Inside Argentina's jockey school: 'Before nothing in life mattered, now I want to be the best'

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Story highlights

  • Argentina's "School of Apprentice Jockeys" has had considerable success
  • School has produced a succession of successful jockeys

(CNN)On the outskirts of Argentina's sprawling capital Buenos Aires there is a school providing an unlikely opportunity for teenagers from all over the country.

Reopened again in 2004 after a five-year closure, the "School of Apprentice Jockeys" has become one of South America's most successful horse riding centers.
In the 14 years since reopening, the school has produced a succession of jockeys who have accrued more than 12,000 professional race wins between them.
    "That is a very big number, I'm the first to be surprised by it," the school's director, Hector Libre, tells CNN's Winning Post. "But the school is based on respect, hard work and sacrifice.
    "With quite a lot of luck we have achieved an important number of races won in a very short amount of time," he says modestly.
    Though Libre has presided over the most prolific period in the school's history, he readily admits to feeling out of his depth when he first joined.
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    Initially coming to the school as a teacher in 2004, Libre went on to become the director after a year in the classroom.
    "When I started, standing in front of 20 pupils, I said: 'Well, what do I do now with these kids?'" he recalls with a laugh.
    "I didn't know what to do because I had never taught, the only thing I'd done was race and train horses. Then I thought: 'The same thing I taught my children, it's exactly the same.'
    "And I remembered that with my children it went well, so I knew that was the right path. From then on, I said: 'They're no longer pupils, they are sons and daughters.'"
    Horse riding and variations of the sport, most notably polo, are considered elitist in certain South American countries, where the gap between the upper and working class is as big as ever.
    However, for Libre and the school, a prominent or affluent surname doesn't guarantee you a place in this institution -- the only thing that matters is a prospective student's size and weight.
    The school's reputation has spread far and wide, resulting in huge number of applicants for a limited number of places.
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    "It's difficult because a lot of kids want to come," says Libre.
    "We don't bring in kids just because of their name. For me, every kid is the same. The only thing we look at when selecting them is their size because of the importance of weight (in horse riding).
    "We have kids come from all over Argentina. Each one has a different story, each one brings a different rucksack."
    One of the student's whose story resonated with Libre the most is that of Santiago Guzman.
    Bullied, ridiculed and singled out during school for being poorer than other kids, Guzman sought friendship in two work horses that his father bought when he and his brother were small.
    "For me that was a really powerful story," Libre says. "But at this school he has found a place that treated him well, where he became just another kid and allowed him to no longer suffer bullying."
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    'I was the poor one, they singled me out'

    Guzman's story starts in a small village in the Argentine countryside. Living at the edge of the town, he felt it was divided; the rich families in the center, the poorer families on the outskirts.
    "We didn't have money for anything," he says. "We had money to eat but nothing more. First in primary and then secondary school the other kids would bully me, saying: 'That's the poor kid.'
    "It's like there was a group of rich kids and then there was me. Because they would go out and do something but I wouldn't be able to do anything because I didn't have any money.
    "So because I was the poor one they singled me out and that's how I grew up."
    When Guzman was eight years old, he and his family moved from the village he was born in to Junin, a city 267 kilometers from Buenos Aires.
    It was there, by chance, as he was riding his older cousin's bike to explore the city that he came across a stable.
    "I went into the stable and the guy there said to me: 'You're light, you're small, you could be a jockey,'" he recalls.
    "I didn't know that. So I became interested and he invited me every day and taught me and that's how I got into it. I liked it so much so I said: 'This is what I want to do.'"
    In the space of two years, Guzman went from riding a race horse properly for the first time to being admitted into one of the most prestigious schools on the continent.
    Having just turned 19, he has set his sights on becoming a leading jockey in the country.
    "Before (coming to the school) nothing in life mattered much to me because I didn't value anything," he says.
    "Then when I entered the school I found what I enjoyed. The teacher changed me too, made me more responsible, more open minded, more of a person.
    "My parents see that I'm happy and it makes them happy. (I want) to be the best jockey but to also be a better person, be financially stable to help my family live well."

    'Chauvinistic'

    If getting into the "School of Apprentice Jockeys" is difficult for boys, then it is even more so for girls.
    Not even 10% of pupils at the school are female, while there are no more than 15 female jockeys competing professionally in Argentina.
    "I think it's a chauvinistic profession and for women it's twice as complicated to try and achieve their goals," says 21-year-old Florencia Gimenez, one of the school's most promising students.
    "But it's not something that impedes you. It's a sport that allows you to be equal like no other sport.
    "In football they play men vs. men and women vs. women, but this is a sport that gives you the opportunity to compete equally against the men."
    Libre recognizes that the path for the girls who join the school is littered with obstacles, which is why he has so much admiration for their skill and perseverance.
    "The girls arrive and they are far away from their mums and dads. Not everyone wants to look out for them." he says.
    "But in my case I am always by their sides and helping them because I have grown up daughters. It's hard for them but their passion for horses and racing surpasses that."