Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lisa Ciardullo, Jockey's Agent

Few individuals have a racehorse named for them, but not many people have the ability to connect with everyone they meet like jockey’s agent Lisa Ciardullo. The tireless go-getter hustles book for Harry Vega, who she has worked for the past five years, and Jose Ferrer, who she managed during a previous Tampa Bay Downs meeting. Ciardullo is back home after primarily spending the past four winters with Vega on the Laurel/Penn National/Philadelphia winter circuit, and at Hawthorne last year. The daughter of a former Thoroughbred owner, Richard Ciardullo, Sr., and sister of trainer Richie Ciardullo, Lisa refers to her 1-2 punch as the “8,000 Club” (combined, Vega and Ferrer are about 40 wins shy of that figure). How much credit an agent should receive is subjective, but Vega says Ciardullo is vital to his success. “She’s a hard worker, she’s sharp and she works with people, and they appreciate that side of her,” said Vega, who won Saturday’s $60,000 Pelican Stakes on Palace Barista. “She helps anyone who needs help, and that makes it good for her as an agent and good for me as a jockey.” Over the past 18 years, Ciardullo has also worked for the likes of her ex-husband, Glenn Stannard; Joe Rocco, Jr.; Juan Umana; Jorge Guerra; Brent Bartram; and Paula Bacon (herself an agent and Ciardullo’s best friend). The horse named for her is Lisa Stannard, a 5-year-old stakes-winning Pennsylvania-bred. Lisa – who freely admits to possessing the gift of gab – shares her insights in the latest installment of Tampa Bay Downs’ series of “Racing In The Sunshine” profiles.

THIS GAME IS FULL OF SURPRISES, WHICH IS A MAIN REASON I love it so much. Consider the case of Purely Hot, a now-6-year-old mare I picked up for Harry last spring when we were at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pa. She had raced for a $4,000 claiming tag as a 4-year-old at Penn National, but when she won a starter allowance race for us last May, she took off like a skyrocket. Her trainer, Nick Caruso, moved her to stakes company, and Harry rode her to victory in the $100,000 Satin and Lace Stakes 11 days later. But wait: It gets better.

WE WON TWO MORE STARTER ALLOWANCE RACES WITH HER, and Nick decided to shoot the moon and try her in the Grade II, $400,000 Presque Isle Downs Masters in September. The field included Groupie Doll, who just won another Eclipse Award as Outstanding Female Sprinter, and Judy the Beauty, who ran second to Groupie Doll in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Well, Harry and Purely Hot finished second to Groupie Doll, but it took a track record to beat them. Nick then entered her in the Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes at Keeneland, where she finished fourth behind Judy the Beauty and Groupie Doll. That led to Harry and I spending the three-week fall meeting at Keeneland, where we won three races and I had the time of my life. Being in the big time, it was like a dream – and a former $4,000 claimer (and Harry!) got me there.

I LOVE ALMOST EVERYTHING ABOUT BEING AN AGENT; I’m not going to lie and tell you I enjoy being at the track every morning at 6. My father dragged Richie and me to the track when we were kids, and it gets in your blood. I met Glenn Stannard, who was a jockey here, when I was in high school, and after I watched guys not working too hard for him, I thought ‘I can do this.’ (Tampa Bay Downs State Steward) Charles Miranda was a big part of me becoming an agent. He was training horses at Birmingham, and he used to quiz me every day about the condition book, making entries, all the things I had to know. I also got good advice from (Tampa Bay Downs) track announcer Richard Grunder, who is an agent in the summer.

BEFORE I STARTED HUSTLING BOOK, I WAS A MUTUEL CLERK here at Tampa Bay Downs. I actually started being a teller at Beulah Park in Ohio, when I was 18, and did it about four years. I enjoyed it, but it’s harder than it looks, especially with all the gimmick wagers available. Plus, you wind up liking a horse so you think ‘Maybe I’ll bet a couple of dollars,’ and sometimes you end up spending more than you make. So you’re better off being on the other side because you’re not so tempted.

