May Rivas is the first female jockey from Cuba and has a sad and very unusual story to tell. Read all the details below:
FOTH: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
MR: Born in Havana, Cuba. I lived there until 23 years old, then I moved to USA.
FOTH: What sort of girl were you growing up?
MR: Started in Ballet at 4... And all my childhood dancing... Until the age of 14 that I went to a special school for advanced kids "Art instructors School" it was High school and college at the same time, and graduate there at the age of 18 with my first Degree "Art instructor, in the specialty of Dance"
My dad used to teach me Judo also at home, cause his dad was a Judo teacher, my dad used to be a military... He was very strict and he never had a boy.
FOTH: Were you interested in horses or did you see even any horse races as a teenager and did the thought of even being a jockey interest you then?
MR: No. We barely had horses in Cuba and I always loved them but also I always had a tendency to adrenaline and as a teen I used to belong to the XGames team from Cuba, so... when u saw my first horse race in Hallandale beach, Gulfstream, I knew that was what I really wanted to do and what I was passionate about.
FOTH: So after you saw your first race, did you have any clue on how to become a jockey?
MR: Nooo hahaha. It was the funniest thing ever; I was clueless...
My auntie took me to the mall at Gulfstream on December 2011, and she parked where the handicaps park, which it right next to the 8th pole, next to the track, as soon as I got down from the car I heard people screaming and cheering and she told me it was a horse race, I ran to the rail and there were coming all the horses and jockeys down the stretch. It was the most amazing thing I've ever saw. And I told her I was gonna do that (cause I didn't know the name) one day.
I went straight to the racing office and asked how I could do it and they all laughed at my face (obviously lol)
Next morning I was there 5 am... Walking the grandstand and trying to stop outriders and riders jogging to ask them what could I do.
It wasn't till a client from my cousin, (that owned a car dealership), told me that he used to be an assistant at Calder and he took me there and introduced me to Horse racing for the first time.
Gonzalo Anteliz aka Chino, was the first person I met and he took me to my first trainer "Javier Negrete", native Mexican and great teacher (he's still training currently at Gulfstream Park)
FOTH: So early on were you scared to try and get near a 1300-pound animal? Were you a "hot walker" first and then moved on to becoming an ex-rider?
MR: No, I was just excited all the time, more worried about doing something wrong and disappoint my trainer than anything else, I started on horses since day 1. I was everyone's project
My trainer used to send the horses to train to the track and then when they were back he would put me on them to teach me how to jog at the barn
FOTH: So who ended up teaching you how to ride? Did you take to get up on getting up on horses pretty easily?
MR: He was always holding them. Yes. Thankfully I was a natural since the first day. I had a few teachers.
In this orders were the trainers that took me in and teach me.
David Nunn (put me to ride my first races as an amateur)
And after that I was on my own pretty much
Javier taught me how to jog...
Dennis how to gallop and breeze.
Wesley how to break out of the gate and breeze from the gate and how to whip handle
FOTH: So how long did you gallop/work horses before you ran in a first race?
MR: From 2012 till 2016. Dennis and Wesley Ward send me to California in 2014 with an agent and all, I was ready to race, and a week before my debut I had an accident breezing a horse for Hollendorfe, saddle belt broke and broke the head of my shoulder, arm and fractured pallet shoulder and cheek bone all on the left side...
Took 2 years to recover. David Nunn was the one that took me back to fitness and got me ready again to race. Also gave me my first 2 horses to ride
It took me 3 surgeries by the way.
FOTH: Oh that sucks. Now during this time was there any thought of you quitting and not becoming a jockey?
MR: Nope. I felt defeated, lonely and lost. But I knew I was not going to quit, I knew I had to be the first female Cuban jockey in America, and who knows, maybe the world. I needed that to happen, having in mind that horse racing was banned in my country since 1956. Not even my parents saw Horse racing...
So it was bigger than just a girl with a goal... For me it was a mission
FOTH: So take me through the steps of recovery from this nasty injury?
MR: I got hurt Sept 2014, a month after I got to California. I had a really good friend of mine, Willy Delgado (exercise rider of California Chrome at the time) he took me in and help me out, also Elvis Trujillo and his wife were the ones taking me to me doctor appointments and everything I needed. I had to stay there for a few months until the doctor gave me the ok to fly back home to Florida.
