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THOROUGHBRED RACING / BILL CHRISTINE : Trainers Might Have to Use Exercise Riders

December 22, 1994|BILL CHRISTINE

On Oct. 22, 1988, Billy Fox rode Forty Niner to victory in the $567,000 New York Racing Assn. Mile at Aqueduct. He won 32 times in New York that fall, but in all of 1989 he won only 33 races and last year he didn't win any, riding only 15 times.

They talk about shipping horses, but 1988 was the year jockeys were shipping into New York to replace the regular riders, who had gone on strike in a dispute about riding fees.

Fox arrived from Ellis Park in Kentucky and is remembered as much for punching a striking jockey, Chris Antley, in a tunnel at Aqueduct as he is for the victory aboard Forty Niner, which earned him $34,000.

Another jockey who crossed the picket line, Tony Vega, had been a fixture at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Apprentice Julian Vazquez, 19, came from his car, where he said he had slept while honoring the first day of the strike. Even Buck Thornburg, 57 at the time, won a few races during the strike, retiring a year later with more than 3,400 victories.

The Aqueduct scenario six years ago might be played out again on Jan. 1, a national walkout day at Santa Anita and other tracks for members of the Jockeys' Guild if they haven't signed a contract covering health and accident insurance with the Thoroughbred Racing Assns. Talks have broken off, with Brian McGrath, the commissioner of the 40 TRA tracks, telling John Giovanni of the guild that this week's jockeys' counterproposal was not worth discussing. "Where do we go from here?" Giovanni said Wednesday, after relating his brief conversation with McGrath. "I don't know."

Caught in the middle of the 1988 New York dispute were California-based jockeys Laffit Pincay and Chris McCarron, who were there to ride in the first running of the NYRA Mile, an important prep for the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs two weeks later.

Pincay, who had won the Haskell Handicap with Forty Niner and just missed with him against Alysheba in the Woodward, had the assignment on trainer Woody Stephens' 2-5 shot at Aqueduct. McCarron was supposed to ride Precisionist, the second choice. Instead they landed on a picket line, supporting their New York colleagues.

Fred Hooper, Precisionist's owner, and trainer John Russell took McCarron to court, seeking a judge's order that would force the jockey to ride.

"I'm vague about what actually happened," Russell said at Santa Anita on Wednesday. "In the end, Chris didn't ride, and I remember that there was concern for his safety if he had. There was a fear of retaliation. At any rate, he watched the race with us after we all had lunch in the directors' room."

Seth Hancock, whose Claiborne Farm raced Forty Niner, was not as understanding about losing Pincay. Hancock said before the race that if Pincay didn't ride, he would never get the mount on Forty Niner again. In the Breeders' Cup Classic, Julie Krone rode Forty Niner to a fourth-place finish.

Russell was happy with the way Vega rode Precisionist, who ran third, beaten by less than two lengths. McCarron got the mount back for a fifth- place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

"Riders are relative," Russell said. "If you're going to New York to beat a Jose Santos, then you need a Pincay or a McCarron. But if you're out to beat an exercise rider who's become a jockey, then all you want is the best exercise rider."

That fall of 1988, not having Santos and other top jockeys made a difference to Aqueduct bettors. The strike, which lasted 12 days, with the jockeys eventually getting most of their demands, cost Aqueduct an estimated $10 million in handle, and although betting picked up as soon as the regular jockeys returned, there was an 11% downturn for the 62-day season.

Will Santa Anita bettors back off if their horses are being ridden by obscure jockeys?

"I don't think so," said Ron Charles, who races horses with trainer Sandy Shulman on the local circuit. "Most of these guys, they just want the action. Give them the races and they'll be there betting them. The only thing replacement jockeys will do is give them more excuses. Guys will be saying that an Omar Berrio cost them a winner instead of some other reason."

Rumors are circulating about which jockeys will be replacements at Santa Anita if the guild doesn't have a new contract by Jan. 1. There has been a report that one of the leading riders from Florida will come out. "I'm seeing some guys on the backstretch that I haven't seen in a long time," trainer Ron McAnally said. "I can't place them, but they might be guys who used to ride at Caliente."

At his barn the other day, trainer Looie Cenicola joked about turning jockey agent and booking mounts for his exercise rider. A spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board said Wednesday that there has been no unusual rush of applicants for jockeys' licenses. As it is, there are 464 jockeys--thoroughbred and quarter horse--already licensed to ride in the state.

Buck Thornburg is not among them.

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