Keith Jones

Dick Jerardi is an award winning sports writer as well as a radio/television host and commentator, and is arguably best known for covering the sport of Horse Racing.

Though his work as a journalist at The Philadelphia Daily News, Dick has covered every Triple Crown race since 1987 (he is a five-time winner of theRed Smith Award for Kentucky Derby coverage). Dick Jerardi famously chronicled the remarkable Smarty Jones during the Triple Crown chase of 2004 s the Thoroughbred won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes for trainer John Servis.

Since 2011 Jerardi has been an on-air analyst for the live television broadcasts of The Pennsylvania Derby from Parx Racing, most recently for NBC Spots Philadelphia.

Many fans know of Dick Jerardi’s work from the long running Let’s Go Racing TV program where he works alongside fellow Parx Hall of Fame members Keith Jones and producer Bruce Casella.

Dick also continues to provide color commentary for the live broadcasts of Penn State basketball.


ECLIPSE WINNERS BACK AT PARX

BY Dick Jerardi

Kyle Frey won 153 races and the Eclipse Award as leading apprentice jockey in 2011. Luis Ocasio won 110 races and the Eclipse Award as leading apprentice in 2016. Each was based at Parx during his championship season.

Both riders had been riding at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California until last fall. Proving you can go home again, Ocasio returned to Parx to ride in mid-October. Frey came back a month later.

When Frey came in 2011, he was not well known. That changed quickly.

“Originally, my agent Mark North who was at Golden Gate Fields, told me: “hey, kid, you’re a good rider, I’ve got some friends back east, I think if we go out there, we might not get the Eclipse Award, but they’ll know you’re there,”” Frey said.

They quickly knew he was there and he did get that Eclipse Award.

“I really liked it,” Frey said. “I’m a little more East Coast so it was cool.”

After he broke his femur, he went home to recover in Northern California. Then, he decided to stay and ride at Golden Gate.

“Being around family and friends, had a good little bit of money behind me,” Frey said.

He started riding at Golden Gate Fields. He did so well on some of trainer Doug O’Neill’s horses that O’Neill asked him to come ride for him in Southern California.

“That’s a really good guy,” Frey said of O’Neill.

That Southern California exposure helped Frey get mounts on better horses. He won the 2018 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on Blended Citizen, the 2017 El Camino Real at Golden Gate on Zakaroff and the 2017 Iowa Oaks at Prairie Meadows on Shane’s Girlfriend.

But he missed Parx.

“I love it,” he said, “It’s just like coming home.”

Frey did not have to introduce himself this time,

“I’ve got a lot of friends over here,” he said.

When he goes to Penn National to ride, everybody in the jocks’ room calls him Justin Bieber. There is a definite resemblance.

“It’s really heartwarming to get that kind of reaction,” Frey said, with a laugh.

He’s been riding for some top Parx trainers, including John Servis, Tyler Servis, Carlos Guerrero and Lou Linder.

Ocasio still remembers getting that Eclipse Award.

“That’s the best moment that happened in my career,” he said.

Ocasio went to jockeys’ school in his native Puerto Rico. He rode a few months there and then came to Parx. He tried Golden Gate, but like Frey, decided to “go home.”

His business has picked up little by little. Trainers definitely remembered his terrific 2016.

“The second week back, I won two races,” Ocasio said.

Frey’s mounts have more $15 million during his career; Ocasio’s $7.3 million. Frey has won more than 700 races. Ocasio is closing on 300.

FAMILY AFFAIR AT THE PENNY PEARCE BARN

BY Dick Jerardi

Penny Pearce and her husband Augustin Solis had been working for other trainers, with the occasional horse of their own when she decided “I didn’t want to work for other people anymore.’’

So, now in Barn 27 at the end of the Parx stable area nearest the seven-furlong chute, it is Pearce, her husband and their two sons, Philip and J.D., working with their 12 horses.

“My husband and I got a couple of our own and it kept growing and growing and growing,’’ Pearce said. “Pretty soon, he stopped working for somebody else and we just work together now.’’
It was 2012 when Pearce first took out her trainer’s license.

“We had a really good year that first year and we said: `This is easy,’’’ Pearce said. “This job will humble you. You might have a good year one year and the next year might not be so good.’’
That is, in essence, the world of the race tracker. Horses are unpredictable.

“You take the good with the bad and you just keep rolling with it,’’ Pearce said.

The good would include the mare Natalie La Rose who was in and out Pearce’s barn three times because she kept claiming her back after losing her.

“She’s just got a heart,’’ Pearce said. She just a race horse. She’s not very nice to work with, typical mare, but she just loves her job.’’

Natalie La Rose was claimed off Pearce again on Nov. 30 by owner John Fanelli and leading Parx trainer Joe Taylor.
It might be a business, but Penny Pearce is one trainer who gets and stays attached to her horses, even when she no longer has them.

