Challenge


Baca On Top, Benito Baca Leads the Challenge Riders
Benito Baca and wife Maria.

© Richard Chamberlain
Baca On Top, Benito Baca Leads the Challenge Riders

By Richard Chamberlain

QUARTER RACING JOURNALóOCTOBER 11, 2017ó The 24-year-old rider is making his mark. With 76 points earned in Bank America Racing Challenge events this season, Benito Baca is the Wrangler Champion Jockey for 2017.

"This means the world to me Ė it shows how hard Iíve worked and how far Iíve come," says Benito, who for his Wrangler title receives $2,000 and a custom buckle from Montana Silversmiths. "Iíve gotten to ride some really nice horses this year. Itís part of being a horseman Ė caring for the animals, knowing when theyíre ready to go or whether theyíre not ready to go, and being able to get inside a horseís head. Once you get inside his mind, you can unlock some secrets and you can do better."

Benito learned his trade from his father, Bernard Baca, and his uncle, James J. "JJ" Gonzales, who won the 2003 All American Futurity (G1) aboard By By JJ.

"My dad trains in New Mexico, and he used to ride when he was younger," he says. "Dad really started me young, helped me out, showed me the way, taught me how to gallop. He started me from the ground up, before I could even get on a horse, and that really makes a horseman. And my uncle always told me to work hard and never stop working hard. So I just kind of found my place."

That place is on the back of good horses. Since 2011, Benito has ridden 170 winners and the earners of $2.85 million from 1,563 starts. Like anybody in any job, he started a little slow, riding seven winners and the earners of $37,722 that first year Ė but that was from only 22 races aboard American Quarter Horses, which put him in the winnerís circle more than a third of the time he left the gate. He won his first stakes three years later, booting home Lotta Dynasty in the Mile High Futurity at Arapahoe Park in Colorado and bringing home the earners of $291,435. In 2014, Benito rode the earners of more than half a million, and last year his mounts banked $815,640, his best so far in terms of money earned.

Benito is on pace to do even better this year, having already ridden 36 winners and the earners of more than $627,000 from 294 starts. Whatís more, he has won six stakes this season, with Rockin J Running Horseís Jess A Hilbily Bone in the June 3 Remington Distance Handicap (G2) in Oklahoma City and the July 29 Bobby Dan Crenshaw Memorial Stakes at Ruidoso Downs, and Rockin Jís Rock A Billy in the September 3 Bill Reed Memorial Stakes at Ruidoso; Tom Lepecís The Fiscal Cliff in the June 18 Skip Zimmerman Memorial Stakes and July 4 Canterbury Championship Challenge, both at Canterbury Park in Minnesota; and Victory Farmsí VF Wheely Cute in the September 10 Miss Ellen Stakes at Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma.

"The first Challenge race I ever won was on The Fiscal Cliff in the Canterbury Championship," Benito says. "I was riding for (trainer) Kasey Willis. Then Tammy Johnson gave me the biggest shot at Remington Park, the first meet of the year, and we had a really good, solid time. I qualified two for the 870 Challenge there, and I opted to ride the one that didnít win, but I was happy for Tammy to get in there."

Benito is talking about CJs Rocksolid and CJs Rockhard N Ready in the May 14 Remington Distance Challenge (G2). Josh Romero won the stakes aboard CJs Rocksolid, while Benito ran back on CJs Rockhard N Ready. Romero later went down at Prairie Meadows, where he broke his collarbone, and now is Benitoís agent in Iowa.

"That was my own fault," he admits of the sixth-place finish in the Remington Distance Challenge. "I should have picked the horse with more experience, but I chose to go with the one that I thought was really starting to come around. But still, it was a real good meet. Tammy put me on Rockin Disco and I ran second to Sky Bo Dash in the 440 Challenge (the May 14 Remington Championship Challenge (G2)). We went to Ruidoso and ran second with Rock About It in the Ruidoso Derby Challenge. And there were others Ė Feature Me Gorgeous, The Fiscal Cliff, ran fourth in the Juvenile Challenge here at Prairie Meadows with The Fiscal Cliffís little brother The Fiscal Storm. So really, even though I didnít always win, the high point of the year was just being competitive in every Challenge race we went to. Whether we won it or not, we were always competitive."

So those are some of the highlights of his career. The highlight of his life is his family. Benito and wife Maria have been married two years, and have son Bentley, who will be 17 months old the day after the Challenge Championships. The former Maria Thornton grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, just east of Delta Downs, where her father, Mark Thornton, is a farrier (who recently moved to Texas) and brother Timothy Thornton is a jockey. And until she found she was going to be a mother, Maria rode Thoroughbreds in New Mexico and Chicago.

"Racing is something Benito loves to do and itís something thatís always been in our family," Maria says. "This is something heís very passionate about, so I am totally 100 percent supportive of everything he does. Iím very proud of what heís accomplished Ė Iíve always told him, keep working, your timeís coming."

"I love this," Benito affirms. "My wife has really stood behind me and pushed and motivated me to keep going. I grew up on the track and have been around it my whole life. And I just canít get enough of it."

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