By Jonathan Stettin
When I think back about some of my race track experiences, the phrase “you just can’t make this stuff up” comes to mind. There are so many stories and experiences, and so many of life’s lessons taught. Some fall into what I call the Dragnet category, that’s where we have to change the names to protect the questionable. This one doesn’t fall quite into that category, but it easily could have. You’ll just have to connect some of the dots yourself.
For a very short time, way back in the early 80’s, I was one of the youngest jockey agents in New York. In hindsight it was not something I was ready for, and at the time didn’t have the connections or know how to make a serious go of it. I had been around the race track my whole life, but much of it was spent on the front side as opposed to the back side. Sure I was a hot walker and spent some time back there around horses, but not enough to be a jockey’s agent at 20 or so years old. Guys like Eddie Belmonte, and Tommy Cordero, both sons of great riders, were much better prepared than I was. If not for their graciousness and help, along with Donald L. Smith, I likely never would have won even a single race. I didn’t win many, maybe 4 or 5, but at that young age, and so inexperienced and unprepared, I didn’t really embarrass myself. Had I liked it, which I didn’t, or stuck with it, things would have been quite different.
I learned a lot back then. Much more than I realized at the time. I got to spend time talking horses with people like Allen Jerkens, Sidney Waters, Jan Nerud, Howie Tesher, Leroy Jolley, PG Johnson and so many others. It was a great experience. I made friends I still have today. It was truly a great time.
This may sound like it’s about me, it isn’t. Bear with me just a tad longer and we’ll get to the flying donuts. The idea of becoming a jockey’s agent entered my mind before I even knew what it was. I was maybe 12 or 13 at the time. I spent every summer of my first 25 or 26 years on this planet in Saratoga. My Dad was a mutual clerk for NYRA and that’s where he worked in August. I went with him every year until I was old enough to go myself. I was hanging around the Saratoga grandstand while he was working when I was as young as 9 or 10. Everyone knew me and my Dad, it was very safe and family like. My Mom and her girlfriend sat in reserved seats every day and I had the run of the place. It was one of those mornings I got the idea. My Dad had parked in employee parking across the street from the track. On the walk over, we had to pass some barns. Outside one, I saw it. It was beautiful. It was perfect. I couldn’t understand how every other car had mud on it but this one. If you’ve been in the Saratoga barn area, you know what I mean. This electric blue Corvette had none, however. No mud, not even a speck of dust. The only thing it had on it was a sticker on the front that said Jockey Agent. That was enough for me.
A few years later, I was working as a mutual clerk myself. There were a lot of back stretch people who worked as mutual clerks also. They would work on the back side in the morning, and behind the windows in the afternoon. One of these people was named Ralph and he was an exercise rider in the morning for Sidney Waters. Sidney Waters trained a barn full of classy horses like Love Sign and Native Courier. He also had an unraced two year old in the barn that Ralph just knew was going to be a champion. I asked how he knew and if he got on him in the mornings. Ralph told me he could just tell by how everyone reacted to him and treated him. He also told me he wasn’t allowed on him which I probably should have made more of.
Ralph and I worked next to each other a few times and got friendly. Eventually, we’d meet for coffee before work and talk. He was a very nice guy who seemed to be unlucky. The kind of good hearted guy who never got a break. He had a third job making pizzas in a pizzeria. One day I asked Ralph why he didn’t become a jockey. He was young enough and built for it and was already an exercise rider. Ralph lit up. He said he always wanted to but couldn’t get an agent to help him. He told me he tried and spoke to several agents, but none would take his book.
I said Ralph, your worries are over. I will be your agent. I told him I didn’t know how but would work hard and learn. I told him I’d ask every trainer on the Belmont back stretch for a mount. Ralph was excited, he told me he’d help me learn. We were off to the races.
That day we were so excited talking about the future, Ralph took me to Sidney Waters barn after work to show me that two year old. He took him out of the stall and let me pet him, give him some carrots and walk him around. He was huge. He was beautiful. He had presence. He was as big as a three year old. He was Slew O Gold.
The next morning I went to the licensing office and made arrangements to take the agents’ test. Later that day Ralph told me he got in a world of trouble for taking Slew O Gold out and showing him. Stool pigeons he attributed it to. A week or so later I had a sticker that said Jockey Agent, I just didn’t have an electric blue Corvette to affix it too. It did not quite look the same on an old Cadillac.
Ralph or Ralphie as I now called him, took to it. We didn’t have much luck. Ralph told me I should go see trainer Lenny Imperio and ask him for a mount. At the time Len Imperio trained for Buckram Oak Farm. Ralph, who still had his 10 pound bug, told me a while earlier that Lenny gave him a mount and he won. He was one for one with him. I asked why he had not told me as that seemed like a good place to start. Ralphie had an odd look to him when he said Lenny wasn’t happy with the way he rode him.
To hear Ralphie tell the story was classic. Ralph told me he was working for Imperio at the time. He had his jockey’s license but no mounts or agent. He would constantly ask Lenny for a mount and one day Lenny said yes. Lenny told Ralph he had a horse they imported from Argentina or somewhere in South America. He told Ralph the horse needed a race to get acclimated and fit, and he wanted to watch him run so he would know where to run him next out. Ralph said, ” He kept asking me ‘you know what I mean’ over and over. Lenny told Ralph don’t use the whip, don’t let him show any speed and keep him outside and out of trouble. Easy enough Ralph thought but how would this help him he asked. Lenny told him, listen you are not gonna ride the horse back, another jock is promised that mount, but you will get your name in the program, people will see it, and I will help you again down the line.
Race day, Ralph was beside himself with excitement. He told me he just wanted to look good on that horse so people could see he could ride. Walking to the paddock, Ralph said another rider approached him and walked alongside. He said hey kid, listen up, I’m riding that horse next time out, you keep him out of trouble, don’t get him hurt, and make sure you bet next time.
The horses name was Faine. He broke like a rocket and before Ralph could blink he was in front by two. Ralph could barely hold him and had little or no control. As they raced down the backstretch Ralph said fear turned to panic, he was afraid the horse wouldn’t turn left when they got to the far turn. He told me he wanted to bail out and just jump off, but he couldn’t because he was in front and was worried about the horses behind him. He hung on for dear life literally. Galloping back to the winners circle, Ralph became so happy. He won. Even the trainer didn’t expect the horse to win and he did. He was something like 50-1. I listened in amazement. I knew I was hearing a classic. Ralph’s first post-race sobering moment came when the jockey who spoke to him on the way to the paddock rode by. He cursed at Ralph. There was nobody in the winner’s circle but the groom. No trainer, no owner.
As jockey agents often do, the next morning Ralphie stopped at Dunkin Donuts and bought several boxes of donuts for the barn. He wanted to show his appreciation, and make a good impression. He walked into the barn with the boxes of donuts and set them down. Lenny Imperio on sight began screaming in Italian which Ralph understood and spoke. He screamed you’re fired, you will never get on another horse for me. What is the matter with you? You embarrassed me in front of my owners! Get out of here and never come back! Ralph ran out of the barn and to his car. He took one last look back to see several boxes of donuts flying out of the shed row.
I looked over at Ralph and said, maybe Lenny Imperio’s barn isn’t such a good place to start after all.
D. Wayne Lukas takes The Ohio Derby with the forgotten Mr.Z. Wayne always bears watching. Wesley Ward wins two more at Royal Ascot.
TVG couldn’t master the split screen, so they now go to three screens and still ignore rider changes.