Loyalty?

Jun 27, 2006 5:24 AM

Would Elvis have become an icon without Col. Parker? Probably, but it never hurts to have an omniscient representative.

That applies in great measure to racing, where thick-skinned jockey agents regularly fend off brickbats of rejection from horsemen in an effort to get a gig for their riders.

Face it, horsemen can be as fickle as Hollywood lovers, and a good and loyal agent is hard to maintain. Kent Desormeaux had one for years in Gene Short, during their lengthy reign in Desormeaux’s glory years. Since Short, Desormeaux has gone through more agents than Liz Taylor has gone through husbands.

Kent’s most recent delegate was Jim Pegram, one of a large litter of Pegrams who earn their keep from the Sport of Kings. Jim abandoned his California environs to handle business for Desormeaux when the 36-year-old Hall of Fame jockey made a surprising career change and moved to the New York circuit last April.

Pegram, Californian to the core, recently had an amicable parting with Desormeaux and returned home, bringing jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. with him. Arroyo, a 29-year-old native of Puerto Rico, had been a fixture on the East Coast. But jockeys with better resumes than Arroyo have waded into the shark-infested waters of Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar and left with their tail between their legs. Hall of Famers Angel Cordero Jr. and Randy Romero come to mind.

In the popular and battle-tested Pegram, however, Arroyo has a leg up on a successful invasion.

"It helps when an agent has existing access to barns," Pegram said. "I found that out when I went to New York with Kent. When both an agent and a jock come from out-of-town to a new circuit, it’s twice as hard. Since I’ve been in Southern California before, it will help with Norberto, but the bottom line is, you’ve got to have a rider who has the talent, and this kid does."

Pegram met Arroyo one morning in the track kitchen at Aqueduct.

"We got to talking and I found he was a very nice kid," Pegram said. "He’s got a reputation as a bad boy but he’s really very nice. Me and Kent were fine. We had no problems. I just missed home and when this opportunity came up, I took it. New York was very good. The people there were very, very nice to me. I have no complaints at all about it, but it just wasn’t home."

Still, Pegram and Arroyo must find their niche in a business long on the tradition of quid pro quo.

"You have to find a rider who fits the horse and if he has a good agent, that’s a plus," says leading trainer Jeff Mullins. "It should help Jim that he’s been on this circuit before, but the agent has to be willing to work with you. I help agents who help me. If their jocks work my horses in the mornings, then they get to ride them. If an agent works my horse with the intention of riding it and then decides to ride another horse, he goes to the end of the line."

Mike Mitchell, one of California’s most successful trainers for more than three decades, says agent loyalty is important, but in the end, business is business.

"When it comes to the better races, agents throw loyalty right out the window, and I understand that," Mitchell said. "My barn is very successful in claiming races and I always run my horses where I think they can win, so in those races, I can pretty much get whichever rider I want. But in allowance and stakes races, it’s harder for me to get riders I want. I can’t blame that on lack of loyalty, because a jock’s agent has to find the best horse to ride.

"Jockeys and agents are a team. If I’m happy with the jock but his agent is spinning me (giving a call to two trainers in the same race), there are enough riders that I’ll be able to find one to ride for me. Jim Pegram is a good friend of mine, but right now I’m fine with the riders I have. I’d like to use Arroyo just because of Jim, and the kid seems like he’s a pretty good rider."

The homestretch

”¡ Hollywood Park, considered a lame duck by some since its sale by Churchill Downs, Inc. to Bay Meadows Land Company last September, will be the first California track to install a synthetic surface as mandated by the California Horse Racing Board on May 25. Hollywood announced last Wednesday it would begin work with Equestrian Surfaces of the United Kingdom to replace the existing main track at the conclusion of this meet on July 16. The surface, costing an estimated $8 million and known as "Cushion Track," will be in place when Hollywood’s stable area reopens in September.

"This investment in a new racing surface is consistent with our intention that Hollywood Park be operated on the basis that live racing will continue there indefinitely," said Terry Fancher, managing partner of Stockbridge Capital Partners, parent company of Bay Meadows Land Company.

That’s Fancher’s opinion, but at the CHRB meeting on June 22, it considered several alternatives should Hollywood and Bay Meadows close in the near future.

"There is no secret that two of our racetracks have been purchased and may be converted to alternative non-racing uses," said CHRB Chairman Richard Shapiro. "Given the possibility that two or possibly even more tracks could close sometime in the future, it is prudent for this industry to look at all options. The closure of some tracks could mean opportunities for others. We need to explore the opportunities for racing in other locations. We are not endorsing any one option. Personally, I hope Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows continue operating. But we do need to work together to ensure the continued prosperity of horse racing in California."

In the ensuing discussion, Fairplex Park presented a $100 million expansion project, justified only if it were granted a minimum of 20 weeks of racing (17 more than its current allotment). Management and potential investors in Los Alamitos already have discussed similar plans to expand that property and acquire thoroughbred racing dates, if Hollywood closes.

”¡ I don’t know why Americans were so upset by the 2-1 loss to Ghana in the World Cup. They covered.