Cristina Bonilla is a young jockey who is currently riding at Evangeline Downs. This is her story so far:
FOTH: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
CB: I was born in a suburb of Chicago called Aurora. It was a pretty bad neighborhood. There were days when my sister and I had to run behind houses to get across the street to my aunt’s house. She looked after us and would wave us across the street when it was safe. Gang members would be on the streets waving their guns and throwing rocks at people’s cars. My parents split when I was about 2 years old, and we moved a lot. I can count about 15 homes I lived in. We lived in homes and apartments all throughout parts of Chicago. Some bad areas and some good. I couldn’t tell you what was home, so It’s easier to tell everyone I am from Chicago.
FOTH: So what sort of girl were you growing up?
CB: I was very active growing up and socially awkward. What I mean by is that I like to be left alone. I have a lot of anxiety being around people, especially when people are close to me or small talk. I playing sports, which is why it doesn't surprise me that I became a jockey. I can be active ALL DAY! I started sports at a very young age because I couldn’t pay attention in class. I was too hyper, often disruptive by beating up boys for my older sister. My favorite subject was art and recess. I played football with the boys during recess time. Of course, gym class was my favorite too.
Anything that got me out of class, that allowed me to run around all day was my forte. I was finally introduced to basketball in second grade. I ended up playing for 10 more years along with track and field and volleyball for the same amount of time. I also played girls flag football for two seasons in high school. I was the quarter back. I have quite an arm on me! However, basketball ended up being my favorite. In fact, I wanted to play in the WNBA. I was really good, and I have one hell of a shot. I played varsity my sophomore year. I could have played in my freshman year, but I have quite bit of a temper... a temper that has stuck with me till this day. I am extremely competitive, and I’m very hard on myself. I would say I am my own worst enemy. I’m never satisfied because I always feel like I can do better. I'm a perfectionist. I feel like if you’re going to anything, whatever it is, aim high and never settle. If you don't care to be the best at something, then I don't know why anyone wastes their time being "mediocre." I hate losing. I didn't grow up around horses. I don't think I even touched a horse till I was 25 years old, but that's another story. Other than that, I have always gotten along with everyone. People tend to like me. If they don't trust me, I don't give a shit. Who lets idiots phase them anyway? I've always been fairly independent, tough minded and a loner. Some people might take it personally, but that's just who I am. It is nothing against anyone, I just like to be left alone. Even though I like to be left alone, I would give my last cent to put a smile on someone’s face.
FOTH: So what did you think the first time you saw a live horse race?
CB: The first time I went to see a race, I was 20-23 years old. I can’t remember exactly, but I went to Arlington Park in Chicago with my boyfriend at the time. We were driving around bored and he asked if I had ever been to the track. I wasn’t that excited about the idea, but said okay. It seemed fun at first when we walked in, but I left after the first race. I didn’t see it as entertaining. To be honest, I thought it was a mean sport. This was when I didn’t have any knowledge about the positive side of racing. I only knew the negative side and left right away. I thought it was dumb. I didn’t go back after that day, and I didn’t think about it again.
FOTH: So in saying that, what perked up your interest in being a jockey?
CB: When I was 25, I was working for a commercial real estate brokerage firm doing marketing and graphic design. It was your typical 9-5 job, and I was bartending a few nights a week as well. I lived in downtown, and have always been a city girl. Never had the chance to grow up around horses. The closest I have been to a horse was the carriage rides they give in the city. I have seen some at the zoo, too, but that was it.
During my time at my 9-5, we were working on a project about polo for my boss. They were going to have an event on the North Avenue Beach with polo taking place. I was actually really excited about that event, and when it finally came time to go to the beach to watch, it was amazing. I thought how amazing these animals were and I had so many questions! After the event had passed, my boss asked me to go to one of his practices one day in the suburbs. I don’t know what made me go but that was the day my life changed. I sat on a horse for the first time in my life after he practiced. Her name was Roxy, and I did a small circle with her while my boss walked along the side of me. I was amazed. It was like everything going on in my life, went away for that moment, and I was in harmony with this amazing animal. I was sad to leave, and I remember all week I was doing research at work about horses. I was trying to find a horse hobby I could do on the weekend or after work a few times a week. I was so confused why my boss was sitting in an office when he could be playing polo and making money that way. Who wants to sit in an office 9-5? I was miserable. I needed answers, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. And when I was introduced to a horse, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So, on the laptop horse racing comes up. From there I realized I didn’t see too many females. I sat for a while just reading and reading. And then, I came across how no female had ever won the Kentucky Derby. I thought that was silly, and I was curious. That is when I knew I wanted to be a jockey. I told myself that, that is what I was going to do. I am going to be the first female to win the Kentucky Derby. I packed my bags two weeks after that and headed to New York where I had my first job hot walking at Belmont Park. But that’s another story.
