Rivera riding at the top of his game

CHESTER – Displacing Deshawn Parker as the leading jockey at a Mountaineer Racetrack meeting is an unexpected feat. But during Sunday’s meet, Luis Raul Rivera registered 61 wins to Parker’s 55. Many believed it couldn’t be done. Rivera did it.

Mountaineer’s third (of four) meets during its 210-day season is now under way and today’s card includes the first stakes of the year, a pair of one-mile turf events. Rivera has mounts in both of them. He’ll be aboard Easy Crossing in the $75,000 Independence Day Stakes. And he will ride Sharp Sally in the $75,000 Firecracker Stakes.

Both horses are trained by Tim Schuh and are owned by Art Preston, an oil, gas and real estate entrepreneur from Texas. Easy Crossing, a 4-year-old colt by English Channel, has placed in turf stakes at Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park. Sharp Sally, a 4-year-old daughter of Posse, won a pair of Mountaineer allowance races in her most recent efforts.

This will be Rivera’s first time aboard Easy Crossing. He rode Sharp Sally to her allowance scores. Sharp Sally has only one prior effort on the grass, though, and she finished unplaced.

“I’ve never even seen Easy Crossing before, and I really have no idea about him,” Rivera said. “The filly, well, I know what she can do on the dirt. And the weather could make a difference. The only thing I can really say is that I always ride to win.”

Easy Crossing’s career record includes six starts, two victories, three placings and purse earnings of $105,900. His sire won a half-dozen Grade 1 stakes, and was North America’s 2007 male turf champions. Easy Crossing is 8-1 in the Independence Day morning line. He will be making his first start in nearly a year, and is a work in progress.

Sharp Sally’s career stats include eight starts, from which she has gained four victories and purse earnings of $93,995. Her sire was a sharp sprinter, with a trio of graded stakes score on his resume, but not a grass competitor. Sharp Sally is 10-1 in the Firecracker morning line. She’s a work in progress, too.

The 34-year-old Rivera is from Loiza on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico. His family had show horses, and at age 14 he began working in the stables at the El Comandante racecourse.

“I’d be in high school on weekdays and at the track on weekends,” said Rivera. “When I was 16, I began galloping.”

He began riding races at El Comandante, and eventually took his gear to Calder in South Florida, and after that to Laurel Park, Pimlico and the state fair at Timonium in Maryland. “I also had some mounts at Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park (now known as Parx Racing),” Rivera said. “When it got cold, I headed back to Puerto Rico.”

At one point he quit being a jockey. Rivera had problems keeping his weight down; the hiatus extended for three years. But he eventually returned to race riding in Puerto Rico, and in 2005 began riding at Mountaineer. Rivera had 950 career victories through Sunday. He’s on pace to reach the 1,000-win plateau by early to mid-autumn.

Rivera has one career stakes win on his resume. In 2011, he booted Hot Hot Mama to victory in the $75,000 Ohio Valley Handicap at Mountaineer. Rivera’s agent is Tim Freking, who used to handle the book for Dana Whitney, and currently handles Terry Houghton’s book as well.

Mountaineer’s season began on March 2. For the track’s first two meets combined, Parker remains the leading jockey, with a total of 87 wins. Rivera ranks second, with 77. Christian Pilares has 69 and Houghton has 64.

With nearly six months of racing remaining, Parker remains the guy to catch. Doing so will be very difficult. But as Rivera has proven, it’s not an unprecedented achievement.