Manny Ycaza, the Hall of Fame jockey widely credited with paving the way for Latin American riders in North America, died Monday in New York at age 80.
Ycaza’s wife, Jeanne, said her husband died of pneumonia and sepsis in a local hospital after being transported there Sunday evening when he suddenly took ill.
“He died peacefully, surrounded by his family,” she said.
Among the major races won by Ycaza were the 1964 Belmont Stakes on Quadrangle; four runnings of the Kentucky Oaks; the first triple crown for fillies with Dark Mirage in 1968; and back-to-back runnings of the Washington D.C. International in 1959-60. He rode such immortals as Dr. Fager and Damascus, and in 1977 he became the first Latino rider inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He also won the prestigious George Woolf Memorial Award in 1964.
Born Carlos Manuel de Ycaza in Panama in 1938, Ycaza was the son of a bus driver who began riding at an early age. He had a brief riding stint in Mexico, and immigrated in 1956 to the United States. His talent was quickly established as he began winning major stakes across the U.S., and before long, other great jockeys followed Ycaza from Panama and other Latin American countries. His fellow Panamanians include Braulio Baeza, Laffit Pincay Jr., Jorge Velasquez, Jacinto Vasquez, Alex Solis, and Rene Douglas.
A February 1962 story by Bill Leggett in Sports Illustrated entitled “The Latin Invasion” documented the trend initiated by Ycaza, whose legacy lives on today with the plethora of top Latino jockeys in action at North American tracks. A sub-headline for that story reads: “The big news of the horse racing season is that Spanish-speaking jockeys dominate the scene, and their takeover may be permanent.”
Ycaza “was as good as anyone who rode in this country,” Vasquez, a fellow Hall of Famer, said Tuesday from Ocala, Fla. “He had everything. He could go to the lead, come from behind. He was a competitor. He had a lot of guts.”
In competition, Ycaza was known for a cross demeanor and for being hot-headed and sometimes overly aggressive. Perhaps that behavior was best typified by his actions during narrow defeats aboard Ridan in the 1962 Preakness and Travers. One of the most famous photos in racing history, by Joe DePaola of the Baltimore Sun, depicts Ycaza, on Ridan, sparring with John Rotz, on the victorious Greek Money, in the stretch run of the Preakness.
His aggression led to numerous suspensions by racing stewards, but the top owners and trainers sought him out nonetheless, with Harry Guggenheim and E.P. Taylor being among the prominent owners for whom Ycaza frequently rode.
“He got in a lot of trouble, but he really didn’t mean to,” said Vasquez. “He used to ride very powerful horses, and when he turned for home he used to make the hole, even if there wasn’t one. But he really was a nice guy. He didn’t mean to hurt anybody.”
Ycaza’s top mounts included many of the superstar horses of his era, and he was a perennial leading jockey on the biggest East Coast circuits. He topped the standings at Saratoga four times, breaking a 38-year-old record in 1959 by riding 41 winners.
Often plagued by injury, Ycaza retired in 1971 before briefly trying his hand in 1977 with driving Standardbreds, then had a short comeback in the saddle in 1983-84. He retired with 2,367 victories from 10,561 mounts.
Ycaza lived out his years quietly in Queens, N.Y., with Jeanne, whom he married in 1982 and with whom he had a daughter, Carla. He was a big baseball fan whose favorite team was the New York Mets. He seldom attended the races except for some Hall of Fame induction weekends in Saratoga.
“I really got to know him over the last several years,” said Terry Meyocks, a longtime executive with The Jockey’s Guild. “He was a true gentleman.”
Ycaza was married in 1962 to Linda Bement, who in 1960 had been crowned Miss USA and Miss Universe. The couple had two children, Manuel and Lindita, before divorcing in 1969. Bement died in March of natural causes in Salt Lake City.
Visitation will be held Friday from 2-5 and 7-9 p.m. at the Fox Funeral Home in Forest Hills, N.Y. A funeral Mass will be held Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, with burial to follow at the Mt. St. Mary cemetery in Flushing.
The family requests that memorial contributions be made to “Jockeys and Jeans” for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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