Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers, and jockeys as they travel the Road to the 149th Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on May 6 at Churchill Downs.
This week’s installment features jockey Junior Alvarado, who appears to have a solid contender in Rocket Can in his quest for his first Derby triumph. Alvarado has guided the son of Into Mischief to consecutive strong finishes, winning the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes and placing second to 2-year-old champion Forte in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4 at Gulfstream Park. Rocket Can is trained by Bill Mott.
Alvarado, 36, discussed his Derby prospects, his career, and his life outside of racing during a question-and-answer session conducted on behalf of America’s Best Racing.
PEDULLA: How do you evaluate Rocket Can’s performance in the Fountain of Youth?
ALVARADO: I think he ran a much better race than the last time. I’m pretty happy with him. He’s still an immature horse, still growing, so I was very pleased with that race. We all want to win. But we have a goal, which is the Derby.
PEDULLA: Did Rocket Can need to back up the Holy Bull with another good result?
ALVARADO: Yes, yes. Definitely. For a lot of people, they were saying the number was very slow. It wasn’t a good race. I know what I have under me. He didn’t need to win, but he needed to have a good race in the Fountain of Youth and I think he did.
PEDULLA: You finished 4 ½ lengths behind Forte. How do you close that gap?
ALVARADO: Forte is a good horse but my horse is not 100% seasoned. He’s got six races under him, but I still think he’s not mature yet. He’s a very late-developing horse. I think with more racing he will get even better.
PEDULLA: Are there ways for Rocket Can to improve?
ALVARADO: For whatever reason, my horse was very upset during the post parade. He was getting bothered by I don’t know exactly what. There are little things here and there that you can definitely work on and he can move up. He galloped out pretty strong. I don’t want to say that on the gallop out I went past Forte, but I liked what I felt. I’m pretty sure Bill Mott hasn’t tightened the screws on him yet. You don’t want to have it all now and have nothing left for the Derby. I think he can move up a few lengths at least.
PEDULLA: What is it like to ride in the Derby?
ALVARADO: It’s a unique experience, nothing like what I experienced before. I’ve been in the Breeders’ Cup [World Championships], this year I was in the Pegasus [World Cup] for the first time, but there is something about the Derby. It gets to your nerves a little bit. I don’t care how seasoned you are in those kinds of races, it gets to you a little bit. It’s just an unbelievable experience. It’s an experience like no other.
PEDULLA: What were your ambitions when you left Venezuela in 2007 to ride in the United States?
ALVARADO: My parents [Norma and Rafael], they didn’t have a job. I was the one supporting them. I was supporting my sister [Milagros]. She was going into high school. She was very smart. She wanted to go to the university but money-wise, I was the only one supporting. That was my goal coming over here. I wanted to do good so I could take care of my parents the way they took care of me until I started riding. Little by little, I started setting goals. I wanted to be the leading jockey somewhere. I put a goal to go to New York and do good. For me, at this point, I want to stay sound. If I stay on my feet, I think I can accomplish a lot of things this year.
PEDULLA: You got your first Breeders’ Cup win when Cody’s Wish won the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last November. How significant was that to you?
ALVARADO: It meant a lot. It’s been on my bucket list. To be honest, I wanted to do it for Mr. Mott, who has been helping me for many years. It took a special horse for me to accomplish that. I wouldn’t have it any other way. That will stay with me, and with many people, forever.
PEDULLA: What is it like to ride regularly for Bill Mott?
ALVARADO: I’ll just say it’s a dream come true. I’ve been very blessed to have an opportunity to work with a horseman like Bill Mott. I’ve been riding for him for 11 years. I know there are a lot of jockeys who would like to be in my place. Every time I have the chance, I let him know I’m grateful for the opportunity he keeps giving me. I don’t take anything for granted.
PEDULLA: What is it about him that makes him so successful?
ALVARADO: We have such great communication. We talk a lot about the races, about the horses. The way he works with the horses, the way he develops the babies, you can see what he wants to do with the horses. He’s always looking very far with what to do with them. It’s a long process, a long vision he has with each horse. The way he handles horses, he gives the horses time. He lets them speak for themselves. He doesn’t push the horses to get there. He lets them take you there. I really like the way he works. He’s an unbelievable horseman.
PEDULLA: You and your wife, Kelly, have three children, Adrian, 12, Adalyn, 7, and Axel, 3. How do you balance family life with a demanding career?
ALVARADO: It is hard. Right now, my 12-year-old son is very good in baseball. He is into baseball and I have to miss many of his games. I can feel that he is so proud. He will call me after a game and say, ‘Dad, I did this. I hit a double. I hit a triple. I had three RBI and all this stuff.’ My wife records it and sends it to me, but it’s give and take. I have to do what I have to do to make sure their dreams come true, so I have to work. There are days when I’m tired, my days off, but I push through it and make sure I have time with them and we have fun.
PEDULLA: What would it mean to finally win the Derby?
ALVARADO: The Derby is a big goal on my bucket list. I want to win the Derby. I don’t know what I have to do, but I have to make that happen, for myself and my family. I’ve been working for it.