“You can ask my husband,’’ she said. “Sometimes, I can’t even go the paddock when they claim them. Like I’m tearing up now. That’s my main problem. I fall in love…You have to because if you didn’t love the horses, you shouldn’t be in this business. And if you are in this business and you don’t love the horses, you have no business being in this business.’’

A visit to the Pearce barn makes it obvious they all love the horses.

“My son Philip does just about everything,’’ Pearce said. “He walks, he grooms, he ponies horses in the afternoon. Hopefully, after this winter, he’ll be galloping too. He works really hard. It’s just the four of us. It’s nice.’’

When they go home, there is no horse talk. That is left for the time they spend together each day at the barn.
Pearce said her husband is the backbone of the operation. He is at the barn from 4 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. every day.
The family owns 70 percent of the horses in their barn which means they get to call all the shots.

“I decided over the years I’m just going to train for the people I like,’’ Pearce said. “The owners that I do have are really good owners.’’
The racing math works much better for owner/trainers when they win.

“If you win a race for your owner, you only get 10 percent of the pie.’’ Pearce said. “If you do it for yourself, you get it all.’’
Like so many around the track, Pearce was born into it.

“I’m a race track brat,’’ she said. “My dad trained horses. He was a blacksmith. My brother’s still a blacksmith down in New Mexico. That’s where I’m from. So you’re just kind of born and raised into this business and it’s kind of what you just do. You love the horses, you love the business. It’s like the biggest adrenaline rush in the world. There’s nothing like getting a horse ready, getting them to the races and watching them do good.’’

PARX TAKEOUT REDUCED FOR 2020

By Dick Jerardi

It is no secret that big bettors have avoided Parx Racing trifecta and superfecta pools because the 30 percent takeout was simply too high, well above the industry standard of 25 percent for those bets.

That will change in 2020 when the tri and super takeout is lowered to 25 percent. Takeout on Pick 3 and pick 4 bets will be lowered from 26 percent to 25 percent. The 17 percent on win, place and show as well as the 20 percent on exactas and doubles will be unchanged, those two percentages much more in line with industry standards.

“We do a lot of things for the horsemen, but we also have other people who participate,” said Sal DeBunda, President of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (PTHA). “Besides selling programs and hot dogs and sodas and having a spectacle here, we sell bets. If we don’t sell enough bets, we’re not going to be able to pay for a lot of what we do here.

“Over the years, we’ve tried to find more and more ways to sell more bets. We’ve been working with the frontside and we’ve finally come to an agreement that we’re going to try something different. We’re going to lower the takeout on some of the bets that are made here in hopes that will attract more bettors to Parx races rather than other jurisdictions.”

It is also no secret that huge computer-generated bets are responsible for a significant percentage of the annual handle on North American race tracks. Lowering the takeout could attract more of that market. At the very least, it is going to put more money back in the pockets of the winners who then will have more money to bet into other pools and other races.

“We want to attract the major bettors,” DeBunda said. “Right now, there’s a lot of publicity that’s put out by the Horseplayers’ Association about what tracks have the largest takeout. We seem to be on the top of that Hit Parade and I think this step will signal we are willing to take less takeout and hopefully generate more bets.”

Serious studies have been done on the effect of lower takeouts. Circumstances change from track to track. How much the takeout is lowered and on what bets obviously matters. The bottom line for any racetrack and therefore its horsemen who depend on handle for purse revenue is: can enough handle be generated to offset what was a higher percentage of the bets retained?

Time will tell how it is going to work at Parx. The status quo was likely going to be unsustainable so this certainly seems a worthwhile experiment that came out of discussions between Parx Chief Operating Officer Joe Wilson and PTHA Executive Director Mike Ballezzi.

“It’s a fantastic move by Joe Wilson and Mike Ballezzi,” horse owner Bob Hutt said. “Anytime you lower takeout, less is more. I think you are going to see a lot more action from all over the country by lowering the takeout. I am a player and I am very happy about it.”

Joe Taylor, leading trainer at Parx in 2019, agrees.

“I think it’s a great idea, the new takeout,” he said. “You have a lot of gamblers across the country who are avoiding betting at Parx because of the big takeout. I think it’s going to induce a lot of play and raise our handle immensely. I think it’s a very big deal.”

It should especially help on Mondays and Tuesdays when Parx is competing with smaller tracks for handle, noted owner Victor Collazo.

“We’re really excited about the new year coming,” mutuel teller Debbie Reyes said. “When our customers are wagering they’re going to get paid more money so everyone is going to be much happier.”

It was also no secret that the Parx handle would go down when slot machines were introduced which is why, by law, the purses were supplemented by slots revenue. That has certainly helped make Parx one of the country’s true success stories for a decade.

The horsemen, however, do not get a share of casino table games or sports betting, so growing the betting handle is essential.

