The first time you saw him, you knew he wouldn't last. The talent was there, natural and omnipresent. The work ethic was there, hell, he grew up in Bill Mott's shedrow, you learn about horses and about work all at the same time. He had hands of gold and a long leg to match. He was quiet and professional on foot, the same in the saddle. He had connections. He had business. Horses ran for him. Horses liked him. People liked him.
But, still, you knew he wouldn't last.
No, Ramon Perez, the jockey, wasn't built to last.
He sat in the hot box, whittling his body down every day. It worked while he was young, 16 and a high-school dropout, he could win the battle with his weight. But you knew he wouldn't win the war.
He started at Churchill Downs in 1994, moved to New York and earned the Eclipse Award for leading apprentice in 1995. He went to Dubai to ride for Tom Albertrani and Godolphin. Came back, tried school, came back again, bouncing from Tampa Bay Downs to Canterbury Park and Turf Paradise. He was second leading rider at Canterbury, riding winners in front of his mother's family, his grandmother enjoying the ride. But still, it was a long way from what he knew.
Banging away on cheap claimers, Perez was a million miles from Mott's barn where the seed was sowed by his stepfather, Tim Jones, Mott and all the other horsemen in the green and white shedrow. Perez walked into the Oklahoma track when he was 12, began getting on horses and learning to become a jockey. But Turf Paradise in March isn't Mott's barn at Saratoga. Perez knew something needed to change. He won a race, March 24, 2001 and wasn't happy about it. He sat on the horse in the winner's circle and felt nothing. The passion was gone.
"I won my last race and I just wasn't happy," Perez said Sunday morning. "It was like, 'I loved this, I was passionate, I got into it because I enjoyed it.' And at some point, you realize this became a job. I didn't like it, I still wanted that passion, to do it because I loved the horses, and I lost that."
That's when he knew it was over. He walked back to the jocks' room and took off the rest of his mounts. The clerk of scales hit the roof, told him he was going to fine him. It was over. Perez walked away.
That's when the real searching began.
He applied to Arizona State University, on a lark, thinking it would never happen. He got accepted and went back to school. For Perez, it was a simple decision to quit riding and try to reinvent himself before it was too late.
"I knew in my heart of hearts I was doing it on borrowed time," Perez said. "I didn't want to struggle and struggle and struggle and wind up in the same place and be the statistic, galloping horses without a fallback plan. I didn't want to do that."
Perez finished one year in Arizona, then transferred to the University of Florida where he focused on history and veterinary medicine. He majored in history because his grandfather taught history at the University of Michigan and suggested it to him. And veterinary medicine because he figured it could be a way to work with horses.
After graduating, Perez applied for an internship in Australia, figuring he didn't want to have any regrets about not applying. He got the one-year post and has stayed three years.
On a month-long vacation, Perez, 35, arrived in Saratoga for a few days. He met his valet Harry Rice at The Parting Glass, drove around town and marveled at the changes and ventured out to the Oklahoma track Sunday morning.
"It's bittersweet, I haven't been back for three years and I probably haven't done it because, in general, I'll miss it," Perez said. "Then coming back here is even worse, you start to think of the old things, the old people. I literally grew up, right here."
Healthier than the last time he was here, Perez melted back into the backstretch community, another railbird standing outside Mott's barn, talking horses with Doc Richardson, kangaroo meat with Matt Firestone and watching horses train with interest and nostalgia, the race riding bug still coursing straight and true.
"I had all the opportunities and something I couldn't control, my weight...that's one of the reasons I went back to school to be a vet, because I could control it, nobody is going to take that piece of paper away from me. It was something I could do, I could control," Perez said. "But, hindsight 20/20, I would give up everything I've done to this point to ride one more day. I suspect most people who have ridden racehorses would, if push came to shove, they would drop everything to ride here, on a nice horse..."
A vet by trade, a jockey for life.