FOTH: Well, Belmont Park is a pretty famous racetrack. Did you have any idea back then what you were getting into?
CB: No idea.
FOTH: So how soon after you got there did you know you wanted to be a jockey?
CB: I knew I wanted to be a jockey before I got there. I knew when I was doing research at my 9-5, that no female had ever won the Derby. I thought it was ridiculous no female has. I want to change history. So, I told myself, I was going to do that. That’s what I want to do. Right then, I knew I wanted to be a jockey. I was going to be the first female to win the Derby no matter what it took.
FOTH: So was it natural getting up on a horse after you moved on from being a hot walker? Who helped teach you how to ride, and how long did you gallop horses before you became a jockey?
CB: I know this is going to be long, but all of this is extremely relevant. It felt natural to me. I was so ready to do it and I picked it up quickly. However, my journey to learn didn’t go smoothly. When I went to Belmont, I worked for Dominic Galluscio for roughly 6 months. I hot walked and did some minor assistant work as well. I was learning quickly, so Dom said to go to Ocala, Florida to learn how to ride. He sent me to his friend’s farm to learn, Jimmy Miranda. Jimmy use to be a jockey and ride for Dominic. In fact, I think he won Dominic’s first career win as a trainer. Anyway, when I arrived at Jimmy’s farm, he had no idea that I have never been on a horse. I mean, I’ve sat on one, but I had ZERO experience. He was shocked. When he asked me to go tack the Pony, I didn’t know how to do that either. As time went on, I stayed in a round pen for about 3 months, I believe, just learning how to jog and lope a horse. I got tired of that and wanted to do more. I asked Jimmy if I could gallop, and he said I wasn’t ready. Being that I am extremely stubborn, I left and did some wondering. I don’t remember, but I eventually moved into a lady’s home, Debbie Harbin. She did dressage and taught me a lot! As I was doing dressage, she told me about a training center close to us that needed help. So, I was anxiously waiting and went and met with a lady who had a few racehorses. She had an exercise rider who was going to be gone for vacation and needed help. Shirley Lepage was the rider’s name and was very sweet. I told them I been galloping for 3 years and wanted to be a jockey. I had to bend the truth a lot to get people to help me learn.
So, I ended up galloping one in company with her. It was my first gallop on a track ever. I HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING. But I went along with it, and I did it. I don’t know how I made it, but I did. Just one for the day, and I was asked to come back tomorrow. When I came back the next day, i had four to take and one was a baby. Everything went great until I got to the baby. As we were galloping, a black cat ran across the track and dropped me. The trainer was pissed and told me I didn’t have enough experience. I pretty much told her off and went to another training center. This time, I ran into two amazing people, Nicole Ford and Jorge Guerra. I can’t tell you how lovely these two were, and after 9 months, I was breezing horses. Mark White helped me a ton. Jorge worked for him and so did Nicole, so they gave me a chance to learn.
After I spent time in Ocala, I went back to New York. When I got to New York, Dominic told me I had to wait for a spot in his barn, so he sent me to Leo O’Brien. I ended up working for Leo for 6 months. And let me tell you, I was horrible. I fell A LOT, and I had a hard time holding a horse because I was 98 pounds with only 9 months experience. I didn’t really know still what I was doing, but I learned so much every day. I had to learn quickly because I was 27-28 at the time. I was so overwhelmed. I also went to Saratoga and the first horse I got on, took off the wrong way on the training track there. After that, no one would let me get on a horse, so I helped Dominic with other duties. My second season was a lot better in the winter at Belmont. Naipaul Chatterpaul helped me a lot.
At one point, I was so terrible that I had permission to only go on the Pony track until I earned my way. When I finally did, I got on a few for Dominic. As time went, Dominic ended up passing away. I didn’t take it well. He really looked after me, and we would fight like father and daughter a lot. I lived with him for a while, and he was like a dad to me.
I remember the first day I got to Belmont, I went to the races with him. I had no idea what was going on. He kept saying things, and I was so confused. All I know is we won and before we headed down to take a picture, he turned to me and said, “I have this feeling that you’re going to be special. And that’s why I’m going to look after you. There’s something about you that I can’t describe, but I can see in your eyes that you will do anything to make this dream happen.”
