In racing, there's no vacation for exercise riders

April 08, 2008 7:00 PM
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Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Some say racing is a dying industry, but donít tell that to Diego Sotelo. He has earned a living at it for more than two decades, as one of thousands in a cast of faceless characters who work behind the scenes to keep the game alive.

Sotelo is an accomplished exercise rider, one of the men and women who put their lives in jeopardy to keep thoroughbreds racing ready. A horseís good health is but one of many pieces to a puzzle that must fuse together precisely in order to satisfy an uncompromising taskmaster.

An unfit horse, like an unfit athlete, cannot compete at its peak. A 140-pound rider astride a 1,000-pound animal with a strong head and spindly underpinnings risks life and limb every time he attempts to maintain his chargeís robust condition.

Sotelo, a 43-year-old native of Mexico, knows of the dangers first hand. A former bantamweight boxer who earned money by waxing supermarket floors before arriving at Santa Anita, Sotelo once escaped permanent paralysis.

"Iíve had lots of accidents," said Sotelo, currently plying his trade at Santa Anita, where trainer Jay Robbins is one of his main clients. "One time I was galloping a horse for A.C. Avila, and the horse flipped over and collapsed and I was paralyzed for a few hours. I could not feel my legs or my back. It was a little scary."

Yet he continued to exercise horses. Regrettably, it is all he knows, although he does supplement his fragile income by working as a parking lot attendant. Sotelo can earn between $800 and $1,400 a week on horses, but he says the only assured medical coverage he and his family receive is from the Teamsters, of which he is a member by way of his parking lot job.

"Iíve been exercising horses since I arrived from Mexico in 1986," Sotelo said. "I used to ride match races at quarter-mile tracks when I was seven years old. I came to the United States by accident and ended up staying. I had the knowledge of how to ride horses, although exercising them was a little different, because of the saddle and the galloping. Iíve worked for almost every trainer out here, including Wayne Lukas and Neil Drysdale.

"Some pay $12 a horse, some pay $15. I was the one who led the campaign to raise the price from $10 to $15 a few years ago (in 2004; his efforts got him banned from the track for a time). I exercise between 10 and 14 horses every day, seven days a week, and thatís really hard."

It is also dangerous, but through his steadfastness, it has enabled him to marry and raise a family. He and his wife, Kristyn, have three sons: Frank, 17, Robert, 15, and Diego Jr., 13.

Sotelo is not about to change careers now, but he does have his druthers, citing the lack of public acknowledgment and peer respect. Exercise riders, he says with justification, are the foot soldiers of their profession, infantrymen in the dark and dreary pre-dawn trenches who strain to gain inches in order that the Grants and MacArthurs can fly unencumbered towards gold and glory in the afternoons.

"People automatically assume itís the trainer and the jockey who make the horse a success," Sotelo said. "They donít recognize the exercise riders. They donít even know they exist. Racing is a team sport, and exercise riders are one of the most important parts of the team."

But if he had it to do over again, he wouldnít. The physical erosion takes its toll, to be sure, but itís the mental meltdown that can wither the most dedicated exercise rider.

"I enjoy it, but I wouldnít do it again," Sotelo said. "I would stay in school. Itís tough when you have to go seven days a week; extremely tough. You canít really take a vacation. Horses need to train every day. They donít know when itís a holiday."

The homestretch

Colonel John proved himself Kentucky Derby-worthy with a gritty half-length victory over tough-luck loser Bob Black Jack in the Santa Anita Derby. Trainer Eoin (pronounced Owen) Harty plans two workouts at Santa Anita for Colonel John before shipping the son of 2000 Horse of the Year Tiznow to Churchill Downs. There, he will have one workout prior to the Run for the Roses on May 3.

Colonel John has been magnificently turned out by the 45-year-old Harty in winning both the Sham Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby. If nothing else, he goes to Louisville "battle-tested." The same canít be said for 2-year-old champion War Pass, who bankrupted "bridge jumpers" with his last-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby as the 1-20 favorite. He took what I interpret as a tell-tale mini-misstep at the quarter pole before losing the Wood Memorial in the final strides.

If I were a betting man, and I am, you know, Iíd wager War Pass will not make it to the Derby. If he does, he wonít get my money.

ē How sweep it is: the Phillies, Flyers and 76ers all won last Friday, but bettors, remember this: no lead is safe with the Philliesí bullpen.