Friday, February 28, 2014

Jack Van Berg, Trainer

Tampa Bay Downs is proud to welcome Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who on Sunday on the first floor of the grandstand will sign copies of JACK: From Grit to Glory, A Lifetime of Mentoring, Dedication and Perseverance – The True Story of Jack Van Berg, an American Horse Racing Legend, by Chris Kotulak. As opinionated and feisty as ever, the 77-year-old Van Berg bristles at the mention of the mega-stables run by such leading trainers as Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, who seem to have horses at just about every major racetrack in the country. “I did that before any of those guys came around – even before (D. Wayne) Lukas,” Van Berg points out. “Back in the 1970s, I had horses at six different tracks. I had assistants everywhere, but they had a rule trainers had to be at the track to saddle a horse every third day or they wouldn’t let you run. So I was flying between Detroit, Chicago, New York, Maryland, Monmouth and Philadelphia. Sometimes, I would get to a track at midnight and check my horses.” Along the way, Van Berg won more races and influenced more racetrackers than just about anyone in Thoroughbred history. Still active with a small string at Oaklawn Park, he is best known for training Alysheba, who won the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs and was subsequently named Horse of the Year. Van Berg was the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he sent out Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington in 1987, and his 6,417 career victories trail only Dale Baird, Asmussen, Jerry Hollendorfer and King Leatherbury. More impressive, perhaps, is the lengthy list of trainers who apprenticed under Van Berg, including Hall of Famer William Mott, Frank Brothers, Wayne Catalano and Kellyn Gorder. Van Berg won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer in 1984 and led the nation in earnings in 1976, the same year he set a record for most wins in a year by a single trainer with 496. He won his first classic race with Gate Dancer, who set a track record in the 1984 Preakness and went on to finish third and second in consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classics. His Strodes Creek was second in the 1994 Kentucky Derby and third in the Belmont. Van Berg, who will serve as the auctioneer during Monday’s “Hearts Reaching Out” dinner to benefit the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, Tampa Bay Downs Division, took time to share some thoughts about his remarkable life and career for the track’s “Racing In The Sunshine” profile series before traveling to Oldsmar.

THE NEBRASKA NATIVE STILL FEELS THE INFLUENCE OF HIS FATHER Marion Van Berg, himself a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame who died in 1971. The elder Van Berg established the Van Berg Sales Pavilion in Columbus, Neb., in the heart of the Depression, and from those humble origins sprang a dynastic Thoroughbred family legacy. “Every morning when I wake up, I thank the good Lord for my dad teaching me his work ethic and how to train horses,” Van Berg says. “When I was 16, he put me in a semi-trailer to drive a load of horses from Detroit to Omaha. Talk about an education. If he caught me coming home late, he would make me get up that much earlier the next morning. And he was a perfectionist. If he told you to rub a leg 15 minutes, he meant 15, not 13. I was blessed to come up under him.”

RETIREMENT? THE WORD IS NOT IN VAN BERG’S VOCABULARY. “I’ve worked all my life. My dad worked the heck out of me, from the time I was a little kid. It’s in my system,” he says. “I can’t do what I used to do, but I still ride my horse every day.” Besides, Van Berg has a recurring dream: “I’m going to win another Derby. In this game, you always have that hope, and that keeps you going.” For the immediate future, Van Berg is high on the potential of an unraced 3-year-old son of Roman Ruler in his barn, Roman Pleasure. He might not make it to Louisville, but Van Berg thinks he might see some pretty good horses down the road. “He has more miles under him than most of these other horses have raced, and he’s done everything right so far,” Van Berg says. “We’re about 10 days away from running him.”