After that we were inseparable. When he passed, I left New York. I had no reason, or I thought I had no reason for me to be there anymore. I wanted to make him proud and he wasn’t there anymore. I was deeply saddened by it. I remember the first time he legged me up on one of his horses, he shouted as I was tying my knot, “I can’t believe I just gave you a leg up on one of my horses. I remember the first day you walked in here clueless. You have no idea how far you’ve come in such little time.” And it seemed like he wanted to cry. He couldn’t wait for me to race and it really bothered me. So, I went back to Ocala to get more experience, since I wasn’t ready to race yet. I was far from it. When I got back to Ocala, I had a lot of jobs. A lot of people passed on me, because I didn’t have enough experience still. I struggled.
I went from farm to farm to farm to farm. The people I worked for that helped me a lot were Raimundo (I lasted only few months), Irene Colleti (I think I lasted a week), Danzel (I don’t think I lasted 3 days), Holley and Bryan Rice (farm was too far, but the little time I had there I learned a ton), the Whitman’s (I lasted a few weeks... I wasn’t good enough) and I spent a lot of time freelancing at a training center called Classic Mile for a few trainers such as Jose Flores, Jaimie, Milton Hendry and especially, Rudy Delguidice. I had the pleasure to gallop with Jacinto Vásquez for a lady named, Teresa Dear for a bit. I tried to ride for other people, but got turned down after a day or two trying. I could go on and on. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I was passed on because I wasn’t good enough. I had to bartend and do artwork to stay alive. The one place I learned the most was for Stonestreet. I can’t tell you how amazing everyone there was, especially Ian. I learned so much in my time there. I got strong and improved being around good riders and horseman. It was a great job.
After that, I went to Tampa to get my jockeys license and wasn’t able to. I had to gallop there first before I could. I didn’t want to do that, so I went to Miami, where I was finally going to try to ride. I worked for Dane Kobiski at Palm Meadows. I was given a hard time by the outrider there, too. It never ended. I felt like I was never going to be good enough and that I was never going to just keep a job and learn. I hated exercise riding. I was too small. I just wanted to race. I was really depressed for a while, because I didn’t feel fit either. I don’t care what anyone says, you can breeze a million horses and that does not compare to a race. If I could barely gallop a tough horse, how could I possibly race? I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to give up, or how many times I failed.
And then...Randy Romero came into my life. He flew to Florida to watch me get on horses and told me to come to Louisiana. When I went to Louisiana, I thought my struggles would end. I couldn’t get a license at Delta Downs. They were giving me a hard time. So, I waited for Evangeline, where I FINALLY earned my license. I’ve had my license for a year so far. I just started my bug about two months ago. I wanted to get experience before I started my bug, so I rode for as long as I could. I went to Fair Grounds and won 1 race the entire meet. I had 6 seconds, a few thirds and a TON of fourths and fifths. No one wanted to give me a chance, but the chances I got, I sure learned a lot. It was the best thing I could have ever done. Now, I am here at Evangeline for a second time and things are looking up! I won my 8th race last week and rode in my first stake race two weeks ago and finished 3rd. I’m doing great now. Things are finally coming along. I’m getting opportunities finally. It’s my time to shine now. So, to answer your question, about 3 years, lol, I’m 31. I started learning how to ride when I was 27-28 years’ old.
FOTH: So tell me about your first race. What track was it? Where did you finish, and how nervous were you in the Jock’s Room before the actual race?
CB: I had my first race at Evangeline. I was dead last. I rode for Michael McKinnel. Honestly, I wasn’t nervous at all. I have been through so much to get to this point. I WAS READY FOR IT.
FOTH: How about your first win? What track was that, and who was it for? Did you win by a lot, or in a photo? What was it like jogging the horse back to the winner’s circle?
CB: My first win was at Evangeline. It was my 5th race and very exciting! I was aboard Superstitious Swan for Bruno, a.k.a. Popeye. We were going a mile and my filly broke beautifully. I was in the lead for a few seconds until someone came flying to my outside and took the lead. It looked like the jockey was getting ran off with, so I made so not to panic by letting him go.
My horse was very relaxed, and I felt confident. As we were approaching the turn, I knew it was my race. I had so much horse and I was passing the horse in front by the time we were half way into the turn. I blew the turn a little bit but once we straightened out, she was gone. It was a sensational feeling. I kept riding anyway even though I knew I was by myself. I crossed the wire with a big smile on my face! I had won the race by 13 lengths! I was full of excitement and so much adrenaline still.
After I took my picture, I gave Superstitious Swan a kiss on the neck and unsaddled her. I walked over to the scale with a big smile on my face. While I was on the scale, Bobby, the clerk of scales, looked at me and said, “You’re on your own.” It was then I completely forgot what was coming and when I realized it, the first thing I did was take my expensive helmet off and tossed it away from what was coming. I was soaked with buckets and buckets of ice cold water. I could barely breathe, but it felt good at the time because it was so hot out. I had a few eggs cracked on top of my head and baby powder shook all over me. It was a great feeling and definitely a moment I could never forget. We even made TVG!
