Most jocks only good as their horse, says trainer

Mar 18, 2003 4:16 AM

Jockeys have much in common. Most are under 5-6 and weigh less than 115 pounds.

But after the physical conformities, similarities end. Or do they?

Any gambler who knows the difference between a Beyer and a buyer knows he’ll get a better price on a horse with a lesser-known rider than he will with a big-name jock.

All things being equal, however, some trainers, whether they bet on their own horses or not, would just as soon ride an obscure jockey. Trainers like Lewis Cenicola don’t mind in the least giving a kid a break.

Cenicola did just that in the ninth race at Santa Anita on March 9, giving 19-year-old Juan Leyva a leg up on a maiden named The Borg Queen. The 3-year-old bounced home two lengths in front at 7-2, generous odds considering she had run second in her debut at the same level, despite being blocked entering the stretch.

She was in too deep in her next two races, maiden special weight events, but was back in for $40,000 when she won.

"Leyva rides good," said the 56-year-old Cenicola, himself a former jockey. "Lewie," as he is called by friends, was exercise rider for the legendary John Henry when the gelding was America’s hero in the early 1980s.

"People don’t realize it, but horses make jockeys and trainers," Cenicola said. "If you don’t have the stock, you can’t win races. You’ve got to have some horses in your barn that can run to try and win races, and it’s the same with riders.

"Sure, the lesser riders might get a horse in trouble more than the top riders, yet I see top riders get horses in trouble as well. The difference is, if Juan Leyva or Matt Garcia gets a horse in trouble, they (critics) say, ”˜Ahh, they can’t ride.’ But when (Gary) Stevens and (Laffit) Pincay and (Alex) Solis get one in trouble, nobody really says anything. They just say it’s bad luck. I rode races. You don’t have to tell me. I know the business."

And lately, business is good. Cenicola, who won only five races all of last year from 74 starters (.07 percent), won three races in one week early this month, not bad considering he only has 12 horses in training.

"I didn’t necessarily have to win those races," Cenicola said modestly, "but I felt the horses had a good chance because they were in logical spots. One filly was in for $25,000 against softer competition. The Borg Queen won for $40,000 after she had been running in maiden special weights. And the other winner was in the one hole first time he ran, the track was muddy, it was pouring rain and it was a bad experience for him. I put blinkers on him the next time and he ran a good race.

"It isn’t like you’re doing anything special, but you still have to be lucky to click."

HOMESTRETCH: If the Florida Derby was a fight, they would have stopped it. That’s how impressive Empire Maker was winning off by nearly 10 lengths to stamp himself as the worthy favorite for the May 3 Kentucky Derby. Rival trainers can make any excuses they want for their horses. Right now, they’re all running for second. Empire Maker could be the next Triple Crown winner. After vacillating about sending the colt straight to the Kentucky Derby or running next in the April 12 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Bobby Frankel said Sunday morning that Empire Maker would run in the Wood in his final prep for the Run for the Roses. Frankel’s other leading 3-year-olds, Louisiana Derby winner Peace Rules and Swale Stakes winner Midas Eyes, appear headed for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and the Derby Trial, respectively.

Trainers continue to pull up stakes in Southern California because it’s too expensive to train in the Golden State, mainly due to the exorbitant cost of workmen’s compensation premiums. Eric Kruljac has returned most of his stock to his home base, Turf Paradise in Phoenix, for one reason: economics. "I was losing money being paid $85 a day (per horse) in California," the 50-year-old trainer said, "but I was making $12 a day being paid only $40 (per horse) in Phoenix. The purses are far greater in Southern California, but still, we have to economize."