VAN BERG EVADES THE QUESTION OF WHETHER DIVINE INTERVENTION played a role in Alysheba’s incredible Kentucky Derby victory, in which he and jockey Chris McCarron sidestepped disaster after clipping heels with Bet Twice in the stretch. “I think (trainer) Willard Proctor probably had the best statement about what happened,” Van Berg says. “He said, ‘Most horses going a mile-and-a-quarter are looking for somewhere to lie down at the eighth pole. This one wants to get up and keep going.’ ” When Alysheba returned to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic the following year in the gloaming on an off-track he wasn’t supposed to like, he retired as racing’s richest horse, with earnings of more than $6.6 million. “If he had kept racing as a 5-year-old, I don’t think anyone would have beaten him. He could do things you couldn’t believe,” Van Berg says.

CHAPTER 37 OF JACK BEGINS, “JACK VAN BERG FREELY ADMITS that he fell far short of being an ideal family man.” He was married twice, for 20 and 13 years, and has five children. “I put the horses in front of everything. You get carried away, and you regret not spending as much time with them as you should have.” But on balance, Van Berg – himself the youngest of nine children of Marion and Viola – knows he provided the best he could for his children and is grateful each found their way in the world.

MARION VAN BERG MADE HIS REPUTATION TURNING CLAIMING HORSES INTO STAKES HORSES, and Jack always took pleasure in devising ways to help his less talented horses reach their potential. “The greatest pleasure for me was taking a horse and improving it,” he says. “Whether he had a problem or there was something that I needed to correct, I always believed any horse I came in contact with should get a chance to race to the best of its ability.” Such a horse was Dave’s Friend, an accomplished stakes winner who had foot issues when Van Berg acquired him in 1982. Among his notable accomplishments, Dave’s Friend won back-to-back runnings of the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn at ages 8 and 9.

WHAT’S AILING THE SPORT OF KINGS? FOR STARTERS, “People making rules who don’t even know what end of the horse to put oats in.” Then, there’s the new breed of trainer who doesn’t understand what their horse is trying to tell them. Van Berg is fond of bragging on all his assistants who have gone on to tremendous success, mostly because he passed along those lessons from the best – his own father. “I’m damn proud of them – none have had bad tests,” he says. “I taught them how to work and how to follow up on things. I was cocky when I was young, but the older I got, the smarter I thought my father was. Today you have young trainers who don’t even see their horses race – they’re up in the box talking and laughing.”

NOT TO SOUND CURMUDGEONLY, BUT VAN BERG THINKS there is more the racetracks can do to regain their dwindling fan base. “Racing was the only game in town for so many years, we forgot to take care of the fans,” he says. “Sports like NASCAR and Professional Bull Riders know how to take care of people and attract families, and that’s what racing needs to do.” Van Berg advocates tracks stepping outside their corporate mentality and doing more to get youngsters interested in Thoroughbred racing with events such as family days and special areas for children to watch and learn.

IF THERE IS ONE RACE VAN BERG WOULD LIKE TO HAVE BACK, it is the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Hollywood Park, when Ferdinand and Bill Shoemaker beat Alysheba and McCarron by a nose in a race that decided the Horse of the Year (Alysheba was voted Champion 3-Year-Old Colt). If there is one race he thinks was taken away, it was the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic, also at Hollywood. Outfitted in a hood to minimize crowd noise, Gate Dancer, with Laffit Pincay, Jr., riding, dueled with winner Wild Again on the inside and Slew o’ Gold in between, in a finish that seemed more like a Wild West show that a horse race. After a lengthy stewards’ inquiry, Gate Dancer was disqualified from second and placed third. “They should have put Gate Dancer up to first,” Van Berg growls. “(Angel) Cordero (on Slew o’ Gold) was trying to put (Pat) Day (on Wild Again) over the fence, and they started bouncing off each other and knocked Gate Dancer’s ass out from under him.” Time to visit YouTube and take another look!

