Sport: Thoroughbred Racing
Born: April 21, 1961
Died: November 11, 2013
Town: New Brunswick
Anthony Vega was born April 21, 1961 in New Brunswick. Though somewhat undersized, Tony was a talented all-around athlete and focused competitor. His agility and strong hands made him a standout wrestler at New Brunswick High. Many believed Tony could have been a champion boxer; later he sparred with friend Hector Camacho, who confirmed this. Tony’s nickname was The Baby Animal.
In 1977, while working as a shoeshine boy in a local bar, he was watching Angel Cordero on TV and said, “Man, I would love to do that.” Tony was overheard by a scout who found riders for Marty Fallon. Later that day, the 16-year-old found himself face-to-face with the legendary trainer.
Tony had no racing in his background—his only experience on horseback was riding on some land his father inherited in Puerto Rico. But Fallon hired him as a groom and, over time, he got to know enough about horses to become a jockey. He already had the strength and the quick hands jockeys need.
In 1982, Tony began racing at Keystone Racetrack and in 1983 he claimed Keystone’s Leading Rider title. He was tops in the nation in victories that year and was second in overall earnings. Nearly half those wins came at Keystone. He also won 134 at Monmouth Park, breaking Jimmy Edwards’s track record. Tony finished second in Eclipse Award voting that year. The award is given to the nation’s top apprentice.
In 1984, Tony won six races in a day (but was disqualified in one); on another occasion that year he won five afternoon races at Monmouth and another that night in Atlantic City.
Tony went on to have a brilliant career, eventually reaching the 700-win plateau. Among his most memorable victories were the 1985 Philadelphia Handicap aboard Forest Maiden, the 1988 Martha Washington Handicap aboard longshot Timely Business, and the 1988 Cole Handicap aboard Tinchen’s Prince.
Over the next two decades, Tony raced less frequently. He had amassed over 1,000 wins and more than $9 million in earnings when he suffered a heart attack in the fall of 2013. He passed away the next day.
During his career, Tony spent countless hours and thousands of dollars helping people in New Brunswick. He also donated generously to a great many charities, including The Jockeys Guild and Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund. There is a plaque honoring Tony in the Monmouth Park jockeys’ room. He is one of only 10 riders honored on the “wall of fame.” A documentary about Tony’s life entitled The Baby Animal is scheduled to be released in 2015.