Xavier Perez, better known as the X Man who steered Spicer Club between the gate and the outside rail at Pimlico, stood at the replay screen, watching the Honorable Miss unfold again and again. The 25-year-old Puerto Rico-born jockey took mental notes of Dance to Bristol's neck win in the $200,000 stakes.
Broke well...tracking four leaders...nice...between horses...tight spot...on heels of the 1...in tight on the 7...checked...toss head...lost position...back to sixth...panic...regroup...relax...smooch...tap...still time...slide inside the 5...right-handed...left-handed...now...now....now...boom...punch air.
Perez watched it over and over, awed each time, by her perseverance, by his arrival.
Perez guided Dance to Bristol to their sixth consecutive triumph together, nailing longshot Classic Point in the final strides in Monday's feature.
Dance to Bristol provided win 100 on the year for Perez. Without her, he'd have been somewhere between Delaware Park, Charles Town, Parx or Penn, chasing number 95. The Bowie-based daughter of Speightstown met Perez in February when they teamed up to win an allowance sprint. Six weeks later, they won another allowance. Next came the Sugar Maple at Charles Town. Then back to Maryland for the Skipat. Then on the road north to Belmont Park for the Bed o' Roses, a Grade 3 stakes. After those five, Saratoga beckoned and the streak ratcheted up another notch.
Trained by Ollie Figgins III and owned by Susan Wantz, Dance to Bristol showed Perez a new dimension. When adversity reigned, she rallied.
"She did something amazing today. She split horses today, she never did that before, that's the first time we did that together, she surprised me," Perez said. "We bond together. I know when she's ready, she knows when I'm ready. We both feel comfortable together."
They were uncomfortable for a moment in the Honorable Miss.
Leaving the backside, while sitting fourth between horses, Dance to Bristol checked outside Livi Mackenzie and inside Munnings Sister. Perez raised his hands, her head came up and she plummeted back to sixth. Going 6 furlongs in a Grade 2 at Saratoga, not exactly textbook. Perez, aiming to win his second career race at Saratoga, didn't like it.
Did he panic?
"Whoa, like for, whew, for a sixteenth. From the three eighths to the five sixteenths, yeah, yeah," Perez said, still eying the replay. "The number 1 was lugging out and I got bumped around a little bit, I had the 7 on the outside, I was really close to her heels. I had to check her pretty good, you can see on the replay, she threw her head in the air, I panic a little bit, then I smooched at her and tap her one time on the shoulder, she got right back to her position, then I relaxed and got back to myself."
For Perez, his self, is a rhythmical strength rider, white gloves over Dance to Bristol's mane, in perfect unison with her motion. A graduate of the Puerto Rico Jockey School in 2006, Perez idolizes fellow graduate John Velazquez and if you squint, you can see the same shoulder-driving, wrist-flicking, body-flowing style.
Perez arrived at Charles Town in 2007 and has gradually built up a following in the Mid-Atlantic. He won 46 races in 2007, jumped to 114 in 2008, then slipped to between 61 and 78 winners from 2009 to 2012. This year, he's climbed back to the top shelf, his horses already earning more than $2.4 million. Sure, he's based in Mid-Atlantic but he looks New York.
And, sure, it's on his mind.
"I want to feel comfortable with myself to make this big move, like we say in Maryland, this is the major leagues. I'm pretty close. I'm pretty confident. I still have to grow up a little bit more, but I'm getting there," Perez said. "Right now, I'm riding pretty good. I ride safe, I can bond with any type of riders around me, any style."
So why wait?
Perez tells it straight.
"I'm a little bit hard-headed, sometimes I get upset and don't act right," Perez said. "I have to learn to control that. I get angry pretty quick, I have to fix that, when I can control that, I'll be ready to come to New York."
Perez's wife, Jessica, has helped his maturity. He met her on the way to the start in a race at Colonial Downs in 2009. She was ponying his horse, he stole a look and the rest is history.
"I look in her eyes and the next week, I asked her out, everything started going good. It's a dream. It's a dream come true," Perez said. "It's been a good change for me, she always tries to keep me in the right way. I'm glad I met her. Most of my victories and what I'm doing right now is because of her, I've got a good woman by my side."
She'll love New York.