Brazilian jockey Jorge Ricardo crosses the finish line to win at Rio de Janeiro's Hipodromo race track on February 4, 2018, a day before he equalled the world record for most wins, 12,844Brazilian jockey Jorge Ricardo crosses the finish line to win at Rio de Janeiro's Hipodromo race track on February 4, 2018, a day before he equalled the world record for most wins, 12,844 (AFP Photo/CARL DE SOUZA)
Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - For years, Brazilian jockey Jorge Ricardo battled for one of the least heard-of, yet toughest titles in sport -- most horse races won -- and on Monday he got there with a 12,844th victory.
The win in the rain at Rio de Janeiro's Hipodromo race track equalled the extraordinary world record held by Ricardo's career-long Canadian rival Russell Baze.
But with the California-based Baze already retired, Ricardo now needs only one more win -- practically a formality -- to own the record. The hard work is done.
A grizzled 56-year-old who has been racing since he was 15, Ricardo cried and raised his fist aloft. Well-wishers, family and journalists mobbed the rider and the sweat- and rain-streaked winning horse Jubileia.
"I waited long for this and finally I got it," Ricardo said through tears.
Although based in Argentina, Ricardo came to his native Rio on Sunday, needing only three wins to equal Baze's record. Riding seven races he won twice, and on Monday evening he rode six more before hitting the magic number.
Now he will return to seek that extra record-making 12,845th win in front of his Argentinian fans.
- Non-stop winning machine -
Ricardo has been racing for 41 years, which is just under 15,000 days, meaning on average he has won almost one race every day.
The feat is staggering and unlikely to be matched, much less bettered any time soon. Apart from the now out-of-action Baze, there's no other jockey in the world who has even reached 10,000 wins.
"I never in my life imagined I'd win so many races," Ricardo told AFP. "If you were going to think something up, you'd never imagine winning nearly 13,000."
Fans praise Ricardo's professionalism, intelligence and guts. But another reason for his spectacular numbers is sheer time spent on the horse.
He estimates having ridden 70,000 races and has never taken a long holiday. "I never had much time for vacations. I took a week, occasionally two," he said. "My life has always been about horse racing."
- Relentless duel -
The duel between Ricardo and Baze for that top spot was a relentless, slow motion contest with few, if any equivalents in sport. For about 15 years they shadowed each other, one reaching the 10,000 mark first, then the other 11,000 and so on.
"I think we have something of a connection," Ricardo said. "He must have known about the races I was winning here and I always checked out what he won there. There was a symbiosis."
Strangely, they only met a few times, including at a special 2014 head-to-head in Brazil, which Ricardo won.
But really the rivalry became more a war of attrition, not just against each other, but against age and the inevitable injuries facing people who hurtle around on thoroughbred horses.
Asked what bones he has broken over his career, Ricardo needed to pause and think, before calling himself "half-bionic" and coming up with this list: collarbone, humerus, maxilla, shoulder blade, elbow, finger, rib.
"It's a very risky profession," he said. "You fight with your body and sometimes you're lucky, sometimes not."
- Emotional drain -
As well as the sheer battering, Ricardo has been sick with lymphoma, and even he admits that 56 "is not a normal age for a jockey."
But beyond those physical travails is the emotional drain of an extreme life.
Ricardo's wife Renata Teixeira, 42, said he was a loving but often "absent" father and that their children "although feeling proud, miss him."
She rarely watches his races live, because "I get quite nervous," and longs for him to retire.
The diminutive, tough-as-granite jockey seems not to notice the advice.
"Every time he wins he seems to be even more excited. He gets even worse," she told AFP. "I don't think he'll stop, no."
Maybe reaching the record might seem like an ideal moment to hang up the spurs, but there's no sign that Ricardo agrees.
Asked moments after Monday's big win if he would now take it easy, Ricardo stopped crying.
"It hasn't entered my head to stop yet," he said.