SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Sometimes it is not the thing left undone, but the chance to start over that is the most important in life.
Jockey Miguel Mena knows that all too well.
Last year, the then 22-year-old arrived at Saratoga Race Course as an up-and-coming jockey who had attracted a lot of attention in Kentucky. Then, in the first few days of the Spa meet, he won the Grade III Sanford aboard Backtalk.
Things quickly spiraled downward. Shortly thereafter, he was supposed to ride horses at Mountaineer on West Virginia Derby day, but a night of drinking resulted in him missing his flight. He couldn't get an alternate flight and three of his mounts ended up winning, including West Virginia Derby long shot Soul Warrior at 23-1.
His agent at the time, Steve Elzey, flew him back to Kentucky and made Mena pay him his percentage for what his winnings would have been. Mena enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous and finished the rest of the summer at Ellis Park.
Mena has returned to Saratoga this year, a little more world-wise at the ripe young age of 23.
"It's been my dream to be riding at Saratoga, and I made mistakes," Mena said. "But I learned from my mistakes and I left everything in the past. I forgot about it and I'm doing the right thing."
An alcoholic working in New Orleans sounds like a bad mix. Mena, however, stuck to his on-track business when he rode at Fair Grounds this winter. He finished sixth in the jockey standings, one win out of fifth and with earnings of nearly $1.4 million. In December, Fred Aime - formerly the agent for Randy Romero, Pat Day and Shane Sellers - became his agent. Aime said he hasn't missed a beat.
"He's gotten on horses and he's done his job," Aime said. "I tell him, ‘In baseball, you get three strikes and you're out. With me, I'm going to call you out with two strikes.'
"But I've worked with some high-profile jockeys, and he's shown me the desire to get better," Aime added.
One of the ways Mena has done that is by calling Aime at 5:15 a.m. every day. It is part of a very important routine.
"I'm up at 4:30, I talk to my agent at 5:15 and I've got to check in with a couple people - part of the program," Mena said. "AA is like another family I have now. I never thought I'd meet people who would listen to me the way they do. It's very good. It's a family that supports me. I don't have my family here in the states and AA is a big part of my life now."
Sadly, Mena is just one of many jockeys who has had a problem with alcohol at some time. It's a list that includes Hall of Famers Jerry Bailey, Day and quite recently, Kent Desormeaux. Owners and trainers have long memories when it comes to that. Some are more forgiving than others.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas admits to being critical of jockeys who stray from the path.
"They have a great opportunity to have a lifestyle and income they never could otherwise," Lukas said. "If these guys couldn't ride a racehorse, they'd be washing cars or bagging groceries. And for them not to make the most of it really is a disturbing factor to me."
Nonetheless, Lukas also is willing to give a jockey that second chance. He chose Mena to ride his Northern Giant in an allowance Saturday and it paid off somewhat, as Northern Giant got in the money with a third-place finish.
"It's a competitive business and they have to understand it," Lukas said. "And if they mess up their lives, there is someone who will take his place in a heartbeat. I rode him a couple times at Churchill. I watched his work ethic at Churchill and it was very positive. On any of those guys, it's day to day. Tomorrow could be entirely different. If I see any sign of that, I'll forget his phone number in a hurry."
Other trainers, such as Eric Guillot, who started using Mena at the Fair Grounds this winter, are willing to say that so long as Mena apologizes and learns from his mistakes, that's good enough for him.
"That means more to me than the ones who make excuses. That's what I like about him," Guillot said.
And, of course, there is his talent. Mena finished seventh in this spring's Churchill Downs meet.
"He's definitely athletic, he's definitely smart," Guillot said. "He can get a horse to relax (and is) a strong, strong finisher. His mind's right now, his work ethic's great, so I'm going to give him a shot until he proves unworthy.
"I think he's a young, upcoming rider, one of the rising stars. He's gonna pay some prices here at the Spa and people will take note of him then," Guillot added.
Mena takes things day to day. He said he is trying to make himself and everyone else happy. Returning to Saratoga is an important step on that journey.
"It's a very good experience. I just want to be with the best and learn, keep learning. I want to keep going to the top," Mena said.
"People like me, but when they see me, they want me to do the right thing," he added. "A lot of people are looking out for me and I appreciate it."