Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dennis Petrucelli, Clerk of Scales

A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their
favorite sport
Dennis Petrucelli orchestrates weigh-ins, juggles late rider switches and interfaces with racing officials with the smooth grace of a symphony conductor. Nothing seems to escape the notice of the former jockey, who was a member of the Tampa Bay Downs riding colony from the early 1970s (when the track operated as Florida Downs) until he retired from the saddle in 1983. After a six-month stint in the U.S. Army at Fort Polk in Louisiana, Petrucelli began riding in 1967 under contract to Del Carroll, Sr., the trainer of 1972 Preakness winner Bee Bee Bee. Petrucelli rode his first winner at the old Miles Park Race Track in Louisville, Ky. Among the Illinois native’s top mounts were Abe’s Hope (a member of the same class as Buckpasser, Graustark and Kauai King) and Illustrious, a son of Round Table piloted to victory by Petrucelli in the 1969 Native Dancer Handicap at Bowie in Maryland. When his jockey career ended, Petrucelli switched gears deftly, becoming an assistant trainer under Sturges Ducoing and Dave Kassen for eight years. He next took a warehouse job, but the siren call of the racetrack was too powerful to ignore. Petrucelli has been a fixture at Arlington Park outside Chicago for more than 20 years, the first 18 as the colors man – the person in charge of jockey silks – and the past four as Clerk of Scales. Last year at Tampa Bay Downs, he was an agent for jockey Dean Butler. Petrucelli has a daughter, Stephanie, who works for Radiant Oil and lives in the Tampa Bay area. His trademark “Have a super sparkly day” reflects his approach to his job and the friendships gained from a lifetime on the track.



HOMETOWN: Oldsmar, Fla.


BEST HORSE I’VE EVER RIDDEN/SEEN: Illustrious and Kaskaskia were probably the two fastest horses I rode. Illustrious set a track record of 1:09 1/5 for six furlongs in the Native Dancer in 1969. It was a $25,000 race then, and now it’s $125,000. Kaskaskia was a Florida-bred horse who I won with on the turf at Delaware Park going five furlongs in 57 1/5, which was a track record, and 57 3/5 seconds. I saw Dr. Fager run in Chicago, as well as Secretariat and Cigar. Graustark was a great horse and Umbrella Fella was a very fast sprinter. I think Personal Ensign was probably the best filly that ever ran. I’ve seen a lot of good ones.


HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: My baseball coach at Weber High in Chicago saw I couldn’t really hit the ball and got me in touch with a guy at the Chicago Tribune who told me to see Del Carroll, Sr., at the racetrack. I started out hot-walking horses and took care of the ponies for a year before I ever got on a horse. It’s not like now, where guys gallop for two weeks and get a jockey’s license.


MY BIGGEST INSPIRATIONS: My late parents, Angeline and Charles. My dad was a tool-and-die worker and my mom took odd jobs to make ends meet. They showed me the value of hard work. My dad was scared of horses, though, and wouldn’t get in the winner’s-circle picture when they saw me win a race at Commodore Downs.


ONE CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: Less racing might actually improve the quality. Year-round racing up north is hard on everyone, especially the horses. I’m also not a big fan of Sunday racing.


MY FAVORITE SPORTS TEAM: I root for the Chicago Bears, but I have fond memories of meeting the old Yankees slugger Moose Skowron, who also went to Weber High. He told me great stories about Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Joe DiMaggio and those great teams.


NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST: I’d like to get a hole-in-one. I almost had two in one day, but I’m still swinging.


FAVORITE MOVIE/TV SHOW: I’ve watched the Stephen King horror thriller Dead Zone six times. Once in a while, I watch the finals of Dancing with the Stars.


FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: The weather, the fans and all the old friends I get to catch up with when they ship in to race.


WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … I’d probably be a multimillionaire computer programmer. I took a test for IBM out of high school and got a real high score, but I was already working at the racetrack for Del Carroll. Who knows what would have happened?


ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Sharpen your money-management skills, especially if you want to be a jockey. And pick out a good gate rider and study how they break on top, even on a horse that doesn’t show speed.



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