IN THE PAST, I MAY HAVE THOUGHT BEING A WOMAN kept me from getting some of the more established riders and landing high-quality horses, but I no longer believe that is true. It all depends what type of person you are. Male or female, you have to know the business and what’s out there, you have to be likeable and approachable and you have to be able to get along with a variety of people. And you had better have a thick skin, because you’re going to get hired and fired often. And, in some cases, you’re going to go back to the people who fire you and work for them again.

ALL JOCKEYS NEED SOMEBODY TO HELP KEEP THEIR BUSINESS in line and their schedules together. As an agent, you tell them where they need to be in the morning and what they need to do. They can’t do it all themselves. They’re in the room getting ready to ride when future entries are being drawn in the racing office, and they need someone to stand up for them when they get a double call (named on two horses in the same race) or another jockey takes off a horse. I have my schedule down to a ‘T,’ and as an agent, I might even call trainers when a field looks a bit light and say ‘Why don’t we take a shot in this race.’ You try to hit every barn every day, even if you aren’t currently riding for that trainer. Another jockey might be late for a workout, and if I’m lucky enough to have one of my jockeys with me, you offer to do that trainer a favor knowing it probably will come back to you. Everybody is on the hustle.

I HAD THOUGHT ABOUT TAKING A BREAK THIS WINTER, because I had to get out of the cold and wanted a change of pace and Harry was planning to stay up north. Maybe go to bartending school; I think I’d be a great bartender. Then I found out Jose Ferrer was coming here, and since I had worked for him in the past, I contacted him and asked if he wanted to get back together. Then Harry decided to come here, and it’s worked out great. Harry got off to a flying start and Jose is starting to pick up more business. I am fortunate to have two established journeymen who adapt to the style of the horse, are equally strong on a speed horse and coming off the pace and are excellent turf riders. For now, bartending school can wait.

I ALWAYS SAY I HAVE A GREAT JOB, BUT THE DRAWBACK is we work seven days a week. It can be tough explaining to people off the racetrack what’s involved, or why you can’t get away for a weekend. On race days I start at 6 a.m. and go right through to 6 p.m., and when I am done with that, guess what – it’s time to get something to eat, relax and go to bed. But where else can you go to hang out with your friends, watch the races and have a beverage or two while you’re working? Everyone who does what we do loves the animals, loves the sport and wants to see it thrive.

AN AGENT GENERALLY MAKES 25 PERCENT of what their jockey earns, and if you have a good week your rider might give you more for doing a good job. But it can be feast or famine, and I’ve gone through tons of struggles. This business doesn’t always go the way you want, and you just have to keep going, knowing it will pick up again. I could make $900 one week and $100 the next. You definitely learn how to budget your money.

THE SUMPTUOUS FEASTS ARE THE DAYS I REMEMBER BEST. I hustled book for Jorge Guerra here in 1995-96 when he won the riding title with 97 victories, and I also had Paula Bacon, who finished third in the standings. That year, Jorge won the Tampa Bay Derby on Thundering Storm and the Florida Oaks on Mindy Gayle on the same card, beating horses ridden by Pat Day in both races. I think we won five on the card. And in 2001 at Colonial Downs, I had Brent Bartram’s book when he won the Virginia Derby on Potaro for trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Those days, and my experience at Keeneland, stand out as my most memorable moments.

I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW A HORSE WAS NAMED AFTER ME until an agent friend, Gerald Brooks, told me Lisa Stannard was making her first start at Penn National two years ago. What happened was, a trainer I knew from Delaware, Andrew Simoff – who names some of his horses after friends – did me the honor. I hadn’t heard about it, though, but I made sure I bet her that day and she won by 14 lengths, naturally. Wait; it gets better. I knew she was running at Parx one night and I was driving through Delaware, so I stopped at the simulcast facility and bet her real quick. I didn’t have a program, so I just wheeled her on top in everything. She won and paid $19, so I made a nice lick on her that day. I don’t play tennis and she’s no Chris Evert, but she’s made more than $200,000 and I’m kind of proud of her. I just love hearing the announcer call her name.

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