WHEN VAN BERG HANDLES THE AUCTIONEERING DUTIES at Monday’s “Hearts Reaching Out” benefit dinner, it will mark the continuation of a tradition started after he left college and returned home to Nebraska, where he went to work auctioning cattle at the Van Berg Sales Pavilion. About 15 years later, after Marion Van Berg suffered a stroke, Jack was back in Columbus planning to take his wife to dinner when she told him his father wanted to see him. Marion, who by then could no longer speak, pointed to the sales barn, and Jack postponed dinner and auctioned cattle for two hours with his proud father listening. Marion Van Berg passed away two days later.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Francois and Yolande Seremba, Horse People

Theirs is a love story that began more than 75 years ago, when Thoroughbred racing and their hometown Montreal Canadiens reigned supreme on the North American sports scene. The East Lake Woodlands residents fell in love in first grade, and have been virtually inseparable since. Francois’ father was a jockey and trainer; his grandfather, Joe Cattarinich – the first goaltender in Canadiens’ history, a co-owner and coach of the squad and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame – owned several racetracks. Yolande rode show horses as a youngster, so it was inevitable they would become involved in horse racing. Their passion for the sport, the horses and each other has grown ever since. From their first win in 1950 at Blue Bonnets in Montreal (with the first horse they owned, Wateree) until their semi-retirement in 2007, their Circle Y Stable accounted for more than 1,300 victories. For several years in the 1960s, Circle Y was among the top-25 stables in North America in victories. While Francois handled the training duties and ran the stable, Yolande made most of the breeding decisions after forging a friendship with legendary Claiborne Farm master A.B. “Bull” Hancock. Their favorite horse was Lady Yolande, purchased in 1956 as a yearling for $11,000. She won her debut by 16 lengths and captured the inaugural Vandal Stakes at Fort Erie as a 2-year-old, won the Cleveland Handicap and Sophomores Handicap the following year and developed into a solid producer as a broodmare. Another top broodmare for the Serembas was T.V. Royal, acquired because Yolande liked the fact she was by T.V. Lark, the 1961 Eclipse Award champion turf horse. Among T.V. Royal’s top runners were the couple’s filly Marquise Cut, who won six stakes and was 1987 New England 3-Year-Old Filly of the Year, and stakes-winning fillies Great Review and Alleluia. Other top horses included homebred stakes winners Country Sky and Cremiest, both from their mare Chou a La Crème; stakes winner El Espectador; Latimer, who finished second in the 1977 Grade III Ak-Sar-Ben Cornhusker Handicap; and Sir Tom, who won 17 races. In the early 1980s in New England, the Serembas hired Tampa Bay Downs Vice President of Marketing & Publicity Margo Flynn as a groom and hot walker. In 1997, Francois became a director of the short-lived United Thoroughbred Trainers of America, Inc. Newspaper clippings of a lifetime spent in racing have faded, but memories of their many thrills and occasional disappointments with horses remain vivid. The Serembas, who have been married 60 years, recently shared some reflections for Tampa Bay Downs’ “Racing In The Sunshine” profile series. (In the interest of full disclosure, Yolande allowed Francois to do most of the talking. How do you think they’ve stayed together so long?).

WE ARE VERY LUCKY PEOPLE. We’ve had good health, we made a good living and I married God’s greatest creation. If Yolande had married the devil, he would have been a Christian. I’ve always felt that way, since the time we were 6 years old, and I’ve never been afraid to say it. We know we aren’t going to live forever, but up to now it ain’t been bad. We have always been in love with the horses. My father was a jockey and trainer and my mother worked in the racing secretary’s office at Blue Bonnets, and my grandfather owned Blue Bonnets and other tracks, including Fair Grounds, so we came into the sport naturally. In 1950, my mother gave me $700 to claim a filly who did pretty well, so we decided to get married.

I PLAYED SOME HOCKEY AT SIR GEORGE WILLIAMS UNIVERSITY in Montreal, then I went to McGill University thinking I’d be a lawyer. But the pull of the racetrack was too strong. These horses get in your blood, and when you find someone else who loves it as much as you do, every day is like a vacation. I also did a little boxing, sparred with Harold Gomes, who later won the world super featherweight title. He told me the only thing I would be is a punching bag, and I appreciated his honesty. Yolande didn’t like it at all. I came home once beat up pretty bad, and all she said was ‘Enjoy it?’ I would have had to be pretty stupid to keep going.

