By Jennifer Morrison
career as a jockey has taken him down many different paths since he took a chance and began a life on horseback as a teenager.
Horses were nowhere on his radar growing up in a Scarborough neighbourhood with his Sicilian-born parents who hoped he would one day take over the family’s barbershop business.
It was on a trip to Woodbine racetrack with his boss at a job at Home Depot that changed everything. And while his journey from riding Thoroughbreds to becoming one of the top Quarter Horse jockeys in the country has not been without its bumps, Spataro is riding better than ever.
With a meet-leading 23 wins from 84 mounts halfway through the 2018 Ajax Downs season, the well-spoken 34-year-old is riding at a 27 per cent win rate. He is also five-for-five this year aboard the incredible Country Boy 123, the Horse of the Year in 2016 and 2017, owned by Ruth Barbour.
It was as a troubled teenager when Spataro started working at Woodbine. “My Dad Frank had just passed away, I was not interested in school and I was really just floating through life,” he said.
When more than one horseperson approached him at his customer service booth at Woodbine and asked why the slim, 5’7” Spataro was not trying out to be a jockey, he promptly dropped everything and signed up for riding lessons.
“Horsepeople kept telling me I was small enough to ride horses. My friends said to me, ‘how hard can it be?’ so I gave it a shot.”
For five years, Spataro worked on perfecting his riding style from a year at the famous Windfields Farm to an initial venture to the Woodbine backstretch.
“Oh, I wasn’t ready for Woodbine at all,” said Spataro. “I had some bad spills, but I loved it.”
Spataro enrolled in the Old College Jockey program in Alberta, passed with flying colours and rode for a year at Lethbridge. He returned to Woodbine to take out his apprentice rider’s license late in 2007, and by 2010 he was ready for his first full season as a five-pound bug. He won 22 races that year and had people sitting up and taking notice, guiding plenty of longshot winners to victory.
One of his fondest memories was a race on a gelding named Promising Sun.
“He had been losing at Fort Erie for low claiming and was at Woodbine against much better horses. I won on him at 113-1, beating out (champion jockey) Eurico Rosa da Silva by a head.”
The adjustment from apprentice rider to journeyman jock is never easy and for Spataro, his height played havoc with keeping his weight down. “I wasn’t making any money and I was having a hard time with my weight,” he said.
When former Quarter Horse rider Bruce Smithers suggested he try Ajax Downs, Spataro met up with one of the track’s top riders, Tony Phillips, and learned the ropes.
“Riding Quarter Horses, you have to be quieter,” said Spataro. “The more you move around on them, the more you can throw them off stride. It’s about rhythm.”
Spataro was an instant hit winning 65 races in two seasons and being named the track’s Champion Jockey in 2014.
But winning became less frequent in 2015 and for a brief time, Spataro quit the track to focus on his off-track endeavours. “I was getting frustrated. When you win a lot, you are expected to keep winning and when it doesn’t happen it’s tough.”
With his wife Kim, Spataro formed S & S Equestrian, at first a boarder farm that now, in its fifth year, is a thriving breaking and training centre for Thoroughbreds. They also welcomed daughters Aria, now 4, and Charlotte, 1, to their family.
It didn’t take long for Spataro to get back to race riding, returning in 2016 after missing only a few months of action.
He won 21 races in 2017 and is on-track to set a personal record for victories this season.
Spataro believes that keeping his emotions level and staying focussed has helped him this year. He has strong barns such as that of Greg Watson and Tom Dunlap behind him and has maintained a good balance with his farm and family life.
“I play the drums in a band and I love cooking and enjoy a fine wine,” said Spataro, who also considers himself an expert on the TV show Seinfeld.
He also looks forward to riding his wife’s ‘project,’ their 3-year-old Thoroughbred D’Artagnan, when he makes his career debut soon.
“I’m trying to stay humble, keep a clear mind, do my job and show people I still have potential to do great things.”
It’s safe to say Spataro is winning at every turn.
Photo by John Watkins