Bonded by Blood, Sweat and Soil

Jesus Osuna, number 5, flies out of the starting gate at the Rillito Park Racetrack on Sunday, February 21, 2016. (Photo by: Julianne Stanford)
Jesus Osuna, number 5, flies out of the starting gate at the Rillito Park Racetrack in February. Photo by Julianne Stanford.

The sun hangs high in the mid-afternoon sky as the smell of hay and beer wafts through the air at the Rillito Park Race Track and Jesus Osuna settles in at the starting gate.

Osuna braces himself on Fayvorite Flyer, the horse he will be racing for the second match of the day. He’s wearing a green jersey with white pants and shiny, black boots over his small, wiry frame, with a green riding helmet topped with a pom-pom strapped to his head.

“Easy money,” he says to himself, like he does before each race. It’s his mantra.

The bell rings, the gates open and his horse speeds off. This is Osuna’s favorite part of racing.

“The rush.” Osuna said. “The rush coming out of the gates. There’s nothing like it.”

It’s a feeling most of Osuna’s family knows and loves. He comes from a long line of jockeys.

Jesus Osuna’s brother, Andres Osuna, and his cousin, Martin Osuna, are also jockeys. They were trained by their fathers, and their fathers were trained by their fathers before then, all under the Tucson sky. The Osuna family has lived in Southern Arizona for generations and has raced on the same soil.

“It’s a family trade,” Jesus Osuna said. “It runs in our blood.”

For the Osuna cousins, racing was not a choice, but a birthright.

“We’ve been in it since the ’80s. Our fathers took over in the ’90s and we took over in the late 2000s with a new generation of Osunas,” Martin Osuna said. “It’s a bond that we share and hopefully we’ll get to share it with our kids some day.”

The training the cousins received from their fathers make them equally matched in talent and capability whenever they have to race against each other. Or at least that’s what the cousins will humbly tell you.

“I don’t know, I think we’re evenly matched,” Martin Osuna said. “We all started with each other, and [our fathers] taught [us], and we’re family.”

The Osuna family is not the only clan here that has been working and living by the saddle for generations. Their horse trainer Monica Ortega has a similar tie to the sport. She inherited her trade from her father whom was also a jockey.

Horse trainer Monica Ortega, left, and jockey Martin Osuna, right, mentally prepare for a race. (Photo by: Julianne Stanford)
Horse trainer Monica Ortega, left, and jockey Martin Osuna, right, mentally prepare for a race. (Photo by: Julianne Stanford)

The Ortegas and the Osunas are tied by a shared history and a long-standing family friendship.

“It’s neat. Both of their dads were trainers and we were just kids running around the track,” Ortega said. “Now we’re all grown up and doing the riding and the training. It’s nice.”

The Osuna cousins have been racing Ortega horses all of their professional careers, but have been training on her horses for more than a decade. Jesus Osuna began racing four years ago and Martin Osuna was licensed to race four months ago.

The Osunas have not looked back since, and neither has Ortega.

“[Martin]’s an awesome kid. He just got started,” Ortega said. “That kid has a positive attitude. He works really hard and he has a really bright future ahead of him.”

As for Jesus Osuna, “He fits my horses perfectly. Every time he and I pair up we always win,” Ortega said.

Their successes together have made Jesus Osuna and Ortega something of a legend around the race track.rillito_003

“It’s a lethal combination,” Jesus Osuna said. “Every time I ride for her it’s either a win or second place.”

Lethal indeed.

Out of Jesus Osuna’s seven races this day in February, he came in first place twice and second place twice.

Ortega loves a win almost as much as she loves the sense of community at the racetrack.

“There’s so much family around here. There’s so much history here,” Ortega said. “This is my most favorite place in the whole wide world.”

Julianne Stanford is a reporter for El Independiente, a magazine produced by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Contact her at

To see high resolution photos go here.


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