Horse whisperer: Del Mar’s Jesus Camacho is revered for his calming presence, grace under pressure
Jesus Camacho is in his 43rd year as an outrider, providing an extra level of comfort and safety for horses and jockeys during races at Del Mar
If you’ve been to Del Mar, you’ve seen Jesus Camacho — although you might not have noticed him.
“If I don’t do very much,” it’s a good day,” the 56-year-old Camacho said recently.
Don’t underestimate the skills Camacho possesses and the respect he has built with insiders at the track.
Camacho is revered as a “horseman.” Several spoke of him as a “horse whisperer.”
Camacho is in his 43rd year as being an outrider — those men and women on horseback during races who provide an extra level of safety and comfort for horses as well as jockeys.
Camacho is the senior outrider at Del Mar … and many said among the best they’ve ever seen.
He is strong and smart. He knows horses, jockeys and racing. His handshake grip squeezes like a vice, a strength needed when safely bringing a runaway horse to a safe stop, which he has already done three times in the first 11 days of Del Mar’s summer meeting.
“When I’m needed, all I think about is the horse in trouble,” said Camacho. “I want to calm the horse down, get him under control and bring him back healthy … mentally and physically.”
Camacho doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Depending on the race, there are three or four outriders positioned along the outside rail of the track. But Camacho is always at the top of the stretch, following the field to the finish or pulling up alongside a horse that might be struggling.
And he’s never alone. “I have Justin,” said Camacho. “He makes it easy and fun for me. Justin knows this job as well as I do.”
Justin is a horse, one of two Camacho owns and has trained for this job. Justin is a 14-year-old retired Thoroughbred racehorse — and Camacho’s partner every race day. Together, Camacho and Justin lead every field onto the track. Justin then calmly stands as Camacho reviews every horse as they parade by. Camacho then rides Justin to the top of the stretch and waits.
But that’s a small part of Camacho’s — and Justin’s — day.
During the racing season, Camacho’s alarm rings at 2:30 a.m. An hour later, he’s at the track. And at 4:30 a.m. he opens the gate for training and takes up a position aboard Justin so he can watch every horse enter and leave the track. Then there’s the eight to 11 races four days a week before Camacho and Justin ride off the track after the final race, usually around dusk.
“It’s a labor of love,” Tom Robbins, the Executive Vice President of Racing for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said of Camacho. “Not only is Camacho a true professional on the track — keeping horses and riders safe while performing his outrider duties — he is also super fan-friendly, interacting with patrons of all ages.”
“Justin is a great horse,” said Camacho. “He loves to be patted. And fans of all ages seem to recognize that. He loves it when they approach.”
Many years ago, Camacho dreamed of being a jockey. “But I was too tall,” he explains. So he started exercising horses at 13. He spent 40 years as an exercise rider in addition to being an outrider.
“People in grandstands don’t understand my job,” says Camacho, who rides up to 40 miles a day on Justin.
“The horse is the most important part of my job,” he added. “I am more connected to the horse. I see the horse. If I see something with a horse, I call or radio the vets.
“Sometimes, a jockey will tell me, ‘My horse is OK.’ What is the horse telling me? My whole life here is focusing on the horses. I can see things developing, sometimes before it happens.”
Breakdowns, horses struggling and horses breaking away are the difficult part of Camacho’s job.
“It’s hard to be there when a horse breaks down and I’m there when it happens in the stretch. They’ve wanted me in that position for 20 years … when the horses are tired. I am focusing on the horses, especially the horse that is last.”
And when a horse breaks loose and is running free without a jockey ...
“The horse is scared,” said Camacho. “He can hurt himself. Justin reacts with me. We don’t do anything to make it worse. We just want to ride up alongside and be as calm as we can and grab the reins.” That’s where the strong hands come into play.
During the second week of this year’s meeting, a 2-year-old broke loose in front of the main grandstands before a race. The crowd reacted. The horse sped off and did a 180-degree turn. He was running toward Camacho and Justin as they positioned themselves along the outside rail.
Camacho dismounted, put Justin in a safe position and stepped toward the charging horse with his arms out but not waving. The 2-year-old slowed to a walk and Camacho grabbed the reins with his hands. Then he held the 2-year-old’s neck while rubbing its nose.
“He just wanted to be safe,” said Camacho. “I let him know he was.”
• Friday’s first post has been moved up to a 3:30 p.m.
• Friday’s feature on an eight-race card is the $125,000 Graduation Stakes, a 5 ½-furlong sprint on the main track for California-bred 2-year-olds.
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