When I came back I was just at home, I used to go sometimes to the races but it felt horrible emotionally, then I had to fly back to Cali for my second surgery, this time they removed the plates and screws and try to fix more about my tendons and more stuff in there. No long after that my boyfriend at the time (Aaron Court) asked me if I wanted to go to KY with him at least until I recovered. So there I went, my first time in KY. I liked it but it was ok for me. I couldn't find anyone to put me back on horses and helped me out to get back in the saddle, Johnny Ortiz (was assistant from Kellyn Gorder at the time) tried to help, but they didn't had horses that could help me at the time... Meet was over and I we wanted warmer weather again, so we went to Tampa. And I started working as a hot walker for Ben Colebrook, they took care of me and let me do shedrow a few times to help me to start getting my confidence back. There, in Tampa, I met David Nunn and he offered me the job as an exercise rider in his New Jersey farm, without thinking it twice I said yes, and just like that I was in NJ, getting on 10 horses a day starting 4:00 am and grooming 6 afterwards. David was a great teacher and he had so much confidence in me. He saw my true potential and he never let me backed up. 3 months after that he took me to Pimlico and I rode my first race as an amateur, that was end of the spring I think or summer 2016, a week after one that I rode my second one on Delaware Park. First race was a total success, I rode as good as an experienced rider, second race was horrible 😂😂 the filly blowed up the first turn on the grass and we went for a hot dog to the grandstand 😂😂. Filly was retired after that; she was a very bad girl. This horses I rode at this races I used to ride them every day, but still, a race is a whole different thing.
A while after that I wanted to move on. David and I stayed as really good friends and I went to work to Monmouth for Chad Brown. I didn't like it. But I waited till the meet was over to leave back home.
2017 summer meet was about to end at Gulfstream and I was back home galloping again for my former teacher Javier Negrete, one morning, after we took the ok out of the gate for "Casady light" a filly I used to gallop, the guys from the gate gave me also my ok, and he surprised me with my first mount as an Apprentice. I thought I was in a dream, I finally made it, I got my apprentice license (after a lot of begging to the steward’s, that really didn't wanted to help out) and there I was... The day came and I was riding my long shot like if I was on a stake horse happy as a clam. She was a very excited filly, pony took us to the gate we did great, broke even stayed 4th... Then I ran out of gas 😅😅😂. Negrete was very happy, he knew Cassady was not gonna help me, but he was proud of me cause I did everything good and showed them I was ready.
The lack of agents wanting to help and work for a female jockey (without a horse racing background) it was immense.
No one wanted me. But I didn't care. Javier gave me Cassady again and we beat one horse this time 😂 for me that was great.
Gulfstream closed and Calder opened, then a small Cuban trainer gave me a couple of more mounts, but they were still long shots.
After that 4th mount at Gulfstream Park West, another jockey that didn't liked me and had the favor from one of the stewards started complaining about me. And right after my last mount Steve Dimauro came down to the jockey room and told me I was not allowed to ride anymore.
I didn't do anything wrong, they didn't even send me to watch some movies or anything. Straight out.
I sent that replay to a few old timers and hall of fame jockeys for them to see if I made any mistakes.
Everyone came back with the same results, I rode a clean, normal race. No one could persuade the stewards, and without a reason I was out of my short dream.
FOTH: So your telling me you’re not allowed to ride in races anymore?
MR: At Gulfstream Park, until that specific steward leaves or retire...
That was 2017, I went to Saratoga after that as an exercise rider, had a great meet. Then stopped in FL and then went to Lexington KY... I work for really great trainers there and also started a great second job after trainings in the am at Keeneland At Juddmonte farms breaking babies... I honestly fell in love with the exercise rider job, and little by little the fever and dreams about races faded away.
Now I exercise in the mornings at Palm Meadows for Bryan and in the afternoons I work for the GHPA feed company created by the Florida Horsemen’s Association. I'm very happy with my 2 jobs and I feel at home, welcomed, Palm Meadows is home now.
FOTH: So do you think you will ever become a jockey again?
MR: I always get trainers asking me to ride their horses.
In KY it was crazy how many wanted me to go back to the saddle, but I was comfortable where I was.
I believe maybe I'll be back, when a real opportunity come. I don't want to lose my jobs (where I feel happy now) just to ride one or two races a week. I worked too hard by myself to get where I am. And different from most jockeys I don't have a family to support me or a daddy trainer or anyone to help me out. So it would have to be a real opportunity for me to leave my secure income and go back to the battle grounds.