OUR MOST FAVORITE HONEYMOON PERIOD, I think, was at Scarborough Downs in Maine in the early 1950s. We had been racing in Canada and the purses were terrible – $500, $700 a race – so we took some horses to Scarborough, where they were paying $1,500. I thought, holy mackerel, where did this place come from? We were paying our grooms $75 a week and I could feed the horses for 85 cents a day – it was a whole different world. Well, the track was right on Old Orchard Beach, so we rented a cabin for the summer and spent our time away from the track enjoying our surroundings and each other’s company. We’ll never forget those summers.

YOU MIGHT AS WELL ASK WHAT TRACKS WE DIDN’T RACE AT. I think the total we have raced at is 26: Tampa Bay Downs when it was Sunshine Park, Gulfstream, Hialeah , New York, the Maryland tracks, Fair Grounds, Louisiana Downs, Detroit, Sportsman’s, Hawthorne, Centennial in Colorado, Suffolk, Rockingham. Hialeah in the glory days of the 1960s and ‘70s was probably our favorite. The class, the beauty, the atmosphere – it was racing at its best. When you went to the paddock, it was like going out to dinner; everyone was well-dressed. Plus we did well there, like the day in 1991 when Cremiest won the City of Hialeah Stakes on the turf by five lengths and paid $93.80. That always helps.

THE DIFFERENCE IN RACING FROM THEN TO NOW is like night and day. I trained horses for some wealthy owners such as Bruce Norris, who owned the Detroit Red Wings, and Jean-Louis Levesque, who owned the great Fanfreluche and La Prevoyante. These were people who loved racing and loved their horses. Some of my owners would bring their children to our barn on Sunday, and we would let them ride the stable pony. Now a horse is a business, and I don’t think it’s a good business. And I don’t know how they can make money. It costs a guy at least $15,000 a year just to own a slow horse. And at a lot of tracks now, it seems like they promote the casinos more than the horses.

YOLANDE TREATED ALL OUR HORSES LIKE THEY WERE FAMILY, and I never lost sight of the importance of treating each one like an individual and taking the time to keep them happy. It’s not easy being a racehorse. They start out in a pasture doing whatever they want, then here comes a jerk who puts a bridle in their mouth, and another guy puts a saddle on them, and the horse thinks ‘What the hell are they doing?’ Then some guy gets on them with a whip, so the horse is sometimes in shock before realizing what’s going on. But they adjust. Some can’t do it, but they adjust, and we always treated them the best we could, fed them the best and grazed them outside their stalls in the afternoon.

LADY YOLANDE WAS OUR BEST HORSE, and she was a decent broodmare, too. She won seven races for us, but she gave us quite a scare as a 2-year-old at Fort Erie. Chris Rogers, an excellent jockey, was on her for the Yearling Sales Stakes, and she buck-jumped and tossed him in the air right at the start. He lost his stirrup irons and went flying in the air, but somehow he came right back down on her back. They dropped back to last place, but rallied to finish third. It was one of the most amazing feats of horsemanship we’ve ever seen.

WE’RE PRETTY RELIGIOUS PEOPLE, AND WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN ABLE to take a punch without thinking it’s the end of the world. When we lost a horse, we got over it pretty quick because we knew we had a lot of other things to be thankful for. We have always been optimistic people. But it was heartbreaking when we learned Yolande couldn’t have any children. We thought about adopting, but were never able to because we were on the road all the time. “I’m the oldest of four children, so I thought I would be like my mom and have a baby every two or three years,” Yolande added. “But it didn’t happen, and our horses were like our babies.”

