed on the wire. I really wanted to get that win while she was there, but she was so excited when I got that first win. My agent [Jordan Miller] was there… I was just so thankful for that moment. It was a dream come true. That had always been my dream. To win in my third start and to win by 7 ¼ lengths, you really can’t forget it.”
And Vives, who would dress up as a jockey for Halloween as a kid, certainly hasn’t.
“I could tell you the whole race, backwards and forwards, 100 times. Every day, I watch my race replays. It’s chance for me to look at what I did right and what I can improve on.”
There would be three more firsts by the end of the 2002 Woodbine campaign, including a win for Casse with Swinging Mandy on November 5. Her final win came on November 11 with Coltons Dream.
The final tally: 4-3-1 from 16 starts in 2022.
“She’s dedicated, hard-working, has natural ability, and is a natural lightweight,” said Miller. “I believe she’ll go far in this sport. She has a long ways to go and a lot to learn, but she’s all-in on being the best she can be.”
“The highlight was definitely the feeling of winning. I also met a lot of new people at Woodbine. It’s a really good colony and a lot of people are very helpful, which means a lot. I really did learn a lot. I only had 16 starts, but each one taught me something new. How much I was able to learn in those 16 starts is amazing, but there is so much more to learn and to pick up on. That will be the same for this year. Every time I ride, I want to learn something new, things that can help me become a better rider.”
Getting on 33 horses certainly helps with that goal.
“It does. A lot of the horses I get on, they will probably go to Woodbine at some point. So, it’s cool to figure them out, what their strengths are, what they need help with, and how I can help them. Hopefully, I can ride some of the ones that I’ve been getting on down here.”
A self-described student of the game, Vives has had ample time over the winter Ocala to look back on her first year of riding and to also look forward to the 133-day Woodbine meet.
“I learned that I have a lot more patience than I thought I did. I always felt that I’m a relaxed rider. I never panic and never worry. I believe that approach really did help me with the horses I got on at Woodbine. I was able to have them quiet on post parade and they went into the gate quietly and stood well. There is a lot that I learned.”
And, as she quickly noted, there is still much more to verse herself in.
When her mornings at the Casse Training Center are finished, Vives isn’t done with the horses or horse racing.
It is common practice for Vives to head home and watch tapes of her races, study them intently, and then take mental notes.
As for life outside of racing, she laughs, somewhat sheepishly, at what it is.
“Nothing. Racing, it runs through my mind all day. I call my parents and we talk about a bunch of things, but it always comes back to the horses. This is all I know. I go to the gym, but the whole time I’m there, I’m thinking about getting stronger for the horses. I enjoy going to the pool, but I’m thinking about the horses too. When I wake up and when I go to bed, I’m thinking about the horses.”
Soon enough, those thoughts will take on more meaning.
Much like her recent morning in Ocala, Vives is about to be very busy.
“I’m going to be riding at Woodbine Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and Parx on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. I can’t wait to get it going.”
And when it does, the chase for personal goals will kick into high gear.
“If I can win the Sovereign Award, that would great. I want to win three in a day as well. I’ve won two in a day, but if I can get three, that would be amazing. I would be the happiest girl in the world.”
For now, far removed from the crowds in the grandstand at Woodbine, Vives will continue to prepare for her first race of the year.
No need to ask if she’s counting down the days.
“I think about it all the time, even when I’m not around the horses. I picture a lot of things in my mind, and I just keep pushing myself to be ready when that moment comes, to ride in a race again. It’s the happiest thought I can have.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms