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Gokhan Kocakaya, Leading Rider in Turkey, Looking to Make It In New York

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Gokhan Kocakaya understood that this would be a challenge. In his native Turkey, he has won 2,910 races, was the leading rider for four straight years starting in 2019. He was riding in all of the major races and making a good living. But here he was on a chilly Monday morning galloping horses at Belmont Park, some 5,000 miles from home and in a place where almost nobody knows who he is.

“I am new here,” the 37-year-old jockey said through an interpreter. “I am not expecting to ride the best horses. I will try my best. But I know I am starting from the bottom. I think I will build my business little by little.”

He doesn’t have much to lose. If things don’t work out, he can always go back to Turkey. But that’s not what he wants. He wants to prove to people that he belongs here and can compete against what is, even in the winter, a very good riding colony at Aqueduct. He’s hoping to make New York his new home base.


Kocakaya, who began his career in 2006, got the idea of riding in the U.S. when he came here to visit trainers Ilkay and Mertkan Kantarmaci, brothers who also emigrated from Turkey to New York. He has also ridden in Macau, Dubai, France and Germany.

“I made the decision to come here because I like how the racing is here,” he said. “I think that it’s as good as anywhere in the world.”

He said he also wanted his children, who are six and 12, to have the chance to get an education in the U.S.

“I always wanted to raise my kids in a different country and I chose here,” he said. “That has nothing to do with Turkey. I just wanted them to see other parts of the world.”

Kocakaya spent a few weeks here last winter and failed to win a race in from 10 mounts. He returned in December and has gone 1-for-7 since. His win came on Jan 4. with Bustin Shout (Bustin Stones), who is trained by Rudy Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s son, Rudy Jr., is Kocakaya’s agent. It is believed that he became the first Turkish-born jockey to win a race in the U.S.
“I won around 3,000 races when you include other countries I rode in,” he said. “But I’m new here. No one knows me and I don’t get many chances. So I was happy to win that race and am still excited about it. It was a special win.”

It is Rodriguez’s job to find him mounts. He will get some from his father and will ride for the Kantarmaci brothers. He also picked up a mount from John Kimmel.
“It has been tough, especially because we’re here in New York, one of the premier jockey colonies in country,” Rodriguez Jr. said. “It’s definitely not easy. People have been very kind to him. They want him to work horses in the morning. I do understand there are some issues, including him still learning English. He’s trying. He’s taking English courses. I think he’s starting to gain people’s trust.”

Over the last five years, Kocakaya has averaged 246 winners a year in Turkey, tops among all riders.

There’s very little chance he’ll reach those numbers here in the U.S. But his goals are far more modest. He just wants to be given a chance.

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