I’VE MADE MISTAKES IN RACING THAT I DON’T KNOW how Yolande stayed with me. We had a horse named Country Sky who won the Ben Franklin Stakes at Garden State and finished second in the Sentinel Stakes at Philadelphia and was a real good breadwinner. So I got smart and decided we would give him some time off, then run him for a claiming tag at Rockingham to get him eligible for starter races at Saratoga. Yolande said I should get my head examined, but I couldn’t see anyone claiming a gelding for that kind of money. We lost him, but the guy who claimed him made a mistake, too, and lost him to a claim, and Country Sky won three races at Saratoga for the new owner.

DO I HAVE A BUCKET LIST? I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW what we haven’t done. Racing has taken us all over the continent, and we’ve been to Ascot in England and Chantilly in France. I’ve even been in jail – but not for what I did. When I was into boxing, Harold Gomes asked me to join him on a trip to Walpole in Massachusetts. I guess the prisoners were getting tired of fighting each other, so they arranged for us to box them. I was scared to death in that place, but the guy I drew to fight was terrible. Harold went up against five guys, and when he was talking to the prisoners one of them sucker-punched him. Harold murdered the guy – not literally, of course.

WE’RE VERY THANKFUL FOR HOW PEOPLE IN RACING have treated us. It’s been a dream come true – me, her and horse racing. We’re still treated unbelievably well by everyone we come across. Here at Tampa Bay Downs, people do everything they can to make us feel important. Of course, we aren’t entirely out of racing; a 4-year-old filly Yolande bred, Advantage Please, is running in the eighth race Thursday (Feb. 20). She is trained by William Downing, who we hired as a stable hand when he was 13 – but told us he was 16! We can’t begin to count all the blessings our lives with horses have provided.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Joan Scott, Trainer

To casual followers of the sport, Joan Scott arrived on the big stage when her filly Dr. Zic – which she also owned with close friend Marette Farrell and other partners – won the Grade I, $300,000 Vinery Madison Stakes at Keeneland in 2010. But Scott had spent the majority of her life preparing for that moment at the pinnacle. After showing hunters and jumpers as a youngster, she left her home in Virginia to work with Saddlebreds in Kentucky, where she latched on to an opportunity to break Thoroughbreds. Meeting horse lovers from a variety of backgrounds and cultures was an intoxicating elixir to Scott, who knew from that point she had found her calling. In Kentucky, then-Juddmonte President John Chandler introduced her to legendary French trainer Alec Head; Scott’s horsemanship skills and enthusiasm brought her to the fabled European training grounds of Newmarket in England, the Curragh in Ireland and Maisons-Laffitte in France to ride and learn. On her return to the United States in the early 1990s, Scott worked as a gallop person and assistant for several of the sport’s biggest names: Nick Zito, Elliott Walden, Carl Nafzger, Hal Wiggins and the late Bud Delp. When Zito put her in charge of a string owned by Marylou Whitney at Churchill Downs in 2001, it was only a matter of time before Scott opened her own public stable. Prior to Dr. Zic’s Grade I victory, Scott had won the Grade II, $350,000 Kelso Breeders’ Cup Handicap at Belmont in 2003 with Freefourinternet. Scott – whose 20-horse stable at Tampa Bay Downs includes graded-stakes placed stakes and multiple-stakes winning filly Cor Cor; multiple-Grade II runner-up Ruler of Love; and stakes-placed 3-year-old filly Babe’s Ruler – took time recently to join the track’s “Racing In The Sunshine” guest roster.

IF YOU WANT TO LEARN TO SPEAK A HORSE’S LANGUAGE, you need to take time to be around them and watch how they act and react to things. It takes time and patience and experience. It’s like being around people – learning how to read them, seeing how they act. I took riding lessons growing up and learned how to jump, ride saddle seat and Western pleasure, all that stuff, but you can learn a lot from just watching. Even on the racetrack, you watch how someone else gallops and the horse goes good for them, so you try to learn from that. You learn every day. There is so much to learn.

