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From atop a horse - to jockeying for his troops

Marc Polanco, second from the right, bursts out of the starting gate on a champion quarter horse at the World’s Championship Quarter Horse Classic Trials at Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, July 21, 1994. Polanco's racing days were an interesting chapter on his path to becoming a first sergeant in the Arizona Air National Guard. (Courtesy photo)

Marc Polanco, second from the right, bursts out of the starting gate on a champion quarter horse at the World’s Championship Quarter Horse Classic Trials at Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, July 21, 1994. Polanco's racing days were an interesting chapter on his path to becoming a first sergeant in the Arizona Air National Guard. (Courtesy photo)

A 117-pound Polanco commemorates his victory with family and friends at the World’s Championship Quarter Horse Classic Trials at Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, July 21, 1994. (Courtesy photo)

A 117-pound Polanco commemorates his victory with family and friends at the World’s Championship Quarter Horse Classic Trials at Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico, July 21, 1994. (Courtesy photo)

Master Sgt. Marc Polanco serves as the first sergeant for the 162nd Mission Support Group in addition to his new duties as the wing’s maintenance operations center supervisor. “I’d like to thank my wife and my family for their support. Withouth it, my career in the Guard wouldn’t be possible,” said Polanco. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

Master Sgt. Marc Polanco serves as the first sergeant for the 162nd Mission Support Group in addition to his new duties as the wing’s maintenance operations center supervisor. “I’d like to thank my wife and my family for their support. Withouth it, my career in the Guard wouldn’t be possible,” said Polanco. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- When leaving the Army in 1984, Marc Polanco told his platoon that he was going to race horses for a living. At 140 pounds--almost 25 pounds too heavy for the sport--and having never raced before in his life, it was no wonder they may have had their doubts.

Seventeen years later, Polanco is a master sergeant in the Arizona Air National Guard, the 162nd Fighter Wing's maintenance operations center (MOC) supervisor, a first sergeant, and--yes--a retired horse jockey.

He lost 23 pounds back in the '80s and followed his dream to race horses. "I heard there was a shortage of jockeys in Prescott so I went out there and told them I could ride. I hadn't raced before, but I didn't fall off the horse so they gave me a jockey license," recalled Sergeant Polanco.

Learning from his uncle, Ray Bazurto, a horse trainer; and his mom, Irma, who grew up on a ranch, Polanco won his first race on a horse named "Maybe Sometime."

He recalled being teased by other jockeys after the race. "I apparently had a concussion. I thought I went straight to the winner's circle but I saw the video later. There was a sharp turn at the end and a couple of the horses went down, including mine. I got up took a couple of steps and fell flat on my face, got up, then stumbled up to the winners circle with my helmet all jacked up," he chuckled.

At five feet, nine inches tall and only 117 pounds, Polanco's jockeying career took off nearly as fast as the horses he was riding; somewhere in the vicinity of 35 miles per hour, six seconds out of the gate. He started out riding for "the small guys" and received offers to ride for larger commissions with larger stables.

With the best winning percentage in the quarter horse sprint races, Polanco left Arizona for New Mexico to try his skills there. His career piqued on July 21, 1994, when he raced "Fun Cash" to a first place finish in the World's Championship Quarter Horse Classic Trials at Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico. His horse raced 440 yards in 21.63 seconds. His dad, brothers and nephew drove most of the evening prior to support him. "That was the best surprise of the day," said Polanco.

"There's nothing like it," he said of horse racing. "I was blessed. I never suffered any major injuries, but I've lost 3 friends."

He left the sport at the top of his game, opting instead for a full-time job, and medical benefits, with United Parcel Service. Although his dad retired from the Air Force, Polanco wasn't introduced to the Air Guard until December, 2000, while coaching for a local football league.

"My dad says I finally saw the light, leaving the infantry for the Air Force; and he's right, I haven't slept in a tent since. I talked to a recruiter on a Monday, tested on Tuesday, and enlisted on January 6, 2001," he said. He was hired as a full-time Air Technician after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"I was a Senior Airman in 2001, and after a year I put a goal on my retention worksheet to be a first sergeant," said Sergeant Polanco. "Chief [Mary] Minter said I had to make staff [sergeant] and tech. [sergeant] first," he laughed.

"Marc wanted to be in my job since we hired him and now he's in it," said retired Senior Master Sgt. Bill Peterson, former MOC supervisor.

"He's goal oriented. He sets his mind to get something accomplished and he goes for it. He's gone to all of the required schools to get to where he is - weapons school, plans and scheduling school, first sergeant school, and so on. I think he'll be a great supervisor and a great first shirt."

Seventeen years later, Polanco's horse racing days are long behind him but prove, as does his military career, that a dream combined with action produces great results.