FOTH: So what do you do in a typical day or what would you do in a typical day, minus this coronavirus of course?
MR: I go to gallop, starting 5:30 for Bryan, I get on 5 there, and since a week ago I started helping the new young trainer Matthew O’Connor with a baby that I already fell in love with.
After that I change and start right away the driving thru the barns to check what every trainer need (shavings, Hay or Alfalfa, or feed) then I make my list and by the time I'm done my workers arrive at 11:0p and we start doing the deliveries until the afternoon. Some days we finish late, others early, depending on the amount of deliveries.
And then home to relax. 🥰
When I get home I like to watch some races from the trainers I work for... If the virus thing was not on, I would be either fishing or at the beach 😄
Also most days I come back to the warehouse from the feed company around 6:00 pm to check up on everything. I live close to the track, so is not a big deal for me.
FOTH: What are some of the relaxing things you do? Do you follow any other sports?
MR: Yes, I like to play volleyball, with some coworkers from the track, I like to go skate in line (rollerblades), fishing... I watch rodeo and also football.
But I love to be home, cooking and enjoying the days with friends that I invite over.
FOTH: When were you at Parx?
MR: I visited when I was riding those amateur races in 2016. When David Nunn was racing his horses there. I still have a couple of friends there, Antony Salgado is one of them
FOTH: Where do you see horse racing heading in the future? Do racetracks need casinos to survive?
MR: I don't think they do, tracks that doesn't have Casinos do better than the casinos... But honestly in this country everything is about politics. One thing for sure, Horse racing is not gonna end. I'm positive. There's to many people passionate and owning horses and loving the sport and there's a lot of people that love their job and this life with thoroughbreds, fighting to make this sport survive.
Things had changed that's for sure, and they will continue changing, but it doesn't mean that is going to be the end of it.
FOTH: What advice would you give to a young girl that wants to become a jockey?
MR: Don't be proud, listen to everyone's advice, even if you are not gonna use it. Work harder than men's, show off your skills even if they don't like it. Stay away from racetrack guys, that would just distract u from your goals. Don't talk too much, they don't like that at any track, just use it to defend yourself. Be strong, take anything bad and good. And never, never, give up.
FOTH: Do you miss home much?
MR: Yes. All my family is there, mom, dad, and the rest.
FOTH: Let's talk about the art school you mentioned to me before we started this interview?
MR: It's a special school for advanced kids (smart kids) Cuba is very picky with education...I went thru some amount of tests to be able to get in and some practice tests too...
And I got in on the specialty of Dance... But we had to also learn about Theater, Plastic arts and Music. It was an all included
Was a 4-year career and we finished graduated in high school and college degree. It was so much fun
It was an intern school. We got in on Mondays and out on Fridays
They had really nice dorms... It was like college and all for free...Cause in Cuba we don't pay for school. Some of my best years to be honest
I also have a bit of experience from the Art school too and then my life did a 360° turn when I left Cuba and came here to start from zero.
Without a need 😂😂
Cause I could live pretty good there. My parents have money. But well. I wanted to make my own life. They raised me good enough.
FOTH: What racetrack or racetracks would you like to visit one day?
MR: Royal Ascot, Japan, maybe Australia, they train the horses similar to us in USA. Never been at Oakland Park or Golden Gates. And other then that I've visited or worked already in most of the track I wanted to be here in USA. 🤗❤
Well Chris you basically know my entire life now. 😂😂
FOTH: May, thumbs up for doing this interview with me and for my website, any last words to say to wrap this up?
MR: Thank you Footboy for doing this interview, it means a lot to me, given all the years a girl like me had to try by herself to get to her goal and then get crushed by the power. Girls like me that come from nothing in horse racing and don't give up deserve chances. I already found my peace and I'm happy with my life right now. But honestly, is not what I fought so hard to here too. I'll just thanks god that he gave me the opportunity to ride races and to get there even tho my career was super short. But the ride was amazing and I met great people along the way.
To the girls out there, u can do this, and if u see me out there galloping, just ask, I'm gonna be one of the people's that help u out and make a difference.
Love to all.
Oh one last thing, footboy, if I ever come to Parx, you are absolutely kissing my feet (I’ll make sure I get a pedicure just for you!), plus the bottoms too and that will go up on Facebook like Maria’s pic!!!