Idle time is something rare for Charlie Marquez these days. When the teenage riding sensation somehow managed a three-hour break between mounts over closing weekend of historic Pimlico Race Course’s Preakness Meet, he took the opportunity to shut off his cell phone and turn off his mind.
The respite was short-lived. Maryland Jockey Club clerk of scales Frank Saumell, asked to summon Marquez during his downtime, walked briskly toward the back of the jockeys’ room, perched high above the Pimlico winner’s circle.
“Charlie!” Saumell called out. “Charlie! … Marquez!” he repeated, his voice rising each time.
Slowly, a head poked out above a row of white-painted cabinets. It is Marquez, his dark hair tussled from a quick nap on the bench in front of his locker stall. He slipped a pair of black slides over his socks and made his way out into the sunlight on the porch outside.
Sitting on a chair overlooking the main track, Marquez’s thoughts go back a dozen years to a time when he watched the horses go by from a much different perspective.
“I always wanted to be a jockey,” Marquez said. “I came to the track a bunch when I was young. I came to Pimlico with my mom and on Preakness Day we used to walk over here with my brother.”
“I used to go in the morning with her when she used to gallop for Mary Eppler and when she used to work for Jose Corrales at Laurel. I’d go in the morning and sit by the rail and fantasize. Now I’m doing it.”
And doing it well. Marquez, who turned 18 in late January, finished his first full professional season as Maryland’s leading apprentice rider of 2020 with 58 wins. Various circumstances – a global pandemic that paused racing in the state for 2 1/2 months in the spring, a trial run on the New York circuit and a wrist injury that shelved him another four weeks in the fall – kept Marquez from the Eclipse Award conversation.
Success has carried into this year. He earned his first career meet title at Pimlico, a four-month stand that saw him finish with a nine-win cushion. Entering Laurel Park’s calendar year-ending fall meet that begins Sept. 9, Marquez has won more races than any rider in Maryland with 76. Sheldon Russell is second with 64.
Russell, newly turned 34, is a multiple meet champion who led Maryland in wins in 2011 – when Marquez was 8 years old.
“He’s really wanted this all his life – since he was a baby. To see that we actually got him to this point, it just brings tears to my eyes,” Marquez’s mother, Valerie Kounelis, said. “Just the other day I found a picture of him and Sheldon when he was little. A lot of these guys, they’ve seen him since he was a baby and here he is riding with them. It’s funny to see. He’s just a kid, but they all love him. He’s one that they all want to be friends with. There’s just something about him.
Marquez’s maturity, both as a rider and a person, belies his age. Rather than the parties and proms of a typical teenager, his free time is primarily spent riding and watching races. Mornings start early, before sunrise, exercising horses anywhere from Laurel to Pimlico to the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md. and even Delaware Park in Wilmington, Del.
Afternoons, and the occasional evening, have had him racing in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia since losing his apprentice weight allowance and becoming a journeyman May 30.
“I just bought a new car maybe a month ago. It already has more than 17,000 miles on it,” Marquez said. “I’ve been driving a lot.”
“It takes a toll, it does. You’d think just because I’m 18 I can do it, and I agree with that to a certain extent,” he added. “But it takes a toll, driving up and down the road every day. It definitely is hard work, but it pays off in the end.”
Fortunately, it is only a 15-minute drive from Laurel Park to Marquez’s childhood home in Columbia, Md., where he still lives with his mother, maternal grandmother Darlene and three dogs – 3-year-old Cooper and 1 1/2-year old Kobe, both golden-Labrador retriever mixes, and 8-month-old Charlie Brown, an English cream golden retriever. Marquez also has an older brother, Carlos.
“He loves his dogs. He loves to come home and play with them,” Kounelis said.
“I always tell him you can go out if he has a day off, but you can’t be eating junk food like a teenage boy would be doing. You have to be mindful of that. You can’t stay out all hours of the night. You know you need your rest. It’s hard on your body and you’ve got to be aware of what you’re doing. You can’t be tired.
“It comes with its trials and tribulations,” she added. “He’s willing to give up what he has to to be successful and do what he loves.”
While the decision to begin riding professionally – which couldn’t happen before Marquez’s 16th birthday – was easy, the process was not. Kounelis had to convince the Board of Education to allow her to pull Marquez from a traditional school setting for one more flexible with her son’s burgeoning career.
“When I pulled him out of school, it was time,” she said. “Normally I’m like, ‘You’re going to school, you’re graduating, you’re doing it the right way.’ I pulled him out because I did see how talented he was. We talked about the fact that you’re giving up your childhood, you’re giving up your high school days and being a kid to pursue your career. He knew going in that he was going to have to give something up to gain something.