IT’S HARD TO SAY I’VE MISSED OUT ON ANYTHING by working with horses all my life, because it’s all I’ve done. My parents got me a pony when I was 8 and I think everybody expected me to outgrow it, but I never did. I’m really glad, because I love what I do. Nothing beats the feeling of being on the track in the morning working with horses – unless it’s winning races in the afternoon! Even the mistakes I’ve made, I’ve learned a lot from them, and it’s helped me get further ahead. I feel very lucky.

I STILL GALLOP A FEW HORSES IN THE MORNING, but usually you’ll see me on my pony overseeing the operation. I’ll go through phases when I get on four or five, but it’s nice to be at a point now where I have really good help and I can get on when I want to. As you get older, it’s a lot of strain on your body, and I wake up sometimes with my back hurting a little.

NICK ZITO WAS THE FIRST PERSON WHO GAVE ME AN OPPORTUNITY and just turned me loose with horses. He would send me on a van to run horses in a stakes somewhere, and when the Breeders’ Cup was at Woodbine in 1996, I stayed at Belmont and helped run the shed. Those opportunities gave me a lot of confidence. Hal Wiggins, who won the Kentucky Oaks with Rachel Alexandra, is a lovely, kind person who was good to his help and enjoyable to be around. It’s great to work for a lot of different people, because there are so many different ways to do things. I tried to pick out the important things and to remember you can’t know everything, but don’t be afraid to ask for an opinion or advice.

I’M CONCERNED ABOUT THE FUTURE OF OUR SPORT. Some of the smaller tracks are closing, and I worry about the casinos involved in racing getting rid of the horses eventually. I hope racing sticks around, because it’s what I love. As an industry, we need to find a way to improve the public perception of racing. I think if we could establish a national commission and set uniform medication rules where everything is transparent, that would be an awesome step in the right direction. People are getting the wrong idea about us. In most cases, Thoroughbreds are well-cared for and have everything they need. I want my horses to be happy and healthy, because if they’re unhappy, they’re not going to perform their best.

I BELIEVE IN HARSHER PUNISHMENT for anyone who is cheating, because it’s affecting my livelihood, hurting the horses and defrauding the public. Make owners give up the purse money, or give their horses suspensions. If owners feel the pinch and are not allowed to race that horse for six months or a year, they’re not going to be happy and are going to be more selective about their choice of trainer. I think owners along with trainers need to be held responsible just to make change happen.

WHAT DO I LIKE BEST ABOUT HORSES? I appreciate their honesty. They tell us volumes, if we just listen. They give their life to us; they run their hearts out. You have a few who don’t really try, or maybe they aren’t capable enough, but that’s OK. They didn’t volunteer to be here, and maybe they could excel at another career. All in all, they’re pretty amazing – so honest, kind and trusting, such a big creature yet one we can handle and lead around. My favorite part of training is to follow them as they get to the races, and see the light come on.
REALLY, IT’S LIKE HAVING YOUR OWN KINDERGARTEN CLASS. I’m the teacher, they are all students, and it revolves around the time and effort you put in to give each one the chance to shine at their very best. I try to figure out what each horse does best – are they suited for turf or dirt, to go long or short, then to give them that opportunity. You don’t just stick them in the program and run them six furlongs on dirt the first time just to get a race in them. You try to figure out where they belong.

DR. ZIC HAS BEEN MY BIGGEST SUCCESS STORY, SO FAR. Marette Farrell picked her out at the Ocala 2-Year-Old Sale and bought her for $40,000, and Ziccy gave me my only Grade I win to date and earned more than $350,000. Plus, I had her from the beginning – her first stakes victory was the Sandpiper Stakes here at Tampa Bay Downs – and I’m proud of that. We put her through the 2012 Keeneland January Sale and she brought $375,000, even though the market had dropped off a few years ago. You have to have good connections to get good horses, and Marette knows how to pick out a runner. Neither one of us has millionaire connections, so we can’t screw up very often.

