The following appeared at Richmond.com and was written by Wayne Epps.
Rosario Montanez had never cried after a race.
The 31-year-old jockey from Oceanside, Calif., has a passion for horse racing that oozes out of him. Riding is a sport he feels he was born to do. Yet in a career that has spanned a dozen years, with more than 600 victories, Montanez was never hit with the certain tinge of emotion after a ride that drew tears.
Until July 20, at Colonial Downs.
In the ninth and final race of that day’s card, Montanez steered Osa, a 4-year-old filly from Maryland, to victory in a mile-long bout on Colonial Downs’ turf.
Afterward, Montanez cried.
“It touched me,” he said. “Words can’t explain it.”
But his journey to that point can begin to. That win was Montanez’s first since he returned to riding following a serious accident in a race at Laurel Park in Maryland. In fact, it was almost two years to the day since it happened.
Montanez, on July 17, 2020, suffered a broken back, neck, jaw, rib, nose and internal brain bleeding after his horse clipped heels with another and fell.
Doctors told him his career would be done. But horse racing is something he said he doesn’t think he could ever give up. Determined, he worked his way back into the saddle, returning to racing early this year.
And the win, on July 20, was an important milestone as he continues to re-establish himself in the business coming off his injuries.
So the tears flowed.
“I’ve never won the Kentucky Derby, but I think it would be equal or higher than winning the Kentucky Derby,” Montanez said on Friday. “Because doctors never believed I could ride again. And I’m here and I can still do it, and I’m able to prove to them that I can still get the job done.
“And that was a thrill that nobody can ever take away from me.”
Montanez has been a jockey since he was 19. When he was 20, an owner in Pennsylvania, Lisa Allen, reached out offering to bring him across the country to ride.
Montanez didn’t know anything about the East Coast, he thought he’d never leave California. He wrestled with the idea until finally, not wanting to lose the offer, he packed up his car and drove cross country.
“When I get to Pennsylvania, the first week I win 12 races,” Montanez said. “And the rest is history.”
The East Coast has been Montanez’s hub since. He won a combined 423 races in the first five years of his career.
But, in a July 2014 race at Saratoga Race Course in New York, his horse crossed its front feet and stumbled badly. Montanez fell off, and the horse behind him stepped on his face and his back.
Montanez broke his left eye socket, his nose and his back. That was the first accident of that severity he suffered, and he was out of racing for almost two years.
“I was blessed that I was able to find Dr. [Kenneth] Morganstern. I still see him every three months,” Montanez said. “He’s the one that put my face back together. I’m very blessed for him. I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Back at it, Montanez continued to find success. After returning in 2016, he finished first in 179 races, from 2016-19.
He had another setback in 2019, this time in a training ride. The horse he was on went down and he suffered a broken back and neck.
Still, he returned once again in 2020 — before the gruesome accident at Laurel Park that July.
Montanez can’t remember the exact sequence. But he was thrown to the ground when his horse, Hendaya, fell.
“It was terrible, terrible,” said Fair Hill, Md.-based trainer Carla Morgan.
Montanez underwent surgery the following morning.
His neurologist, in the aftermath, has tried to get him to retire from racing. But after rods were inserted into his back, he was able to walk into a follow-up appointment a month later, surprising another of his doctors.
“He said, ‘Where’s your wheelchair?’” Montanez recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean sir?’ He goes, ‘The surgery I did on you, you should be in a wheelchair for at least six months.’
“I said, ‘No sir, I feel great.’ I said, ‘I feel a little bit of pain, but nothing severely.'”
A GoFundMe campaign was started by trainer Brittany Russell to help Montanez with expenses as he recovered, and it raised $40,115. Montanez was back on horses by April 2021, in training rides.
Then his return race came on Jan. 30 at Laurel Park, on a horse named Holy Synchronicity.
“People were like, ‘Were you nervous?’ No, when I got back in the gate, I was able to breathe and relax,” Montanez said. “Like you know when you sit on your couch and you relax? That’s how I felt.”
Simply returning is not so simple, though. Part of the horse racing game is having to prove oneself again, to earn more rides.
Montanez has 43 starts so far this year, after missing more time when he suffered a pinched nerve in his back in the spring.
“When they’re away a long time, they lose a lot of their clients,” Morgan said of jockeys. “They go to other riders. And you have to work your tail off to come back.”
That’s what Montanez has been doing. And not just by racing, either.
On days during the current meet at Colonial Downs, which began on July 11, Montanez leaves his home in Laurel, Md., at 3 a.m. to arrive at the track for morning rides.
“So he knows how [the horses] feel, and how they’re going to react at certain times,” Morgan said. “And that’s important, I think. And it gives the jockey a better perspective of how the horse is going to run.”
He builds a connection with the horses, Morgan said, which is part of the reason why he’s been so effective, she believes.
It was one of the horses Morgan trains, Osa, that Montanez rode in his July 20 win.
Following that emotional moment, fellow jockey Jareth Loveberry — who is leading all riders with eight wins so far this meet — was one person Montanez spoke with. Montanez’s perseverance has stood out to Loveberry.
“Especially [with] the types of injuries that he had, is just pretty remarkable,” Loveberry said. “The drive just to keep doing it.”
Montanez said he’s hungrier now than at the beginning of his career, because he wants to prove that he can still do it. And he wants to win.
He said he feels great, both physically and mentally. More riding opportunities are presenting themselves, after what he’s shown at Colonial Downs already.
Montanez believes that he’s in the prime of his career, and he’s fueled by anyone who may question why he still competes.
He can’t see himself doing something else, at least not yet. And so on he rides, horse racing still embedded in his heart.
“People say, ‘Oh are you scared?’ I don’t know if I’m crazy, because I have no fear,” Montanez said. “The only fear that I do have is not being able to succeed, and get the job done anymore.
“And I’m blessed that I still can perform.”