Joe Bravo, or “Jersey Joe” as many know him, is a widely recognizable name in horse racing. A third-generation jockey and Long Branch native, Joe has been one of the leading riders in his state for over 20 years. With 13 riding titles at Monmouth, 9 at Meadowlands, over 5,000 career wins, and $100,000,000 in career earnings, Joe continues to thrive on his home turf and is still going strong.
Joe Bravo owes much of success to his passion for the game and extreme work ethic. It was a pleasure to speak with ” Jersey Joe” and learn a bit more about his incredible career and extraordinary love for the game and the horses he rides.
As a son and grandson of jockeys, you grew up with racing, but did you always want to work in the industry? When did you realize you wanted to pursue that career path?
Well, they kicked me off the basketball team at early age… (LOL just joking). It was something I was born with. Most of my toys growing up were riding equipment, and I was riding horses and racing at the young age of 11 years old.
When you first started out as a jockey, what were the first few years of your career like?
Well, like I said I started when I was 11, riding match races in Texas. It was a great experience, but the official age for a jockey is 16 years old. That’s when I moved to Florida and started out my apprenticeship. I rode for two weeks before I won my first race and got hooked up with a stable with Glenn and Sharon Hild. They took me to Philadelphia, and I started winning right away and had a great apprentice year.
What are some of your favorite and least favorite parts of your job everyday?
Well, there are a lot of both.
I really enjoy the animal and never knowing what the race is going to bring you – and even walking in the paddock and not knowing who you’re going to meet. Horse racing introduced me to a lot of great friends. There are a lot of tough parts about the game – kind of like you get fired every day… but you get hired every day. It’s the ups and downs of the game, but my biggest enjoyment is dealing with the real star, the horse.
You have won won 9 riding titles at Meadowlands Racetrack and 13 at Monmouth Park. What do you think makes you flourish as a rider at these specific tracks?
No rider can win by himself! It takes a great team behind them, and I’m just very lucky to have great connections in New Jersey and people that really stuck behind me when I’m winning or not. I’m blessed to have those people. What really makes a rider is a winning horse.
With over 5,000 wins what are some career highlights and are there any races that stand out in your mind?
Well, first of all, I will never forget that my first Grade One win was on Formal Gold in the Donn Handicap. I was able to beat Skip Away, a horse that I’ve worked many times, but was never lucky enough never to sit on.
There have been so many great days that I flew out of town for a Grade One winner and was able to sit back and soak it all in on a plane flight home that I just cherish every moment. I’m able to ride in a race and enjoy the moments, and of course I could never forget the day, I forgot what year, but I won the first 6 races on the card Haskell day and came back to run second in the Haskell. It just seemed like the basketball player when every time I threw the ball up it was all net.
The bottom line is, I just love my job!
Who have been some of your favorite horses you have ridden over the years?
As personal favorite horses go, I can never forget Joey P, Piper Over, and many others, just some small time horses that laid it all on the line every time they went to the race. It’s not always the big Grade One horse that you fall in love with; there’s been many race horses I enjoyed. You’ve gotta appreciate the heart the animal gives every time they run.
Has your riding style changed and developed over the years? What kind of a rider do you liked to be viewed as?
Simple, I would like to be seen as someone who tries hard and loves the game. When I was younger I was probably known as a speed rider… just push, push, push. But as you get older, you learn the more you save the more you have down the lane and thinking a smart race can be a lot more helpful to winning then just pushing the horse to go.
Do you have any mentors or racing figures that you have looked up to over the years?
When I was younger I watched many great riders such as Jerry Bailey, Mike Smith, Pat Day, Bill Shoemaker, and of course Angel Cordero – one of the greats, but just growing and watching the game taught me so much and I am so happy to be part of it.
Who have been some of your favorite trainers to ride for over the years?
Like I said previously, it’s the people in the game who make you look good in the race, and I was so blessed to ride for some of the greats. Christophe Clement gave me such a great opportunity and we have a long time relationship. I kind of know what he expects out of a race before he has to tell me. It’s so nice to ride for trainers that have faith in you.
There were so many names that I would like to mention, but wouldn’t be able to go through them all! But you know, when they give you a leg up and they have full confidence that you’ll get the job done, it’s just a great feeling.
You have ridden at the majority of the racetracks all over the country, any personal favorites? Are there tracks around the globe you still wish to ride at?
Yes, the majority of the race tracks I’ve ridden at have been right here in the states. One of my favorites is Keeneland Race Course; I can remember one time I was beaten on a 1-5 favorite, and I had the crowd cheering” good try, good try!” If that had happened in New York, you might not make it home!
But my home track is Monmouth Park. It’s a special place to me and I think to many others also, and I hope the politics gets straightened out and it flourishes again one day. For out of the country, I was blessed to have to ridden in Japan ,China, Dubai, and Peru. On my bucket list is Royal Ascot – it’s amazing how they love the game and do everything so first class! So with that said, I hope someday they ring me up and let me win a race there… and then I would say it was a great riding career.
You have accomplished a lot in your career, any goals you still strive towards?
Well, I guess I jumped ahead in the last question with my secret that, yes, Royal Ascot is top on my list. But I’ve heard so much about Australian racing… that would be another journey that would be an amazing experience.
How do you mentally and physically cope with the certainty of accidents and injuries and putting your life at risk everyday?
I’ve had many injuries, but was so blessed to be able to get back to the game that I love. That is on the things you have to just put in the back your head. If you’re worried about getting hurt, do not ever get on a horse because one day it will happen.
As a jockey and horseman, what do you look for in a mount and what do you consider the “ideal” type of horse to ride?
Well, that is one of the things I leave with my agent and let him decide what horses I ride. I have full faith he will get me on the winners, but for tactics itself I love getting a 6 furlong sprinter that stops and has never been on the turf, and if I can get them to relax and breathe and then cover up in the race and turning for home ask for that burst of speed, they usually transform pretty nicely.
The life of a jockey can be extremely strenuous. How do you like to unwind?
Well, everybody knows I’m a big fisherman! I don’t care what type it is, it’s just great to go out and enjoy the nature. One of my other things I enjoy (and am going to do right after I finish this interview) is to have a poker tournament with the guys!
And lastly, how would you like to see the horse racing industry change and grow for the future? What advice would you give to someone looking to become a jockey or get into the industry?
Wow, that is really tough to answer. I’ve been very blessed to have a great riding career, but to advise a jockey to go out there and do what I do is undeniably very risky. Your next race can be your last. Work hard before you get your license, and know it is worth it because it is the greatest sport that can be played.
One of the things I would love to see change in racing is to quit all the fighting and work together. So many wonderful race tracks in the country have great programs and races, and they are all fighting for their piece of the pie instead of looking at the big picture. Racing puts on a great product out there when it comes to the Triple Crown racing you have majority of America watching and with a little bit of work we could have that kind of excitement and attention all year long.
Joe Bravo, thank you so much for taking the time to give us an Insider look at your life and career. We wish you the best of luck on and off the racetrack.
Meet the Author: Amy Nesse