TORONTO - He might be Woodbine Racetrack's new kid on the block, but jockey Alan Garcia is no rookie.
The 29-year-old native of Lima, Peru, will call Woodbine home this season after riding this winter in Saudi Arabia. He's recorded 22 Grade I victories — including the 2008 Belmont Stakes — among 1,448 career wins and his mounts have finished in the money 41 per cent of the time, earning over $78 million.
But Garcia doesn't feel he'll be a marked man when Woodbine's 133-day meet opens Saturday. On the track he'll compete fiercely to win races, and away from it he will work hard to fit in by being respectful and friendly with his fellow jockeys.
"That's it, those are my only points here," he said. "I'm not here to try to be better than anyone.
"I'm here because of my new agent (Tony Esposito) and my wife, who wanted me to find a new experience. It's an eight-month meet so I don't have to move too much and I'm happy my family (wife and two sons, aged two and four) is here with me. It also very good racing here so I'm really looking forward to it."
Following the 2014 season, Esposito and veteran jockey Luis Contreras ended their four-year partnership. That prompted speculation the split with Contreras was a major reason why Esposito urged Garcia to ride at Woodbine full-time.
"I'm not out to beat any individual," Esposito said. "I start every year with the same goal: To win the meet.
"I wouldn't expect Alan to hire an agent who'd love to be in the top-five. I'm a competitor, he's a competitor and we're competing against people who are competitors. If you want to be best, beat the best, compete against the best."
Garcia joins an already competitive stable of riders at Woodbine that includes Contreras (Canada's top jockey in 2012-13), veteran Patrick Husbands (seven times country's top jockey) and Eurico Rosa da Silva ('13 Sovereign award winner). They'll all be busy Saturday as Garcia and Da Silva both have seven mounts while Contreras has six. Husbands has four rides.
While Garcia is all smiles about having his family in Toronto, there's nothing quite like the happiness of riding winners.
"When you lose nobody wants to be with you," he said. "That changes a lot when you win.
"There's a lot of smiles and everybody is happy because they realize all the hard work that's been done with the horse. The main thing is everybody smiles."
The season highlight will be the 156th running of the $1-million Queen's Plate on July 5. Garcia made his Woodbine debut in the '07 Plate, riding Daaher to a fourth-place finish .
Garcia has three career Woodbine wins, the most significant coming in '09 aboard Rutherienne in the Grade II Nassau Stakes. But the Queen's Plate is firmly in Garcia's sights.
"I've already been in it," he said. "Now I want to win it."
Garcia also expects to ride in the other Canadian Triple Crown races — the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes on July 28 and $500,000 Breeders' Stakes on Aug. 16 — as well as the $1-million Ricoh Woodbine Mile on Sept. 13 and $1-million Pattison Canadian International on Oct. 18.
"I think you'll see him in almost all the big races," Esposito said.
Garcia is a third-generation horseman as both his father and grandfather were jockeys. He knew from an early age he wanted to follow in their footsteps.
"When I was a little kid, I'd go to the racetrack with my father to see the horses, to be with horses," he said. "That's what I love."
Garcia began riding professionally in 2002 and in '03 was named Peru's top apprentice. He enjoyed a breakout '07 campaign, winning 235 times from 1,439 mounts before becoming just the third jockey to win his Breeders' Cup debut, leading Lahudood to the Filly & Mare Turf crown.
The year before, Garcia recorded his first career Grade 1 victory aboard Lahudood in the Flower Bowl Invitational. Despite riding Da' Tara to victory in the '08 Belmont Stakes, Garcia says his first Grade 1 win remains a career highlight.
"My best one was my first Grade 1 with the same filly I won the Breeders' Cup with," he said.
Change is a constant for many jockeys. Not only must they ride multiple horses daily but often travel to different North American racetracks for major events. And every day in the saddle brings a real threat of injury.
But Garcia's most serious injury was a broken collarbone suffered in his first-ever spill during a race his horse was leading. There was another incident involving two other jockeys in Saudi Arabia but Garcia walked away unscathed.
"This is the only sport where you have an ambulance following you," Garcia said. "But the dangers are not on my mind.
"If it was my concern, I wouldn't be in this business."