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"Immortality has been realized once the roar of the crowd has been united."

Monday, December 29, 2014

Cesar De Alba: A Year to Remember

2014 resulted in an assemblage of firsts for jockey Cesar De Alba. His fifteen stakes wins were tops in the nation among quarter horse riders, while the one-hundred plus victories he amassed at Los Alamitos had him vying for their annual riding title. Finding his way to the winner’s circle by delivering on the track has helped solidify Cesar’s rebirth as a jockey, yet it was a delivery of a different nature that spawned his most uniquely profound thrill of the year. On the second day in November, Cesar and his wife Becky welcomed the arrival of their first born child, a boy they named Kevin. “It’s amazing to think that I’ve played a part in creating another life,” Cesar stated. As the calendar year draws to a fulfilling close, there is little doubt that the events of 2014 will furnish memories to last the whole of a lifetime.

Cesar Entering the Winner's Circle at Los Alamitos (Photo Courtesy of Esther Kim)

Cesar De Alba was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and moved to the United States in 1989 when he was just eight years of age. Shortly after the relocation, his father went to work with his uncle at the Dragon Wind horse farm in Valley Center, California. The family took up residence in Valley Center, and as Cesar fondly recalls, it was a childhood marked by considerable happiness. The De Alba household was home to Cesar, his mother and father, as well as a younger and an older sister. Bonds originating during this youthful period have kept the family close up through the present day.
Rising at 5:00 A.M. to watch your father gallop horses may not sound like the ideal morning to your typical ten-year-old boy, but then again, Cesar was anything but typical. He relished the trips out to San Luis Rey Downs in the city of Bonsall, California. When his father was not busy galloping horses, he was hard at work breaking babies or performing any one of a multitude of other equine related activities. Cesar absorbed the unrelenting passion that his father exhibited, and he employed a similar work ethic while cleaning stalls or tending to other daily chores.

Nearly every facet of Cesar’s life involved horses in one way or another, yet this did not prohibit the growth of a teenager trying to navigate his way through high school. As Cesar explains, “I was extremely shy as a kid, but high school gave me the opportunity to break out of the shell I had been in.” At Orange Glen High School in Escondido, Cesar flourished both in and out of the classroom, giving all he had to scholastic studies, while taking part in soccer as encouraged by his parents. On the soccer field, Cesar discovered the competitive prowess that would soon become vital to his days in the saddle.

Upon graduating from high school, Cesar began to make his presence known on the Southern California thoroughbred racing circuit. Mornings consisted of shaking as many hands and working as many horses as possible. His first professional mount came in 2001 aboard a Bob Hess Jr. trained runner at Hollywood Park. He finished third in this debut ride more than a decade ago, but the race itself squarely laid a foundation for the prosperous career that then followed.
Life as an apprentice jockey is not for the faint of heart or weak of will. Unfamiliarity with weight maintenance or feelings of homesickness can leave a young rider frustrated and demoralized. Throughout the early stages of his career, these were struggles De Alba would come to know far too well. As Cesar confessed, “Picking up mounts on the East Coast was tough because I missed my family. And despite having an uncle (Eddie Garcia) who was a prominent quarter horse jockey in California, it always seemed I was missing a true mentor during my early days on the thoroughbreds.”

Cesar was introduced to Los Alamitos in the 1990’s. It was an exciting time, venturing out to the track with family to watch his uncle atop the short distance specialists. The facilities back then were quite different from what onlookers might see today. The paddock was erected in the middle part of the infield, and the fan friendly atmosphere allowed for closer relations between the athletes and spectators. These were times Cesar had not forgotten, times that ultimately made those first mounts at Los Alamitos all the more endearing.
Initially, Cesar came to Los Alamitos to ride thoroughbreds at the insistence of his agent, Neil Bricks. He enjoyed his share of good fortune at the four and one-half furlong distance, yet it was not long before trainers were thinking of Cesar as a plausible option for their quarter horses. The rest, so to speak, is history. Cesar’s talents on the thoroughbreds were quickly overshadowed by his mastery of the quarter horses. “Being able to ride each breed has enabled me to better understand the other,” Cesar said. “Thoroughbreds can get lost in a race depending on the traffic or their trip, but a quarter horse instinctively knows that it is time to roll the instant the gate breaks opens.” Prior to 2014, Cesar’s most notable season on record came in 2007, a year in which he tallied more than eighty victories on the track.

Cesar with Paul Jones and Assistant Trainer Rocke Gonzalez (Photo Courtesy of Esther Kim)

Morning workouts play a key role in the success of any horse racing stable. This is a fact Cesar has grown to appreciate and revere during his years in the saddle. He arrives at the track by 6:00 A.M. and immediately makes himself available to trainers in need of workout riders. This willingness to put forth effort for others has resulted in mounts being awarded from a variety of sources. In addition, Cesar prides himself on riding for different trainers, preferring not to identify exclusively with any one particular barn. “It is my goal to earn each trainer’s respect by not shying away from mounts that are offered,” De Alba explains.

Coming of age as a professional athlete requires not only experience, but a certain measure of time. At thirty-three years of age, Cesar De Alba believes that his newfound maturity has had a great deal to do with his revival on the race track. “I am more focused now than ever before,” he admits. Cesar takes pleasure in sharing what he has learned with young riders. His aim is to be the hand of reason that was absent during his own days as an apprentice.  “The best advice I can give to a young jockey is that nothing is as important as remaining humble,” he proclaims.

Cesar leads by example and handles himself with the utmost humility. He chooses not to highlight specific horses he deems as more memorable than others, yet does concede that Moonist has had a greater influence on his career than any other who came before. Trainer John Cooper’s three-year-old phenomenon has helped Cesar to regain an elite level of confidence. Over the course of the 2014 season, Moonist and De Alba combined to win nine of ten starts at Los Alamitos Race Course, four of which being highly regarded stakes races.
Despite the overwhelming achievements on the track, Cesar maintains that there are parts of his game he would like to improve upon moving forward. He believes his most valued asset lies in the ability to sit quietly on the back of a horse, but does hope to become even more proficient at getting his mounts to break exceptionally fast. It is with little hesitation that Cesar sings the praises of the gate crew at Los Alamitos, and he is quick to mention Rodrigo Aceves, Ramon Sanchez, and Cruz Mendez as fellow riders he admires sincerely.

Cesar De Alba with Becky and Baby Kevin
Cesar now calls the city of Cypress home, and he is just minutes away from the track that has brought him such acclaim. His wife, Becky Fitzgerald, is a state track veterinarian who is also employed at Los Alamitos. De Alba explains that time away from the track is spent working alongside of Becky as she makes farm calls to animals in need throughout the greater Los Angeles area. He remains fit by running three to four miles each morning on race days, a regimen that has nearly become necessity due to his deep-seated affinity for pizza. “I can never get enough pizza,” Cesar chuckles.

Cesar’s love for the animals is apparent from the second he begins to speak. “Horses are not machines. They are living, breathing creatures that can have an off day, an off hour, or even an off moment. This is something the general public sometimes forgets,” he says. What will not be forgotten is the resounding willingness to work and desire to learn that has aided Cesar in becoming a more accomplished jockey, and a more well-rounded man.

Whether the accomplishments of 2014 are duplicated in the upcoming season or not, one thing is certain: For Cesar De Alba, his wife Becky, and baby Kevin, 2015 is sure to be a year filled with an abundance of added blessings.

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