Let me tell you an Urban Fairytale.
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom going through a pandemic that forced nearly everybody to stay at home to stop the spread of the dreaded coronavirus. Non-essential businesses were shut down, people were losing their jobs and seemingly the only things open were hospitals and grocery stores.
This happened in the month of March, when a favorite national pastime of the unwashed masses was to watch the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament and cheer and wager on their favorite teams or follow their brackets until they were busted. This was usually a time when legends were made and we found inspiration in the so-called Cinderella stories. But instead, all of the nation’s sporting events were shut down as people spent most of their time constantly washing their hands.
But there was one sport, horse racing (aka the Sport of Kings) that continued at a few of the racetracks across the land. The biggest track left running in an urban setting was Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., halfway between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. That’s where we find our unlikely hero, Prince Chris Landeros, a jockey in the Gulfstream colony. He had failed to reach the winner’s circle in 133 races since Nov. 30, 2019, at Churchill Downs. We don’t know if it was a witches’ evil spell or just bad luck, but Landeros lost his last 4 races at the 2019 Churchill meet, then 28 straight to end the year at Gulfstream and his first 101 mounts in 2020, including 95 more at Gulfstream as well as 3 at Tampa Bay Downs and 3 at Turfway Park earlier this month, according to the jockey stats at equibase.com.
Landeros nearly went 0-fer the entire Gulfstream Park Championship Meet, but ended up winning the very last race of the meet on Sunday on a 3-year-old filly named Urban Fairytale in a race for maidens (term for horses that have never won a race).
“People out there are losing their jobs, so I’m very fortunate to still be able to earn some income even when I was losing,” Landeros told this scribe on Monday. “I felt I was living a nightmare and I’m glad it’s over, but the thing that made me feel the best was a message I got on social media from a fan who said ‘I lost my job but you gave me hope watching you win last night.’”
Landeros said he hopes his tale of perseverance helps other people gets through these tough times as he says he just stuck to his game plan and tried his best every day.
“I started riding when I was 17 and this is the toughest challenge I’ve ever had to face,” the 31-year-old Landeros said. “I actually felt the most pressure in December at the start of the Gulfstream meet because I had to serve a suspension. Everyone else was on their way, getting hot, and I was on the bench, so December was gone. January was tough and I kept thinking it’s going to turn around, it’s going to turn, but it’s tough when you’re not always on the best horses and you’re facing the toughest competition in the country.”
“Luckily I have a good support system at home with my wife [Princess Shelby] and two kids [sons Beckham and Rory], along with my father-in-law [King Ian Wilkes] who never gave up on me. The worst part was I felt like I was letting him down because he kept believing in me and I kept coming up short.”
Wilkes trains a lot of Landeros’ mounts and they’ve had a lot of success together. Landeros rode Wilkes’ Champagne Anyone to victory in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks last year, one of 32 wins at the 2019 meet and one of five graded stakes wins on the year. Two of those graded stakes wins were on the Wilkes-trained Gentle Ruler, who was entered in last Saturday’s Grade 3 Orchid Stakes, so Landeros was hopeful that his losing streak would come to an end over the weekend.
He was further encouraged on Friday when he talked with Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen, who is considered racing royalty since being named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” in 1977 at the tender age of 17 and then riding Affirmed to the Triple Crown in 1978. Cauthen then suffered through an infamous 110-race winless streak in 1979 that was also covered by the national media, including SI. Cauthen reached out to Landeros at the suggestion of “Tuley’s Thoroughbred Takes” contributor Ed Sehon via their mutual friend in George Collins.
“I’ve met Chris before, but I have to be honest, I didn’t know he was going through that losing streak until George told me,” Cauthen said. “I was more than happy to give him a call because it can be a lonely place. All I did was let him know I lost 110 races in a row and was happy to give him some encouraging words and tell him ‘this too will pass.’
“When things like this are going down, you do lose some confidence and it doesn’t help if you’re riding a bunch of horses that aren’t at the top of their game. When I had my losing streak, [Hall of Fame trainer] Laz Barrera’s horses weren’t firing and what happens when you’re in a slump like that is that even when you’re on a horse with a good chance, maybe you move too soon on a horse or too late. It was brutal for me. The people writing great things about me were hanging me out to dry. But I understand: it sells newspapers.
“In the end, it was probably the best character-builder for me. It really made me grow up and mature. You also learn during times like that who can you count on and I’m glad Chris had his father-in-law. I’m a big fan of Ian Wilkes.”
Landeros added: “It was midway through Friday’s card and I got a note in the jock’s room to call Steve back. I thought that was cool. I’ve always looked up to Steve; he’s a Triple Crown winner and I knew about his losing streak and it helped to hear from him that it can happen to anybody. It’s a humbling game. I knew I had some good mounts on Saturday and Sunday and talking to him sparked me up more.”
Gentle Ruler looked like Landeros’ best chance to get back to the winner’s circle in the Orchid Stakes, Saturday’s 10th race. They went off as the 5/1 fourth choice in the betting and sat just off the pace of even-money favorite Mean Mary and ended up losing by one length.
“After talking to Chris, I watched a bunch of his races and texted him to tell him I didn’t think he was doing anything wrong and to keep doing what he was doing,” Cauthen said. Landeros said that follow-up text also meant a lot to him.
Landeros nearly won in Sunday’s 3rd race as he took 2/1 favorite Tizahra, also trained by Wilkes, to the lead and nearly held on before finishing third. Landeros lost three more races on horses that went off at 79/1, 11/1 and 63/1 before the 10th and final race of the day and meet with Urban Fairytale, who went off as the 9/5 favorite.
“Urban Fairytale was the class of the race,” Landeros said, “but I wasn’t sure we were going to get there. She was tired, but she has a lot of class and she really dug in for me.”
Landeros had Urban Fairytale in fifth place most of the one-mile race, about three lengths behind the leader before making his move around the final turn. They bolted to the lead in midstretch and held off two deeper closers by half a length as Gulfstream track announcer Peter Aiello called out “Urban Fairytale . . . Landeros off the schneid!”
Landeros said it was a quiet celebration on Sunday night with just a family dinner and putting the kids to bed. When it was suggested that he could someday tuck his kids (who are 2.5 and 1 years old, respectively) into bed with this Urban Fairytale, he said, “Maybe, but I hope they never have to go through something like this.”
The Gulfstream spring/summer meet is still slated to open Thursday, barring closure of the racetrack. Landeros said he’s looking forward to carrying his momentum into the new meet.
“I also took some inspiration from Tiger Woods,” he said. “I know it’s a different sport, but went from No. 1 in the world to not making the cut in a lot of events, but he kept digging and won another green jacket [for winning the 2019 Masters]. I hope this leads to bigger things for me.
“I’ve gotten more publicity for this than for winning a stakes race. The great thing about horseracing is one meet ends and another one begins with a clean slate. I’ve got my family by my side and I look forward to the new Gulfstream spring meet and then I’ll probably move back to Kentucky for the Churchill spring/summer meet.”
And they lived happily ever after?