FOTH: What did your parents think when you told them you wanted to become a jockey and have they seen you ride yet?
CB: They were very supportive and surprised to say the least. We didn’t grow up around horses at all, so they had no idea where the idea even came from. My dad is the only one so far in the family that has come to Louisiana to watch me. My mom and older sister might be coming soon to visit. Everyone’s been really busy and going through a little bump in the road, so I understand. I can’t wait when they do!
FOTH: What tracks have you rode at so far?
CB: Evangeline, Delta Downs, Louisiana Downs and Fair Grounds.
FOTH: What has been the thing that has surprised you most so far being a jockey?
CB: The fitness that it takes to be one. Some other things too, like pay, but I’d rather not get into that.
FOTH: So what is a typical race riding day like for you these days?
CB: We run Wednesday through Saturday night. Post time is 5:50-9:34, so we get done very late. I average 2–4 races a night. It varies, sometimes 5-6. I work Tuesday through Saturday morning as well. I get up at 4:30 to start at 5:30. I make rounds with my agent and get on horses when I need to. We get done around 10. I relax after that till about 1:30. I go for a run on the track, either on the dirt or turf, depending how I feel. After my run, I head to the sauna to stretch and warm up. I don’t have a weight issue, but I love the sauna to get rid of any soreness. It loosens up the muscles well and is just a great place to unwind before you ride. I’ll stay in there for about 30 mins. After I’m done it’s about 3. I shower up and get ready early. I walk over to do the breathalyzer, pour some coffee, and relax till it’s time to ride. Come Sunday, I am sleeping all day. Night racing can be really tiring, especially when I go in at 1:30 regardless of what race I ride, even if I don’t ride till later on. I like to stick to a routine.
FOTH: How fun is it jogging around the track that you know you will be riding on later?
CB: I love it. I love to run. I did track and field for nearly 7 Years. It’s extremely therapeutic for me. I don’t do it to lose weight, I do it to stay fit and get fitter. Running builds lungs and endurance that you need riding down the lane. I put weights on my ankles and wrist some days. I only do 1-2 miles on race days. Non-race days, I’ll do 2-4 miles. I get such a motivated push when I go running. It puts me in a really good and excited mood for racing. I didn’t become a jockey to be mediocre. I become a jockey to be the best and make history. I need to work hard and running is very well part of my journey.
FOTH: What are some things you do in your spare time?
CB: Everyone will tell you this...I am 98 years old at heart. I can’t stand to go out. I love to stay home with my dog, Ghotti, and watch movies. I am a HUGE movie nerd. Honestly though, I don’t really have time to do anything else. I’m too tired most of the time. I work on artwork on the days I’m not racing, which is Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. The other days I don’t get home till about 10-1030 at night. The artwork is something I have been doing for a while until business picks up with racing. I actually stopped taking orders and will be retiring the pencil for a long while. I need to focus on work now so, no more orders! However, there is nothing more I look forward to other than snuggling with my dog, watching movies!
FOTH: So what types of movies do you like watching?
CB: Scary! I love sci-fi, too, but I am a huge scary movie fan. Even if the scary movie is cheesy, I love to still watch!
FOTH: How long would you like to ride for?
CB: As long as I can.
FOTH: Who are some of the other female riders you have rode races with?
CB: Ashley Broussard, Wallynette Rodriguez, Bethany Taylor, Ericka Murray, Sophie Doyle, Aubrie Green and Chantal Sutherland.
FOTH: If some young girl came up to you and said she wanted to become a jockey, what advice would you give her?
CB: Don’t take any body’s shit! You will meet a lot of people who don’t like you for no reason, or who want to knock you down for no reason...IGNORE THEM and don’t take no shit! You’re not here to make friends, you’re here to be a rider. Stay stubborn about your goals but remain humble.
FOTH: Do you follow any other sports at all?
CB: I used to, not anymore. I like to watch football and hockey occasionally, but have lost interest over the years since I started this career.
FOTH: Tell me about your drawings that you do?
CB: I hate them. Lol
FOTH: C’mon now spill your guts
CB: No really. I hate to draw. I did it to keep me afloat until business picked up with racing. But to sit at home and draw all day, I can’t stand it.
FOTH: How has business been going for you these days?
CB: Much better. Every week it gets better. I’ve only won 8 races, and my bug just started two months ago, so I still have a lot of time. I rode in my first Stakes race two weeks ago, and I have another one next week. I would say things are going to start coming along. Business is looking very bright in the future.