I HAVE A HOME IN LEXINGTON, KY., AND ONE HERE IN TAMPA I bought about six years ago. I live with two adorable pups I adopted, Yoshi and Bucky. When my other dog died of kidney and liver failure, I was so upset I was sure I wouldn’t get another. Then two days later, I was back at the Tampa Humane Society and picked out Bucky. They – we – have fun together.

THE BEST ADVICE I CAN GIVE ANYONE GOING INTO THIS BUSINESS is to work hard and work smart. Be around good people, and have confidence in yourself. Not to sound arrogant, but my last couple of years as an assistant, I had come to believe I could do a better job than was getting done. Then do it! You have to be ready for the opportunity. They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and I’m a big believer in that.

WHEN STARTING OUT, IT’S NOT A GOOD IDEA to take horses on deals, or just take anything. (Trainer) Frank Brothers told me that when I was galloping for him, and he is right. And nobody wants to do a deal on a good horse. The bad horses will make you look bad. Then the owners don’t want to pay you, and everybody is unhappy.

OF COURSE, YOU NEVER KNOW where a good horse is going to come from. A couple of years ago, a client sent me a homebred and another horse by Peace Rules that he bought from an acquaintance.  I wasn’t too excited because Peace Rules hasn’t produced a whole lot as a sire. Well, it turned out the homebred didn’t pan out, but the Peace Rules colt was Ruler of Love, who won the 2012 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Stakes and was third last year in the Grade III Derby Trial and second in the Grade II West Virginia Derby and the Grade II Super Derby. It shows you they all deserve a chance.

I WAS LISTENING TO BILLIE JEAN KING on “Fresh Air” talk about the traits of successful people she has known, and when she said “Champions adapt,” that stuck with me. When you come to the barn in the morning and don’t have any grooms, or this is missing or that is missing, or it’s pouring rain, you can’t say the sky is falling and pack it up. You have to figure out where you’re going and how you are going to make it work.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Brian Pedroza, Jockey

 His father, Martin Pedroza, has been a fixture at southern California tracks since 1983, winning dozens of major stakes races and still going strong at 48, with 3,606 victories and counting. His mother, known as Kimberly Davis when she rode races, has been an exercise rider in Ocala for as long as he can remember. So guess what Brian Pedroza didn’t want to do when he was a kid? “When I was 14, I had little or no interest in horse racing,” recalls 22-year-old Brian, tied for eighth in the Tampa Bay Downs jockey standings with 11 victories. “My mom and dad would come home with injuries – they both shattered their pelvises in accidents – and I didn’t want to be like that.” It wasn’t until he turned 18 and started cleaning stalls for his stepfather, who was a pinhooker in Ocala, that Brian – who is closer to his mother’s height of 4-feet 11 than his father’s 5-4 stature – realized he needed to find out if he had inherited any of their ability. Despite suffering a knee injury that caused him to miss five months in 2010 and a rough stretch at Tampa Bay Downs two seasons ago, Brian has come to believe he may have found his calling. And he’s not the only one. “Brian is a natural,” said trainer Dennis Ward, the father of 1984 Eclipse Award Outstanding Apprentice Jockey and current trainer Wesley Ward. “He gets them in the right spot, and a lot of horses just run off the screen for him.” Brian’s cousin Marcelino Pedroza, currently at Fair Grounds, is also a jockey. Brian has a brother Tyler, 18, and a sister Mya, 4. Brian, who rode four winners in two days recently, revealed his feelings about the sport and his future in the latest installment of the track’s “Racing In The Sunshine” profile series.

I HAVEN’T SEEN MY DAD IN SEVERAL YEARS, but he’ll still call to tell me I need to lower my irons or go to the left-hand stick about the eighth pole, surprise the horse and get a little more run down the stretch, things like that. I don’t like not seeing him, but I know he is watching me and that means a lot. I’ve always lived in Ocala, but from the time I was 4 until I was 16 I spent every summer with him and would go to California to live with him on Christmas break. I would like to ride against him, but I need a lot more experience to ride with those boys in California.

