Gonçalves Get used to the name …

Little-known jockey is 8th nationally in wins

By Jennie Rees. • • September 21, 2009

Leandro Gonçalves might be the winningest jockey you never heard of.

The 27-year-old Brazilian ranks No.8 in the country in victories at 204 this year heading into Monday's Kentucky Downs card. But even in his adopted hometown of Louisville, horsemen informed of that stat are likely to respond, “He is?” or even, “Who?”

But that is changing as Gonçalves, who rode in Kentucky and Indiana this year, has sprinted atop the Turfway Park standings, where his 18 victories are eight more than Miguel Mena. He won six races Sept.11 (five at Turfway, one at Hoosier Park) and four at Turfway on Saturday.

“You talk about what they call the best-kept secret,” said agent Steve Elzey, who began lining up Gonçalves ' mounts this meet. “If this isn't the definition, there never was a definition.”

The word is getting out. Gonçalves (pronounced gon-SALV-es) is scheduled to ride Sligovitz for prominent Canadian trainer Roger Attfield in Saturday's $200,000 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway.

“It's funny. I don't know why, but it's different,” Gonçalves said of how people react to him now. “People talk to you more, especially top trainers. When you're just galloping (as an exercise rider), you pass them and they don't say ‘Good morning' to you.”

This is Gonçalves' third season riding in this region. With no fanfare, Gonçalves finished a strong second in the 2009 Turfway Park winter-spring meet behind the better-known Victor Lebron. He also finished second at the 2009 Indiana Downs and 2008 Hoosier Park meets.

Trainer Garry Simms began using the jockey a year ago after Gonçalves worked a couple of tough horses who were prone to running off.

“He was just ‘hobby-horsing' them around there to the pole,” before breaking off for the workout, Simms said. “Right then I said, ‘This kid has some hands, some communication with the horse.' He's such a nice kid. No hang-ups, and he's real smart and real intelligent, has a personality about him I just really loved.”

It's a far cry from two years ago when jockey agent after agent laughed when approached about handling his business.

Billy Pettingill, Churchill's assistant clerk of scales, recalls when Gonçalves showed up one day in 2007. No jocks' room valet wanted to help saddle his mount and clean his tack, having no clue who he was. Gonçalves said he offered to pay anyone $20 just to help saddle the horse and said he would clean the tack himself.

“Finally the clerk of scales got mad and screamed, ‘Is somebody going to help this kid or not?'” Gonçalves recalled.

Elzey, his agent, has given Gonçalves a much stronger entree to Churchill Downs and Keeneland horsemen. Elzey said he still thought of the jockey as an exercise rider when a River Downs agent told him this past spring that “you might want that rider.”

“This spring, when I saw him ride a great race here on the grass, I went to congratulate him the next day,” Elzey said. “He said, ‘I won three more last night in Indiana.' I look up, and he's the second-leading rider in Indiana and working here every morning.”

Like many kids in Brazil's cattle country, Gonçalves began riding horses usually bareback at age 7 to herd livestock. His dad, a farm worker, moved the family to Mata Grosso in western Brazil to a farm at 16 hours from Sao Paulo. There the 9-year-old Gonçalves started riding in quarter-horse races, which had rails between the horses, after a trainer in the area asked to use the lightweight youngster.

Gonçalves won his first race. “I just hung on; I didn't even know how to whip him,” he said. “I never came back home.”

He lived with one trainer after another while riding — school was not part of the equation. His parents divorced, and he lost contact with his mom after she moved back to Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city and third-largest in the world. His dad would phone young Leandro once a month before the calls ceased without explanation.

Gonçalves thought he'd done something wrong and been abandoned.

“Christmas would come, New Year's would come, and you don't have your family — it's sad,” he said.

When he turned 16, he was old enough to get into Brazil's jockey school by the Hipodromo de Cidade Jardim but needed his parents' signatures. He hunted for his mother in Sao Paulo, but efforts were futile, including a television feature asking if anyone knew his parents. Finally, a search of Gonçalves ' birth certificate revealed his grandmother's address, where he found his mother living.

He also found out his father had died six years earlier.

Gonçalves said he was the leading apprentice at the jockey school, winning 78 races in 11 months — a big number with limited racing. Seeking better money, in 2004 he went to England, where he had limited riding opportunities but learned to speak excellent English.

He came to the United States in 2005, fleetingly riding in California and West Virginia before landing in Kentucky.

Gonçalves, who has a 7-year-old son in Brazil, won seven races at Churchill this spring and 19 at Ellis Park while also riding at Indiana Downs.

“He can tell you about a horse, and you know he loves what he's doing,” said Buff Bradley, Ellis Park's leading trainer who began using Gonçalves at Churchill. “…The first one he rode for me won, paid $100. I knew I was going to like him right then. … I'm going to say he'll be one of your top jockeys even in the fall meet at Churchill.”