Nearing completion of his general educational development (GED) diploma – “It’s very important to have. This game is very unpredictable, and you need something to back up on,” he said – Marquez doesn’t see it as a sacrifice. To him, it’s an investment in his future.
“Not too many 18-year-olds can say they were leading rider in Maryland. It takes a lot to get there and a lot of hard work, but if you put your mind to it, you can do it,” Marquez said. “I hang out with friends here and there, but during school I was never really that kind of person to go out anyway. So, it wasn’t really anything different. Of course, I had friends, but the true friends that you hang out with outside of school. I had a few of them and I still hang out and see them from time to time.
“I wouldn’t say I really have time for other hobbies. Horse racing is what I love to do and it’s always going to be like that,” he added. “After I ride in the morning I go home and use that time to myself, whether that’s hanging out with my mom or my grandma or my girlfriend. Whatever it is, those few hours before I have to go to bed I kind of just keep for myself.”
Marquez was 16 when he won his first race Jan. 9, 2020 aboard Sierra Leona at Laurel Park. His brief turn in New York at age 17 came under the tutelage of retired Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr. Back home, he earned his first stakes victory at 18 on Shackled Love in Laurel’s Private Terms March 14.
Standing 5-foot-8, Marquez is taller than most riders. He hasn’t let his height be an obstacle to success.
“He’s a little bit on the tall side. There was a question whether or not he was going to stay small enough to do it, but he’s definitely shown everybody that thought he wasn’t going to make it that he was all in,” Kounelis said. “He’s definitely shown where he wanted to go with it.”
Marquez’s dedication is reminiscent of his mother, who first brought him to the track as a toddler when she was galloping for trainer Larry Murray. His introduction to horses, so to speak, came much earlier.
“I galloped until I was like seven months pregnant with both [sons],” Kounelis said. “Everybody used to laugh that they were already riding before they were riding.”
Today, Kounelis gallops part-time for trainer Tim Keefe, is a technician for the Maryland Veterinary Group and spends racing afternoons working in the test barn. It’s not hard to see where Marquez gets his work ethic.
“One thing about him, he knows the grind,” she said. “There were days before he really started riding, he would be getting on 12, 13 [horses] a day and you never heard a peep out of him.”
“My mom, she’s been there since Day 1,” Marquez said. “She’s definitely my top fan and I think about her all the time, every day that I ride. Everything I do is for her.”
Marquez’s support goes beyond his mother and fellow horsemen. Kounelis’ sister, Terry Overmier, is the Maryland Jockey Club’s stable manager and a horse owner. The first time he rode her now 4-year-old Maryland-bred colt Whiskey and You in a Laurel Park allowance last March, they won.
His late grandfather, Carlos Marquez Sr., was a successful jockey whose wins included the 1970 Black-Eyed Susan with Office Queen before his retirement to Puerto Rico to teach at its famed Escuela Vocacional Hipica. Marquez rides with his old saddle.
“Charlie’s grandfather would have been proud of him,” Kounelis said. “He passed away a few years ago and never got to see Charlie living his dream.”
Ultimately, the dream has Marquez riding for years to come and many more milestones to reach.
“I want to ride in the [Kentucky] Derby and the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. It’s the dream of a lot of riders,” Marquez said. “I have many years until I retire, but definitely when I retire, I want to be a top rider in New York and go into the Hall of Fame. I want to end up in New York, settle down there eventually and retire there, and hopefully go into the Hall of Fame. That’s the dream of a lot of riders, I think. Most of the game is just trying to stay healthy and keep things moving forward.
“At such a young age, I have many years to progress my riding,” he added. “I hope what I have done so far is just the beginning.”
In the meantime, Marquez – like any young professional – does his best to achieve a work-life balance. When time permits, he enjoys hanging out with friends and playing video games.
“He’s very smart and computer savvy. There are a lot of other things he can do. He rebuilt his own computer and gaming setup. He’s got a lot going for him – not only riding,” Kounelis said. “He has a couple good guys that he’s been friends all along with that he will hang out with. He spends a lot of his time watching race replays, just taking in stuff that he sees.
“He’s a kid at heart, but he’s grown up pretty quick,” she added. “Yes, he is very mature for his age, but he is still a kid. I see that first-hand at home, when he’s playing his video games or whatever he does with his friends. You can make a lot of money fast and you might have friends that try to steer you in the wrong direction. You just have to keep your head on straight and know where you want to go with it.”
Both mother and son have known where Marquez was headed from the time he was around 2 years old, wearing his jockey Halloween costume and sitting in front of the television on a stuffed toy horse that they still have.
“He’d watch the races and act like he’s riding in them,” Kounelis said. “He’s wanted it all along. There’s no denying it.”