by Brian Bohl
There was a time not long ago when if you wanted to meet the leading jockey of every New York Racing Association (NYRA) individual meet dating back to 2016, you could accomplish the task by inputting a single address into your GPS.
As a seven-pound apprentice, jockey Manny Franco made his professional debut at Parx on March 4, 2013 when third with Girl Wando. In his next start, he would finish fourth aboard Circadia in Race 2 on March 9 of that year at Aqueduct Racetrack that was notable only for it being Franco's first mount at a NYRA track.
Franco would not get a win that day - his first U.S. based win would not come until nearly two weeks later on March 22 at the Big A - but Franco was able to lay a foundation for the start of a successful career, thanks in part to what awaited him when he returned home that day, and many others, during the next two years.
Brothers and fellow jockeys Jose and Irad Ortiz, Jr. were already regulars on the NYRA circuit and invited Franco to room with them, as the trio knew each other previously, with Franco hailing from Carolina, Puerto Rico and the Ortiz brothers calling Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico home. The three of them also had trained at Escuela Vocacional Hípica, the state-run jockey academy that operates at the Hipódromo Camarero.
"They were a big help because when I first came here, I was staying with my agent, but I was still mostly alone. So, when they offered for me to move in with them, I said OK," Franco said. "I was lucky they were there before me. I moved into the house and they helped me a lot. We'd go back to the house and watch the replays and we'd talk about the races every day."
Franco, who will turn 24 in December, is younger than Jose Ortiz, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning jockey, by almost a full year and is nearly two years younger than Ortiz, Jr., who by 2013 had already captured the 2012-13 Aqueduct inner track meet.
Since staying with the Ortiz brothers - they all now have their separate accommodations - the troika has each made a significant impact riding in one of the world's most competitive jockey colonies. The three of them have won at least a share of every single individual riding title at NYRA since 2016, with Franco earning his first career crown when he registered 61 wins at the 2018 Aqueduct winter meet.
With racing set to resume at the Big A for the 23-day fall meet on Friday, November 2, Franco said he welcomes the chance to return to the track that helped propel a successful campaign. The historic site, which features a 1 1/8-mile main track in Ozone Park, can be challenging for riders, who must battle through the often cold and windy conditions.
"I'm very excited because I won my first riding title at Aqueduct and I hope that this year will be better," Franco said. "I just wear the [winter] gear and work hard every day; just get out there in the morning. I think that's the key. When you win, you don't feel the cold."
Franco's agent, Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr., said that riding title has helped him continue to secure quality mounts for Franco, including aboard Discreet Lover, who won the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at 45-1 on September 29 at Belmont.
"He works hard and he never complains. He has all the tools," said Cordero, Jr., who won 7,057 races in his career and is a 1988 Hall of Fame inductee. "He's young and he's talented. People like him; he's very professional and he rides with a lot of energy. He rides the first race the same as he does the last. He's learning every day, and it's tough in New York because it's a tough colony of riders.
"I rode for so many years and when I [start working] with them when they're starting, they'll listen when you tell them things, but when they get older, they don't want to hear anything," he added. "But whenever I see something that's not right, I'll call and talk to him, and he takes it pretty good. He has the commitment. He's always humble."
Franco, who has 21 career graded stakes victories and notched his 1,000th career victory aboard New York-bred Courageous Bet on October 5, has solidified himself as a reliable rider, including an impressive Belmont fall meet in which his 38 wins were second only to Ortiz, Jr.'s leading 44 wins.
"It [Aqueduct title] helped me a lot because I think the trainers know me better and they keep looking at me," Franco said. "Winning the title helped me a lot, and my agent has been doing a great job. It gives me confidence whenever I ride. I'm happy with where I am right now. Since I came to New York, I can't complain. I just want to keep going forward and keep doing my best and winning. This is the place I want to be."
Franco calls the Big Apple home now, though he'll be looking to make a statement at Churchill Downs, where he will ride in six Breeders' Cup races at horse racing's year-end showcase, including the return call on Discreet Lover in the $6 million Classic on November 3.
Franco entered the week with five previous Breeders' Cup mounts, including his first aboard Yellow Agate (10th place) in 2016, followed by four in 2017. His best finish was fourth aboard Catholic Boy in last year's Juvenile Turf at Del Mar.
Discreet Lover, owned and trained by Uriah St. Lewis, has already provided Franco with what he termed a career highlight. They will now look to top that in a Classic that includes some of the best dirt horses in the world such as Catholic Boy, Mind Your Biscuits, West Coast, Accelerate and McKinzie among others.
"The plan is to go the Breeders' Cup and hopefully we'll have some luck this year," Franco said. "For Discreet Lover, that was the biggest race in my career. I feel really happy for the trainer because he has a smaller [operation] and now we go to the Breeders' Cup, it feels great."
Forty Under, who Franco rode to a win in the Grade 3 Pilgrim on September 29, will compete in the Juvenile Turf, contested at one mile.
"I rode him before but every race is different. You just try to get the trip," Franco said. "I try to keep calm and focus and when they give you a leg up, it's just like any other day."
Franco said he feels fortunate to ride for a wide spectrum of trainers at NYRA, and singled out David Donk, Charlton Baker and George Weaver for praise as conditioners who have been supportive since the beginning in New York.
Baker said he was impressed with Franco when he first started riding on the NYRA circuit and said his experience has helped produce a career-best 205 wins this year entering Wednesday. Franco has posted at least 187 wins in each of his last three campaigns.
"Manny has always been a favorite of mine since he came here as a bug rider," Baker said. "He's aggressive and puts his horse in good spots. He finishes strong and I think over the years, he's refined the ability he showed early and has gotten the feel of the riding colony here."
Franco piloted the Baker-trained Joking to victories in the 2016 Grade 2 True North and Grade 1 Vosburgh, which marked the conditioner's first two graded stakes wins.
"He's one of the top riders here right now. I think he had the talent from Day 1, but now with the experience and knowing the situations, it's helped him a lot as he's matured," Baker said. "He's always been one of my favorite riders. I don't get to ride him as much as I'd like right now because he's very in-demand. He tries. He gives you 100 percent every time, and that's all you can ask for."