Why Panama is known for best jockeys in world: ‘Dream for us is the same — to race in the Kentucky Derby’

JUAN DIAZ, Panama — Wilmar Alarcon grew up where the highway dead-ends into impassable jungle.

Where young boys ride farm horses to town and race each other bareback.

Where sons of plantain farmers sit in wood-plank shacks, listening to horse racing on the radio, and dream of thundering across a finish line at 40 miles per hour.

But it is here, far from the Darién rainforest in a maze of threadbare barns tucked into a gritty neighborhood east of Panama City’s glitzy skyscrapers, where Alarcon is taking his shot at that dream.

Since the first Panamanian riders exploded on the U.S. racing scene in the 1960s, turning humble backgrounds into riches, waves of aspiring jockeys like Alarcon have beaten a path to one of the world’s storied jockey schools to seek similar fame. 

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“The dream for us is the same — to race in the Kentucky Derby,” Alarcon, 24, said last month as he led a chestnut thoroughbred through a barn at Panama’s Laffit Pincay Jr. Technical Jockey Training Academy, more than 2,000 miles south of Churchill Downs. 

In the decades that Latino jockeys grew to dominate Triple Crown racing, Panama has produced a disproportionate share of top Latin American riders, earning a reputation as “the cradle of the best jockeys in the world.”

In Panama, known as the ‘Cradle of the best jockeys in the world,’ the Laffit Pincay Jr. Technical Jockey Training Academy has changed lives and produced some top thoroughbred riders. The famed school, opened in 1960, is located just outside of the country’s only racetrack. (Photo: Chris Kenning)

“If horses could talk,” trainer Bob Baffert once remarked, “they would surely speak Spanish.”  

Four Panamanian jockeys have ridden to victory in the Kentucky Derby, including the school’s namesake. This year, jockey school graduates Luis and Gabriel Saez — cousins from Darién — are both expected to ride in the Run for the Roses.

Watching closely back in Panama will be Alarcon and 44 other students, many seeking a way out of poverty or troubled pasts, each hoping to travel the long road from Panama to racing’s top stage.

But it's not easy. Less than half of its graduates will earn a living abroad in places like the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Mexico or Dubai, school officials said.

To make it, they'll need the guts of a long-shot rider. They must complete two years of hard work learning to coax 1,200-pound horses to victory, avoid catastrophic injury, race for low pay at Panama's only track, obtain a visa and find a trainer to take a chance on them. 

Luckily for them, say some of the country's great jockeys, they're from Panama.

“At any track, when you say you’re from Panama, they know you can ride,” said Jorge Velasquez, a school graduate who won the 1981 Kentucky Derby and later worked as a jockey agent.

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