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Getting them to the horses on time

No task is too small or obscure for jockeys' valets, the harried, specialized workers who keep racetracks running smoothly. 'We're like their butlers,' says one of his rider.

March 10, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Santa Anita jockey valet Rafael Castaneda prepares and cleans boots and gear belonging to jockeys hours before the start of the day's first race.
Santa Anita jockey valet Rafael Castaneda prepares and cleans boots and… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Rafael Castaneda has no time to waste. Up in the grandstand, fans at Santa Anita Park have about half an hour to place bets on the next race. Across from the track and behind the saddling paddock in the timeworn, windowless jockeys room, Castaneda has less than half that time to get Garrett Gomez ready to ride again.

He pulls off the muddy boots Gomez wore in the last race, cleans his goggles with a squirt of furniture polish and grabs the wire hangers holding the silks the jockey will wear next.

Castaneda, 41, is Gomez's valet, one of 10 who attend to the jockeys at Santa Anita, part of an unrecognized and slightly arcane subculture that keeps the track running smoothly and efficiently.

Valets (pronounced VAL-its, not va-LAYS) work the four tracks in Southern California, following the jockeys on a seasonal circuit where no task — whether folding towels, shining boots or buying snacks — is too small to overlook.

"We're like their butlers," Castaneda says.

The valets are on the job as many as 11 hours a day, 51 weeks a year, and the jockeys come to trust and depend on them.

"If you don't have the right equipment and something happens in a race, that's it, and he's the one who has to decide," says Kentucky Derby winner Victor Espinoza of his valet, Armando Sanchez, who has been with him for 18 years. "I don't have to check anything at all, because for so many years he's been my valet. I know that he does everything right."

Ben Denovel, a track security guard who has worked in and around the jockeys room for two decades, has a good perspective on the relationship. "The common thread with these valets is they're enterprising," he says. "If they're not, they won't attract any business. The jockeys, they just want to come here and know things are taken care of."

Between races, Castaneda and Gomez move quickly, a wordless ballet they've performed together for more than a decade. Gomez is one of the nation's most successful jockeys; in 2008, the third of four consecutive years in which he led the nation's jockeys in earnings, he made more than $23 million for the owners of the horses he rode.

But he can't ride if he can't get to the track, and he can't get there without Castaneda, who, on this rainy afternoon, helps him into a pair of clean white pants, racing silks in the color of the stable he's riding for, a color-coordinated cloth helmet cover and a pair of spit-polished black boots.

Everything has been laid out in advance, so by the time the warning bell rings, Gomez is dressed, his tack is ready and his saddle properly weighted.

With barely a minute to spare.

The jockeys room is a part of Santa Anita that few visitors see.

Long, narrow and occasionally stuffy, it lies just a few paces from the entrance to the track. At one end are a sauna and a bathroom with one stall reserved "for flipping only" (the racing world's euphemism for the quickest form of weight loss — vomiting). On the other end are a small cafeteria and the color room, where 8,000 racing silks hang on racks. In the middle, near the door, is a battered scale that riders mount to make sure they make weight before getting on a horse.

Some of the greatest jockeys in the 20th century passed through these weathered double doors. Today's riders pass statues of Bill Shoemaker, Johnny Longden and Laffit Pincay Jr. on their way to the track.

The 25 dressing stalls — each less than 5 feet wide and partitioned with plywood — are filled with family photos, stuffed animals and religious artifacts, some fashioned into small shrines. The personal effects provide comfort in what can be a tense atmosphere.

The jockeys and their valets work in close quarters, and disputes that arise from the competition on the track are frequently settled here, behind closed doors. Still, it often becomes a place of reflection and prayer, community and fellowship.

For all the history in the room, there is also a sense of change. Plastic Mexican flags tacked to a beam flank a larger U.S. flag, and there's a small, adjacent locker room where female jockeys dress. A CD of Selena's ballad "Si Una Vez" plays in the room where Spanish was once all but banned.

Tipping is governed by unwritten rules. In addition to their track income — $380 a week for those at the high end of the pay scale — valets can get $6 to $20 per mount from their jockeys, who also add 2% to 5% of their winnings. If a rider has a good year, valets can make an extra $20,000 to $30,000 per jockey — double that if the jockey has a great year. With valets working for as many as five jockeys at a time, the money can add up. But the income is unpredictable.

"There's no guarantee," says Sanchez, 57, whose most successful jockey, Rafael Bejarano, missed 27 days during the 2008 season at Del Mar after being trampled in a spill. "That money was gone."

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