FOTH: Good for you. Now recently the sports betting bill passed, so now everyone can bet on all sports. How do you think this will effect horse racing?
CB: Absolutely! We need to liven up the race tracks, especially during the week. Finally, horse racing will have to get with modern times and start engaging in sports betting operators and platforms that will keep wager volume up and attract new people. This is a very positive force for the horse racing industry. I’m very excited to see what happens. Horse racing may finally come out of the shadows!
FOTH: If you were not a jockey, what do you think you would be doing with your life these days?
CB: I have no idea...probably stuck in an office 9-5 miserable, like I was before. I don’t know anything else really. Not art, that’s for sure.
FOTH: Tell me a bit what Evangeline Downs racetrack is like and the surrounding area.
CB: It’s one of the cleanest tracks I have been to! It’s so well maintained. It’s a mile and has a turf course that we just started running on. It’s a shame the money isn’t that good, but I think next summer, they are going to put some more money into the purses finally. Everyone got spoiled at Delta Downs which is another very nice track and backside. It’s a bull ring, but fairly wide. The purses this past winter at Delta were so high, because they had to cancel some Stake races, so they put it into the purses and every race was either $24-30,000 to $49,000. The purses were outstanding! I can see why people come to Louisiana and never leave. The people are very nice, but it’s actually one of the toughest circuits in the country to break into. I would say it’s tougher than places like New York. Here, they are extremely “clicky.” A lot of the people here have been here since they were toddlers so when outsiders come here, they won’t look at you twice. It’s taken me almost 2 years to finally break in, and I’m still not completely in.
My first year here was tough, but now I’m starting to feel at home. Delta is a bull ring so it can be dangerous place to ride if you’ve never ridden at one. And boy, do they love speed here!! It doesn’t matter if you’re running a mile, they send horses. It’s survival of the fittest. Just a very tough outfit but I am so glad I came here to learn and to start. I was told it was a great place to start. Those Cajuns know how to ride and just because they aren’t riding in New York or California, doesn’t mean they have less talent. There are some extremely good race riders here, and they don’t mess around. Some of the best jockeys in the country came from Louisiana such as Calvin Borel, Kent Desormeaux, Mark Guidry, Randy Romero, Shane Sellers, Kerwin Clark, Kirk Leblanc, Ronald Ardoin and Eddie Delahoussaye. I mean the list can keep continuing... some amazing race riders. These Cajuns ride races at 9 years old, match races! By the time they hit 16, they’re so polished and strong. They aren’t afraid of anything which makes them such strong and smart riders. You can’t beat it. It’s a shame that a lot of these riders here get looked over for big races across the country, because I can tell you that they can ride just as well or better than most at “bigger” tracks.
So, that’s why I came here. If anything is going to polish me up and get me ready for a bright future. I love it here, and I have made a home here. I love the track, not to mention the training center, the old Evangeline where they use to run races...the best surface you’ll ever step foot on! It will make a sore horse better. I wish they still rode races there. It’s been such a journey here, and I’m glad I made this move. I couldn’t be in a better place. As I said earlier, it’s so clean and neat. Evangeline is one of the nicest backsides I have seen, same with Delta Downs. Everyone is nice and willing to help. The area is nice too. You have everything within minutes away. Definitely a track that deserves more spotlight! As well as the riders!
FOTH If you had the power, how would you promote the sport of horse racing?
CB: I get asked that a lot. I really have no idea. It’s a tough sport to promote. It seems that the Kentucky Derby is the only exciting thing to outsiders. I think the first step would to be to get rid of the crooked people in this business that give racing a bad name. We need to make this sport more about the animals than money. These amazing athletes put food on our table and give us a good life. Without them, we are nothing. If we had more respect for these animals, then I think more people would see the beautiful side of the sport and not just the negatives. Stop dumping horses into slaughter, if they can’t run. Stop giving licenses to people who can’t afford to take care of themselves. Make a limit to how many horses you can have, depending on your earnings. These animals are the ones that suffer, and it’s sad. No suspensions, no second chances; get them out of this sport and away from horses. That is where we need to start. As I have said a number of times, if we can’t respect animals, this world will never be at peace. It takes a sick mind to harm or disrespect an animal. We don’t need to be hiring or inviting those people into this sport. Oh yeah... STOP BREEDING!
FOTH: Do you think jockeys as a whole are under appreciated in the sport of horse racing?
CB: I think underappreciated is an understatement.
FOTH: Ok thanks for doing this great interview for my website. Any last words to say to wrap this up?
CB: Thank you!!! Giddie up? Oh, and pucker up footboy! ha ha.