HAVING SOMEONE LIKE DENNIS WARD IN MY CORNER is like having a second father, in some ways. He puts me on live horses and doesn’t really put any pressure on me. I know if I mess up, I’m not going to get fired or yelled at. That makes it so much easier to go out and relax and do what I need to do. Sometimes owners and trainers forget that a jockey feels worse than anyone when they mess up, and being young, I’ve had problems in the past dealing with being yelled at. I’m learning to bite my tongue, accept constructive criticism and take the other kind with a grain of salt.

SPEAKING OF OLDER GUYS WHO ARE GOOD INFLUENCES, I have to give credit to my agent, Cash Stodghill. His grandfather, Jason Coyote (nee Stodghill), was the leading trainer here in 1993-94, and I guess a lot of his good sense rubbed off on Cash. He was a year ahead of me at West Port High School in Ocala, and when we learned we each had a connection to Thoroughbreds, something clicked. When we won four last week, we celebrated by going to dinner at Bonefish Grill with my mom and my little sister, Mya. On off-days, we like to go fishing or just hang out. Cash and I are kind of learning the ropes together, and I think we’re a pretty good team.

MY MOTHER, KIM, WASN’T A JOCKEY VERY LONG, but she is still active in Ocala. She has been a tremendous influence and I always know I can go to her for advice. Here’s her biggest claim to fame (besides having me): She was the exercise rider when The Green Monkey worked an eighth of a mile in 9 4/5 seconds at Calder in 2006, which led to him being purchased at the sale for $16-million. I remember being in our garage with my stepdad, who was on the phone with my mom, and she was telling him “The bidding is up to $10-million; it’s up to $11-million.” It was just unbelievable. Honestly, I don’t know how much my mom’s cut from the $16-million was.

I BELIEVE I HAVE A KNACK FOR MAKING A HORSE RELAX, which is a big key to winning races. It comes from having good hands and being light on their mouth. I feel that I’m strong on turf, and I know how to judge the pace of a race. I always have a vision of how a race is likely to unfold, and I try to put myself in the right spots so I have a chance to win when the time comes to move. I study the program and I usually have at least five other horses in my head that I know to keep an eye on the whole time. If I have the 6-5 favorite on my outside, I don’t want to let him get away from me; I want to move at the same time. And I watch replays like crazy. Not just watching myself, but what other people are doing.

AS A JOCKEY, MY HANDS ARE MY MAIN TOOLS. They’re what I do most of the work with, how I communicate with a horse. A big thing I had to learn starting out is that all horses are different, like people, and they have their own personalities. Some are tougher than others, and you can tell the tough ones if they start biting that bit or tugging you just walking to the track. You don’t want to get to fighting them, because you’re always going to be the loser.

I HAVEN’T BEEN TO THE PENTHOUSE YET, BUT I KNOW you can go to the outhouse in a hurry. I was having a great meeting at Delaware a few years ago when my saddle slipped and I fell during a morning workout and wrecked my knee, and I was out five months. I have seven screws and a metal plate in there. At Aqueduct I went down a couple of times and had cracked ribs and a bruised femur. And a couple of years ago here, my business slowed down so much I decided to go back to Ocala and work at the sales because the money was better. But nothing beats the excitement of competing at the track.

I WEIGH 112 POUNDS, AND I’VE NEVER HAD TO REDUCE in my life. I can eat anything I want and not gain any weight. I think not having to get in the box to shed pounds gives me an edge physically, because I’m going out there as strong as I can be. It takes a lot out of a rider when he has to lose 5 pounds in a couple of hours.

NOT TO SEEM OVERLY CONFIDENT, but I think I’m as competitive and as good a rider as anybody here. Obviously, I don’t have the experience of Daniel Centeno or Ronnie Allen, Jr., and I don’t want to say I’m better than them, because they are really good riders. But I think if I keep getting the opportunities, I’ll be able to show everyone what I can do. You just have to come out every day, let people know you’re here to work and ride hard.