At 24, Nik Juarez has been around animals his entire life. In 6th grade, the Maryland native wanted to be the next Frank Perdue—another a Maryland resident who built the Perdue Farms poultry empire—because he loved showing chickens in 4H at the Maryland State Fair so much.

As a young man, Juarez eventually found his calling in the family business, following in the footsteps of his father, Calixo Juarez, and his grandfather, and becoming a jockey in 2013. Since then, Juarez has emerged as one of the top riders in the country, with 469 lifetime wins, to date, and more than $13.5 million in earnings.

In horse racing, as in other equestrian disciplines, horses compete at a variety of levels, with Grade 1 races being the most competitive. It’s no surprise, therefore, that when running for bigger purses, owners and trainers favor the top jockeys with more experience to ride their horses.

For Juarez, that break came when trainer Marcus Vitali gave him the opportunity to pilot Valid (Medaglia d’Oro by Grand Slam) in the 2015 Philip H. Iselin Handicap (Gr. 3) at Monmouth Park. The duo crossed the wire first, giving Juarez his first stakes win and helping to establish himself as a competitive young jockey. The pair followed their Monmouth Park performance with a respectable fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (Gr. 1) at Keeneland, and a second in the Donn Handicap (Gr. 1). A final, career stakes win together came in the 2016 Skip Away Stakes (Gr. 3) at Gulfstream Park.

They don’t come around often, but Valid truly was an iron horse.

From early on, Valid and Juarez had a noticeable connection on the racetrack.

“I loved working him in the mornings at the track, he was so calm, and always took care of me,” Juarez said. “In the afternoons, he was the definition of a racehorse—all heart and class. They don’t come around often, but Valid truly was an iron horse.”

As Juarez’s career continued to flourish, with riding titles and continued stakes successes around the country, Valid’s career came to an abrupt standstill following a tendon injury. His owners put him up for sale at the Keeneland January mixed sale, where the more than $1 million earner sold for a mere $15,000.

“When I saw him go into the sale, I was trying to seek him out, and then when he sold, I was trying to get in contact with the trainer and the new owner,” Juarez said. “His owners said that they were going to continue running him. I just told him, ‘Look, if there ever comes a time you are done racing him, let me know.'”

In August, 2017, Juarez got that call. Valid was finally done racing, and his owners told Juarez that if he could get him from Colorado to Maryland, then the Thoroughbred would be all his. Although Juarez spends a decent portion of his day on the backs of racehorses, he was relatively new to the day-to-day decision making that comes with having a horse of his own. Juarez used his connections to help him schedule transportation for the gelding, who traveled to Pimlico Race Course, and then from the track to a private farm 15 minutes outside of Baltimore, Md.

He’s since settled in comfortably, and Juarez says that being in Valid’s company has given new meaning in his work life at the racetrack. “Being around Valid on the farm takes me out of horses just being my job. He’s something to care about. For me, to see him out here, just being a horse—my horse—really is meaningful.”

“I am a terrible groom,” Juarez admitted. “Having Valid has definitely opened my eyes. It’s a lot more than just jumping on and off like I do in the afternoon. Now, I have something I have to take care of. It gives me more [of an] appreciation for the owners that are in our game, and it gives me an appreciation for the grooms and everyone who is a staple of our industry. It’s a lot of work and money.”

To see him out here, just being a horse—my horse—really is meaningful.

Juarez’s day begins before sunrise. Exercising dozens of horses at Belmont Park and across New York, where he keeps his tack. After a quick shower and nap in the sauna, Nik will ride 4-8 horses in the afternoon for live races. Although he is mainly stationed in New York, Juarez also travels up and down the East Coast to different tracks to ride races, including Laurel Park, in Maryland, where he’s heading on this particular day.

It is  rare in the sport of horseracing for jockeys, who are constantly traveling and on the move, to purchase a horse—let alone get the chance to own one that was a significant part of their racing career. For Juarez, his new role as an OTTB owner offers plenty of possibilities.

“[For] now, [Valid] is enjoying life on the farm. The next step is hopefully riding him western, and maybe teaching him how to be a pony back on the racetrack. I want to trail ride him and jump him down the road. He is a horse who really wants a job,” Juarez explained.

“It’s pretty special to be able to get to know a horse on the track, and where we came from, [given] the things we achieved together. And now, here Valid is, just munching on some hay.”

-Photo credit: Bill Denver/Equi-Photo; EX22218 – ON/OFF via flickr.com; Courtesy of Nik Juarez.