“We really need to get the word out (about the lower takeout),” DeBunda said. “If we don’t tell the bettors to look at this, it won’t make any difference.”

So the word will get out. Time and the bettors will tell how it affects the bottom line.

From Top Jockey to Top Agent

By Dick Jerardi

Josiah “Joe” Hampshire rode horses for 33 years. He was top 10 in wins from 2000-02. His 300 wins in 2002 were third best in the United States. His career began in 1982 and ended in 2014. In between, he rode 23,314 races, with 3,801 wins, 3,278 seconds, 3,139 thirds and mount earnings of $44,567,367.

So, why if he has not been riding for five years is the retired jockey seen just about every morning in the Parx racing office? He is now winning races “through” apprentice rider Felix Pinero and journeyman Mychel Sanchez, who has been in a year-long battle with Frankie Pennington for leading rider at Parx. Sanchez is a terrific talent, but he picked the right agent, a man who understands the game like someone who has lived it since he was 14.

“As a young kid, I was a good athlete in school,” Hampshire remembered. “Didn’t really care for school too much so I decided that I wanted to be a jockey.

“My father got a Lexington, Kentucky phone book and the next thing I know I was supposed to go to Bishop Neumann High school; instead I went to Keeneland Race Track.”

He grew up in South Philly where there obviously were no horse farms or racetracks. He just had this desire.

“Leaving my family at 14 was tough,” Hampshire said. “I remember I was really scared, but I was very fortunate to hook up with a guy named John Ward who kind of took me under his wing and made sure I was okay. After a little while, I was very comfortable there.”

Hampshire had a great mentor, as Ward, who trained 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, was a legendary horseman in Kentucky.

Hampshire’s first race was at Beulah Park in Ohio. He remembered being in “a panic” when he weighed 112 pounds that day. For his second race, he weighed 101.

He was an apprentice rider at what was then called Keystone in 1983. He rode at his home track until 1989 when he took off for Boston and Suffolk Downs.

“Things just snowballed for me,” Hampshire said. “I ended up winning 18 riding titles there. I came back here in 2004. I was successful until (2014). I had a real good career doing this and I wouldn’t change anything.”

When he decided to end his riding career, Hampshire did what was natural. He became an agent, showing young jockeys what he had learned for all those years.

“It’s pretty much the only thing I know how to do,” Hampshire said of his decision to become an agent.

Sanchez asked Hampshire to take his book right after he lost his apprentice allowance.

“We worked really hard, mostly to his credit,” Hampshire said. “Now, we’re one of the top guys.”

Hampshire’s favorite horse to ride was the great sprinter Fire Plug, one of the best ever stabled at Parx, winner of 28 races out of 54 starts from 1986 to 1991.

“I think I rode him eight times,” Hampshire said. “I think I had six stakes wins on him. He was my first real good horse and he just sticks in my heart.”

He actually rode Fire Plug 15 times and won eight stakes, but the point is the point. Fire Plug was a very cool horse who was trained by the late Bob Camac. Horse and trainer are both in the Parx Hall of Fame.

“Bobby was great with me,” Hampshire said. “He treated me like a son. Back in those days, I was kind of a wild kid. Bob stuck with me and put me on a lot of good horses. Bob was an excellent horseman. If I ever needed to go to a sale to buy a horse, that’s the guy I would want with me.”

And, if you ever needed a jockey to win a race or an agent who could put his rider on the right horse, Joe Hampshire was and is a great choice.

He has been around the track forever and is the perfect spokesperson for why it means so much to those who love it.

“We race here all year round, our purses are great, we’ve got a lot of benefits for the horsemen here,” Hampshire said. “Turning for Home is probably one of the greatest organizations in horse racing, the horses that they retire. It’s just a good place to be… I love Parx. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else and I’ll be here until I can’t be here anymore.”

Longtime Parx Steward John Hicks Grew Up in the Game

By Dick Jerardi

John Hicks grew up right near Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire. There was no chance he was not going to be in horse racing. His father started as groom, became a trainer and then a steward at the “Rock” among other tracks.

“I was around the racetrack my whole life,” Hicks said. “I followed in his footsteps.”

There really was no doubt.

“This was it,” Hicks said.

Hicks has memories from a time when the New England circuit was thriving with racing at Rockingham, Suffolk Downs (Boston), Green Mountain (Vermont) and the Massachusetts fair circuit.

“It was a lot of fun,” Hicks said of his early days on the track. “You got to go to the barn as a young kid back then, play with the goats and the horses. Messing around the backside was a little different back then. We behaved ourselves. Summers up there (at Rockingham) were like Saratoga. Summertime in New Hampshire, it was a lot of fun.”

Hicks has been a Parx steward since 2001 after working as a racing official in South Florida for 20 years.

He got his start like his dad, working on the backstretch.

