By Geoff Riggs
Having a successful first meet at Fair Grounds, Sofia Barnadela is proving it’s never too late to follow your dreams.
With 12 wins on the meet, Barandela has won with 11% of her mounts, piloting difference-making rides and outrunning her mounts’ odds. The same can be said for the story of how she got here. Sunday is her 37th birthday, not the typical age for an apprentice jockey. Likewise, her story is a testament to her resilience and willingness to blaze her own path.
Barandela began dreaming of becoming a jockey while growing up in Mexico.
“I was always in touch with horses, but never with the racetrack,” she said. “I did dressage and show jumping, but my grandpa had Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. My only contact with racing was through him and a painting he had of horses at Royal Ascot. So, my night stories were about jockeys and racing, but I was always told I would be a tall, strong woman, and jockeys were not that.”
Deciding to put her jockey aspirations on the back burner, Barandela pivoted to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. However, it did not take long to find her way back to racing.
“When I was doing my vet practice in Mexico, I went to the racetrack and started getting in contact with people from the backside,” Barandela recalled. “I met some trainers and decided I wanted to gallop one horse.”
At the age of 25, Barandela galloped her first racehorse. When asked how her family reacted, she said, “My dad used to race motorbikes, so I think I got the need for adrenaline from him. My mom used to raise horses. When they saw I was serious about learning, they supported me from day one.”
Quickly falling in love with the racetrack, Barandela found herself juggling many activities until an opportunity arose.
“I would go to the racetrack early, then to my vet practice, then ride my two show jumpers,” she said. “One day somebody asked me if I wanted to be a jockey. I was almost ashamed to say yes because I thought people would make fun of me.”
One of only three female riders on the grounds, things were not easy early on.
“Everyone thought we just liked horses or were ‘playing pony’ but we were serious,” she said. “I only rode a couple months and won one race while in Mexico.”
A dual citizen of Mexico and Spain, Barandela decided to seek a new opportunity and move to Europe.
“I thought I could be both a vet and a jockey, but Mexico was very insecure,” she said. “The risk was too high and the pay too low for both vets and jockeys, and many vets got robbed. You save all this money to get equipment, only to get robbed because you have Ketamine and other drugs.”
Fluent in three languages, Barandela is an avid traveler and photographer. She spent the next three years between Spain, France, Germany, and England, but found racing opportunities few and far between.
“I finally said ‘OK, to really start riding, I need to go back to America where I know people.’ I also like the (American) riding style. In Europe, they say I look like a monkey on a horse,” Barandela said with a laugh. “But for me, how they ride doesn’t feel comfortable. It is just a different style.”
In April 2017, Barandela moved to California and began galloping horses for top trainers such as John Sadler, Keith Desormeaux, George Papaprodromou, and Michael McCarthy. She worked with some top horses, as well.
“I was lucky enough to gallop Rombauer, Ce Ce, Rushie, Smooth Like Strait,” Barandela reflected. “I then started promoting myself as a work rider. I got a good education there.”
Referencing the experienced riders who helped her during this time, Barandela said, “All the jockeys in the room were always good. Mike Smith, (Corey) Nakatani, and (Edwin) Maldanado were always helpful. Mike Smith is very patient. They all have different styles.”
In 2021, Barandela had a friend attempt to convince her to ride races in Wyoming and Colorado.
“I’m like ‘I’m galloping at Del Mar, why would I ride races in Rock Springs, Wyoming?’ Barandela said, recalling her initial skepticism. “But I sat down one day and thought ‘OK, if it’s not now, then never. I will try.’ So, I finished at Del Mar and drove to Wyoming.”
Barandela rode seven races in Wyoming and won twice at Arapahoe Park in Colorado, before moving her tack to Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Arizona.
“In Phoenix I had no agent, so it was tough,” she said. “People recommended different agents and most of them said no. They either had somebody else, didn’t want an apprentice, or didn’t want a woman. One was very offended and said, ‘This is a young man’s business, and you are an old woman. You have no business here.’”
Not easily discouraged, Barandela continued knocking on doors. Eventually one led to her current agent, Chuck Costanzo.
“I called him and called him,” she recalled. “Finally, Chuck got back to me. I told him I needed his help and wanted to go to Minnesota. He asked, ‘how many races have you won?’ I said ‘Two!’ and he was laughing so hard. I sent him my replays and I think he saw something in me.”
To Barandela’s surprise, Costanzo proposed a plan to ride at Canterbury Park and then Fair Grounds.
“I was like ‘Me? Fair Grounds?’ I had begun to doubt myself a little because it had been so long,” she said.
Continuing to practice her craft in Minnesota, Barandela’s year of apprenticeship unexpectedly began on June 9, 2022 (at five career wins) when she guided home a 13-1 longshot named Big Boy McCoy.
“The horse was the longest shot in the field and had never done anything, but that day he just wanted to win,” she remembered with a smile.
After an unplanned stint in Chicago, it was off to New Orleans for the Fair Grounds winter meet. Joining such a decorated jockey colony can be intimidating, but Barandela beamed about how welcoming it has been.
“James Graham always teaches me, I don’t even have to ask, he comes and tells me.” Barandela said. “Corey Lanerie also helps me. Of course, Johnny Velazquez when he was here. Everybody is very supportive.”
With 12 wins on the meet and guiding many other runners to outperform their odds, Barandela has a special connection with the horses she rides.
“That’s the one thing I have,” she adamantly said. “The connection with them. I think they want to run for me. I have been with horses all of my life, but my racing experience has only been a year.”
Grabbing a lock of her hair she continued.
“I feel like I am like Avatar and connect my hair with them,” she explained. “With a lot of horses in the post parade, I will talk to them, and they move their ears. That lets me know ‘OK, they are connecting right now.’”
Barandela is not yet sure where she will head when the current meet ends, but will likely return to Chicago, Minnesota, or Texas. She sees the unknown as an opportunity.
“I’ve lived a long life with many stories,” she said. “I think I have lived many lives in one. When I studied animal medicine, people were like ‘you cannot do anything else, you spent six years doing that.’ Well, it was six great years learning and traveling. I have a lot of stories in my life that were tragic, which is why I finally decided to try race riding.
“If it’s my time, I don’t want to die before I fulfill my dreams. I won’t change the world by race riding, but it is my dream. I always try to encourage people to do what they love.”