Jocks ride off into sunset, but scenery is the same

Nov 19, 2002 8:21 AM

   The more things change, the more they stay the same.

   Take the Southern California jockey colony, for instance.

   Chris McCarron retired in June. The status of Eddie Delahoussaye’s career is on hold pending an MRI early next month for injuries suffered in a Del Mar spill on Aug. 30; Gary Stevens and his arthritic knees are working on the movie, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” until Santa Anita opens Dec. 26; Garrett Gomez has dropped from the scene “for personal reasons;” Brice Blanc is “testing the waters” in Kentucky; Laffit Pincay Jr. turns 57 on Dec. 29; and Pat Valenzuela is serving suspension time until Nov. 24.

   Such attrition should open doors for riders toiling in racing’s underground. Not so, says Ignacio Leonardo Puglisi, a jockey who makes a decent living but who rides in major stakes races about as often as Allen Iverson leads the NBA in assists.

   “In this business, things go up and down,” said the 28-year-old Puglisi, who was born in Rosario, Argentina, but who resides in Duarte, a few furlongs from Santa Anita. “When some riders leave, new faces show up, like Tony Lovato and Julie Krone. You’d think when a rider retires or leaves, there would be a trickle-down effect and open up mounts, but my business always stays about the same. I seem to make the same amount of money every year.”

   Puglisi--call him Iggy--recently returned to the saddle after a serious spill at Los Alamitos 11 months ago. He feels fortunate to have retained his former clients.

   “I wasn’t sure how quickly I’d be able to rebound after I was hurt,” Puglisi said. “But the same trainers I’d been riding for--Josh Litt, Paul Aguirre--put me back on their horses. But I don’t think my business is going to improve a whole lot because of the present void in the jocks’ room. It’s not like I’m suddenly going to be riding stakes horses. That doesn’t seem to happen unless the major stakes riders are out of town, or unless one of the trainers you’re riding for comes up with a nice (stakes) horse he’ll put you on, a horse like Asong for Billy (claimed by Aguirre and elevated into stakes company). He’s not the greatest horse in the world, but he’s a good horse.”

   Like other jockeys of his ilk, the articulate Puglisi admits that politics and personalities, and not necessarily riding ability, play a part in getting good mounts.

   “I think a guy can get branded as a certain type of rider when he arrives on the scene,” said Puglisi, at 5-7 second to Paul Atkinson as the tallest rider in the colony. “That can happen if you don’t prove yourself immediately, or if things go wrong. You become known as a sprint rider, a dirt rider, a claiming rider, or a turf rider, and that can be completely overrated. Basically, I think winning races has a lot more to do with the horse than the jockey, but that’s a matter of opinion.”

   But it’s never easy when Puglisi rides a longshot to a good finish, then loses the mount to a “name” rider next time the horse starts.

   “That’s part of the business,” he said. “When I first broke into this circuit I was riding anything they would put me on, and I’d ride hard for third or fourth or fifth money, which I still do, when other jockeys didn’t want to waste their time on those kind of mounts. Now, everybody’s riding those kind of races.

   “I was talking with Mike Smith when we had that delay because of the power outage (on Nov. 11 before Hollywood Park’s eighth race, which eventually was canceled). I was joking around, asking him what he was doing riding in a maiden 25 ($25,000 claiming race), because he gets to ride so many good horses. He just kind of laughed at me.

   “But guys like Mike are riding pretty much anything now, and that effects jockeys like myself, who don’t get the opportunities we got five or six years ago.”

   Still, playing second fiddle causes frustration. But Puglisi maintains perspective.

   “I always think back to the days when I rode in Calgary,” Puglisi said. “The weather would be terrible, snowing all the time, and you never got to ride a really good horse. So, sure, you become frustrated here at times, but I’d rather be second-string here than doing a bit better somewhere else. I’m doing OK here, anyway, but I can just imagine what the big guys earn. I think I make a pretty decent living for doing what I love. I work a couple of horses in the morning, then ride a few in the afternoon. I’m a little busier at Hollywood and Pomona (than Santa Anita), but riding in Southern California is worth it. I can’t believe what they pay me.”

GOLDEN PICKS

   EXCESSIVE PLEASURE--Juvenile son of prolific In Excess won from rail at first asking for red-hot trainer Doug O’Neill. Stay on for the ride.

   GHOSTZAPPER--Rich get richer: owned by Frank Stronach and trained by Bobby Frankel, this 2-year-old showed stakes potential in winning his debut as he pleased. The only reason he paid $25 to win was because Frankel rode Jose Valdivia Jr., a jock he rarely, if ever, uses.

   STRATUS--Argentine-bred colt outran his odds in U.S. debut for Darrell Vienna, will pay his way in turf routes.