MANUEL YCAZA passed away just a few days before the Saratoga meet began. To many he is someone that they never have heard of. To sports fans it is a name that may have sounded familiar. Then there are those of us, the racing public, who remember him. And do we ever.
Ycaza came by way of his native country Panama. It was in Mexico City where he began to rock the racing world. There he shook that racing establishment to its core. Day in and day out he thrilled the fans with his distinct, anything goes riding style. “Manny” as he was now known had conquered Mexico. Now it was the time to move north of the border to showcase his ever-growing mastery of race riding. He was going to break tradition, in a very big way.
This was another time. The jockey colony in this country was still limited very much to a white presence. This was about to change. Ycaza broke the barrier. As his successes mounted, many other Spanish speaking jockeys would make their way to the North American racing scene. Names like Beaza, Pincay, Cordero, Vasquez, Valasquez and so many more that reached the pinnacle of success in their new-found home. It didn’t take long for this tiger in the saddle to reach the dizzying heights that most can only dream of.
It was the 1960s…
Ycaza won stake races in bunches. Count the 1964 Belmont Stakes and the D.C. International three times. Here at the Spa, he nailed down the Travers Stakes twice. He took Canada’s most important event, The Queen’s Plate. To list them all would take half of this page. He wasn’t just riding high at the racetrack. He married the Miss Universe of 1960, Linda Bement. He was now a very big star. Two races stand out in his storied career. One took place here at Saratoga. It was the 1962 Travers Stakes. The race has stood the test of time as the greatest race ever held at the Spa. Ycaza had the mount on Ridan. A national institution, Bill Shoemaker was aboard Jaipur. The fans in attendance that day were treated to a horse race for the ages. On the clubhouse turn Shoemaker and Ycaza hooked up. From that point on they could not be separated. On to the backstretch and down the straightaway the battle continued. At the top of the stretch they were nose and nose. Through the stretch, they mirrored each other. They hit the finish line as one. It was a photo finish. Shoemaker and Jaipur got the call by a nostril. Ycaza had lost. At the same time, he had cemented his name in the annals of Saratoga Race Track lore.
Let’s move forward 5 years…
The place Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The track Garden State Park. It was the Jersey Derby, a Memorial Day fixture at the long-gone track. Ycaza had the mount on one of the greatest horses to ever grace the American turf, Dr Fager. It was a four-horse field and the good Doctor looked like a mortal cinch. When the bell rang Manny crossed over into the path of the rest of the field. This move would lead to the flashing lights on the tote board indicating a steward’s inquiry. Fager won the race by six open lengths, only to be disqualified. This episode showed the one crack in Ycaza’s armor. He lived by a rough riding, cowboy style. And in some cases, died by it. He found few, if any friends among the track stewards, who abhorred his in-race antics. In his twenty-year career, he spent a mind boggling twenty-four months on the sidelines, due to rough riding suspensions. It is fair to say with Manny, you got what you asked for. Owners and trainers alike knew that with his great skills, he could be lengths better than other jockeys.
On the other side of the coin, there was always the possibility that the undisciplined riding could very well cause his mounts to be disqualified.
1970 came and Ycaza’s star was about to fade. Injuries, disqualifications and suspensions had taken their toll. He retired in 1971. Six years later he was inducted into the horse racing Hall of Fame here on Union Avenue. It was a well-deserved and fitting tribute to this all-time great.
Not one to rest on his laurels, he traded in his tack for a harness sulky, where he had limited success at New York area raceway venues. Manny Ycaza was the product of his environment. He learned his trade in Latin America where cowboy style riding was considered the norm. The racetrack crowd in New York fell in love with him. He was what they wished they could be, tough, brassy, with the nerve to take chances with an all-out will to win at any cost. Sure, they knew that it could cause them to lose a bet on occasion. What mattered more, he would do everything possible with his God given talent to get his horse to the finish line in front.
Note to Saratoga fans,
Manny along with his three Whitney Stakes scores, took a total of four riding titles at the Spa.
It can be said that Manuel Ycaza did it all. And without doubt, he did it his way.
An all-time great gone at eighty.