It was a dream generations in the making.
His abuelo used to place bets at Hipódromo Camarero, Puerto Rico’s only horse racing track. His papá, who wanted to be a jockey himself, but could never pursue the sport due to weight restrictions, began to raise horses for racing at age 25.
Little Axel, then the youngest of three boys, followed him around the barn like a shadow, smiling at the sight of horses. He rode his first at 5 years old, and at the age of 9, when he began to take riding and jumping lessons, he was set on what he wanted to do — be a jockey.
Now 18, Axel Concepción also wants to be the best.
“A fuera y dentro de la pista,” he said in Spanish. Outside and in the racetrack.
Sitting on a bench recently near the racetrack in Laurel, Concepción looks composed. If he is tired after months of racing, rising before 6 a.m. and training for hours under the sun, he doesn’t show it. The time away from the island, to which he hopes to go back and grow old someday, and his family — his papá, mamá, his two hermanos and one hermana and his abuela — can be difficult. But it has paid off — he has won his first leading rider title, a feat that Irad Ortiz Jr., an esteemed Boricua jockey, did not meet until his 20s.
Concepción looks up to Irad Ortiz Jr., now 30, and his brother José Ortiz, who both began their professional careers at Hipódromo Camarero. The Ortiz brothers give him advice on the racetrack in Laurel where he now trains. Sometimes, it is technical — “Concepción should adjust his position” or “hold it this way.” But mainly, Concepción said, they tell him to stay humble. And that has created an atmosphere of a family among the jockeys — many of whom are Boricua or of Latin descent — who cheer for each other, despite a dense environment of competitiveness.
“It’s like there’s a Puerto Rico in there,” Concepción said.
Retired Hall of Famer jockey Ramón Domínguez and Concepción had a similar journey; Domínguez left his home in Venezuela as a young man to try his luck at horse racing. There’s no clear-cut journey for what makes a great jockey, as there often isn’t in most things in life, he adds.
But you do need to be patient. And Concepción is pretty intuitive.
Watching the replays of past races, Domínguez noticed that even when Concepción wasn’t riding “the best horse in the race,” he could often condition the horse into winning. He is able to get the horses to relax if it doesn’t have a lot of space and position it where they need to be. Concepción, he adds, gives the horse a chance to perform the best to its ability
“I can tell that, although he’s very young, and in some ways, probably inexperienced, he looks very good,” Domínguez said. “He should have everything needed to really succeed as a professional jockey.”
Concepción grew up in Río Grande, a town about a 20-minute car ride away from Hipódromo, tucked between a rainforest and the beach. An athletic kid, he grew up playing basketball, volleyball and soccer with friends after school and on the weekends. But there has never been a time he didn’t want to pursue horse racing as a career.
Concepción is usually calm, and somewhat reserved, when he talks — but he lights up when the subject is horses. His love for them, as he puts it, is “a whole other level.” He recalls Las Monjas, a mare that initially had a bit of a temper but that he eventually won over. She recently had a foal, he says with a smile. No one else in his family shares his connection with horses, which, he notes, are highly sensible and sensitive animals. A rider needs to be aware of how they feel when they are on the track, he said, as the horse picks up on it.
Willy Concepción said his son’s adoration for horses could have come from wanting to spend time with him growing up.
His papá, Willie Concepción, juggled trying to be supportive and feeling fearful for Axel. It’s a sport prone to injuries, he said. Each time Axel falls, he holds his breath.
And then, he sees his son standing up and climbing the horse again — always calm, his papá, said, and patient.
He feels “orgulloso,” then, Willie said in Spanish. Full of pride.
Scott Serio is the founder of Eclipse Sportswire, a Maryland-based award-winning photography company. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism whose passion for documenting the pageantry of thoroughbred racing has earned him numerous accolades, including the prestigious Eclipse Award for Photography in 2015.