The latest culprits taking a hit for Lilliputian-sized fields in Southern California are jockeys agents.
Agents are thick-skinned folks who book mounts for riders, traipsing prayerfully after trainers in need of someone to guide their horses around the track at race time. Most agents represent two jockeys. They read condition books with the guile of a zealot, and often know where a horse will fit in an upcoming race better than the trainer.
"They know whos going in every race, so they will tell a trainer they should wait," Hollywood Park racing secretary Martin Panza told the Daily Racing Form in a Dec. 20 article. "But a lot of times, the agent might have two good calls in the same race, and rather than lose one of the mounts for his rider, he convinces one of the trainers not to enter. Thats their job, but its not healthy. If an agent only had one journeyman rider and one apprentice, it would help the spirit of competition."
Richie Silverstein says the criticism is unfounded, although not exonerating his cohorts completely. He has been in racing for 23 years, an agent for 21, and presently represents Martin Pedroza and Luis Jauregui.
"What theyre saying is, if agents only had one (veteran) rider, every agent would be out there trying to hustle a race to make it go," Silverstein said. "The feeling is, if youve got two riders, chances are you know up to five horses that are going in a race. Lets say you have (Kent) Desormeaux and (Victor) Espinoza, and you have two mounts in one race for Espinoza and one for Desormeaux, and the race is going to go with six horses. You could tell the trainer planning to enter the inferior Desormeaux horse, Look, Victor rides this one, Kent rides this one. Theres two horses you cant beat. Why dont you wait for another race for your horse?
"But the fact is, even if you had only one rider and you had three possible horses to ride in the same race, nothing is farther from the truth. Then youd have to give two horses to two other agents (for their jockeys to ride), knowing youre not going to get those mounts back. This way, if youve got two riders and youve got the favorite and second favorite with Espinoza, you dont tell a trainer not to enter. You tell him, What about (riding) Desormeaux?
"I can see where having two riders in some ways has hurt the game. But in no way in no way has it hurt the entries. The agents want to get out of here at 10 oclock like everybody else. Were stuck here till two, three in the afternoon now (waiting for races to fill and entries to close). Agents are the ones who are going out and plucking horses to help fill the races.
"We dont need busting up agents with two riders, or fewer racing days. We need more horses. That is the simplest solution to the immediate problem, and there are two ways to go. The first is to give owners a tax break, like they did in the 1980s. The state, I believe, takes, takes, takes out of every dollar. Its always getting its piece of the action and not giving back. The way it gives back is through tax incentives to breeders. What it does for owners is terrific, but if no one is breeding horses, it doesnt matter if we have owners or not. There are no horses to own.
"With the stock market going so good the last few years, theres an abundance of money in that cage. People are hungry for horses. But there arent horses to buy or claim. Theyre just not there. The obvious answer is to breed more horses. Another answer is more subtle. Tracks now have liaisons (to horsemen), and they do a good job. They pass out programs, make sure owners have their passes, whatever. But it should be a much more in-depth job. They should be given an expense account to travel to Canada, Louisiana and New York, and bring a few of those stables to California. Weve got the best racing in the world. The purses are good, the weathers great.
"When racing is canceled for the winter in Western Canada because of inclement weather, those stables go to the Fair Grounds. Thats crazy. Send reps from Southern California up there, let them spend a little money, wine and dine these guys, and bring them to California. The myth was that out-of-town trainers couldnt win in California. Trainers like Stanley Hough and others who came here in the 80s got their clocks cleaned because they were racing against guys like (Charlie) Whittingham and Lazaro (Barrera). Im not saying its easy, because today youd have to race against guys like Baffert, Mandella and McAnally, and I dont want to trivialize our racing. Its still tough. But the guys who came here before got the idea that they didnt fit, and because of that, they didnt come back.
"The bottom line is, (Jerry) Hollendorfer fits. Hes got 160 horses. Why doesnt he have a 35-horse string in Southern California? It wouldnt deplete his stable. I can see stables going from Eastern Canada to Louisiana, but going from Western Canada makes no sense. But we have no one from California representing us in these areas. We used to have people in California all the time from Churchill Downs and Keeneland. Who did we lose to Kentucky? Christopher Speckert, Murray Johnson, Michael Stidham and strings of horses from Baffert and Lukas. We have no problem racing there. Why is nobody coming here? Its not the weather. The purses are great. Somebody has to show them a condition book, show them where their horses fit, show them that in the winter, the money is here."
OK, lets say new outfits come to California. Where will they be stabled?
"Once Hollywood Parks stable area is refurbished, and if area tracks Hollywood, Santa Anita, Del Mar, Fairplex, San Luis Rey Downs dont battle with one another, we could accommodate new stables," Silverstein said. "If an alliance is formed and there are 3,200 horses but room for only 1,800 (at Santa Anita), theres nothing in Southern California that cant be worked out. There used to be a problem with workmens comp being too expensive here. Now the rest of the countrys caught up with us.
"But this thinking that agents are killing racing is preposterous. Whats killing racing is no horses. Take a look at Hollywood (the show business industry), where the top agencies handle the top stars. They dont stop making movies because they cant get Mel Gibson. You get John Travolta. Same thing here. You dont enter a race because you cant get McCarron. You get Solis.
"We have great jockeys. We have great trainers. We have great owners. What we need are great horses."
Kent Desormeauxs 23-month-old son, Jacob, born deaf, had a second operation Jan.3 that could enable him to hear. The first was unsuccessful. "The internal device doctors put in Jacobs skull was supposed to last a lifetime, but after five weeks and after everything was supposed to be all healed, it didnt work and we had to start all over again, redo the surgery, take out the internal device and put in a new one," Desormeaux said. "Now we have that long, long wait again to find out if he can hear. What gives me hope is that they havent proven he cant hear yet through the device." . . . Neil Drysdale expects promising 3-year-old filly Freeforracing to run again later this year. The trainer says impressive turf winner Live Your Dreams will get a break and return for 3-year-old filly grass stakes. There are no plans to try the daughter of Mt. Livermore on the dirt. The Drysdale-trained Hawksley Hill, second in the Breeders Cup Mile in 1998 and 1999, is nominated to the $1 million Duty Free at 1 1/8 miles on the turf in Dubai on March 24 . . . Pat Valenzuela, eligible to reapply for a riding license on Feb. 11 after a years suspension, wont have trouble getting mounts. "Somebody will ride him," one horseman said. "They always do." . . . Eoin Harty is back in Dubai, where he will train his 3-year-olds, including Breeders Cup Juvenile third-place finisher Street Cry, for the Triple Crown. "They wont have any Kentucky Derby prep races in the United States," the former Baffert assistant said.