“I worked for Vinnie Blengs walking horses in the summer,” Hicks said. “Worked my way down to South Florida and then worked my way up here.”

Hicks is employed by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission after his long run in Florida.

“It was a little challenge being back in the northeast,” Hicks said. “You had to readjust to the weather, but the people are the same. You see the same people. Doesn’t matter where you are, Northeast, West Coast, South Florida. You always cross paths with somebody you know. It’s been a lot of fun being here, enjoyable.”

Being around the game as long as Hicks has, you have seen some really good horses. He specifically remembers Timely Writer, a New England star capable of winning big races anywhere and Royal Ski, owned by Boston Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers.

He remembers not only the horses, but the feeling that was engendered just by hanging at the track.

“The summers were a blast, playing softball, hanging out at the lake,” Hicks said.

Sadly, the New England circuit is just a memory now.

Hicks not only worked at Gulfstream Park, Calder and Hialeah, he was also a state steward at Pompano Park, a harness track.
During his Florida run, Hicks saw all the great horses and trainers that would come down from New York every winter.

“All the big trainers, Woody Stephens, Billy Turner, all those guys were down there, you saw all those great horses all the time,” Hicks remembered. “We had a great time. Although you worked six days a week and you were there from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, but you had a blast.”

When Hicks’ dad became a state steward at Calder, John became a claims clerk in the office at 19-years-old. He’s been on the track ever since.

Stewards, like referees and umpires, generally don’t have fan clubs. Hicks understands.

“The public is the main thing for us,” Hicks said. “We want to make sure that the public gets a fair shake. We’re there to make sure of that. We do get some angry phone calls or letters from time to time.

“But we try to do what’s right and we try to do the best for the fan, for the owner, for the jock, for the trainer, for everybody involved.”

The most controversial recent decision the Parx stewards had to make was after the 2018 Grade I Cotillion Stakes when Mike Smith on runner-up Midnight Bisou claimed foul against winner Monomoy Girl and Florent Geroux. The stewards eventually decided to disqualify Monomoy Girl and place her second.

“When you always have big races like that, you want to make sure you can put (camera) shots together if there’s an incident in the race,” Hicks said. “You want to adjudicate the race just like you would any other race any other day. I mean a million dollars is a lot, but some of these people are running for $25,000-$30,000, and that’s a lot of money to them too. So we want to make sure we take the care for every single race.”

BROTHER CHUB WINS $100,000 CLAIMING CROWN EXPRESS

By Dick Jerardi

When Kasey K Racing won a two-way shake for the right to pay $12,500 to claim Brother Chub on March 7, 2017 at Parx, they were hoping for a horse that could maybe win a few Jersey-Bred races at Monmouth Park and a few claiming races at Parx.

What they got was a horse that had a small fracture in his pelvis and needed three months off.

What Kasey K’s Bob and Sue Krangel and partner Mike Day along with trainer Michael Moore ultimately got was one of the hardest-trying horses in Parx history and 53 weeks after just losing the Claiming Crown Express at Gulfstream Park in 2018, a Claiming Crown Express winner on Dec. 7, 2019.

“Last year, he was in front right after the wire,” Moore said. “This year, we win by a nose and hold off the other horse right at the wire. It was nice to go all the way back down there and win it.”

In 2018, Brother Chub lost by a neck to John Servis trainee Appealing Future so it was a Claiming Crown Parx exacta.

All Brother Chub has done since the claim is win 12 races to go along with 11 seconds from 28 starts and earn $430,000.

“The horse is incredible,” Moore said. “He tries every time.”

Brother Chub has that old-school late-running style. And he cuts it close. Only one of his wins for the connections have been by more than a length.

Eight have been by a head and the biggest one was by that nose.

Krangel had actually put in a claim for Brother Chub two races prior to the one where they got him. They got outshook that day for $10,000.
After they did win that shake for $12,500, they had the obvious reaction.

“Well, we’re screwed here,” Moore remembered thinking. “This horse is not going to be any good.”

They gave Brother Chub time to heal and the horse came back running hard. The soon to be 8-year-old has not stopped running hard for more than two years.

Brother Chub was eligible for those starter allowances for horses that had run for a $12,500 claiming price or less from 2017 to 2019. And that has been pure gold. The horse has long since outrun any claiming labels.

Krangel has had a few nice horses and big days in the game. He purchased Afleet Again for $75,000 in September 2011 and, two months later, the horse won the $500,000 Breeders’ Cup Marathon with trainer Butch Reid. Kasey K claimed Hello Lover for $7,500 in 2012. The horse won nine races and more than $300,00 after the claim.

“This Brother Chub is off the charts,” Krangel said.

Indeed, he is.

“A lot of times, I say I wish they were all like him because that would make it easy, but, on the other hand, if they were all like him, you wouldn’t appreciate horses like that because most are not like him,” Moore said.

Brother Chub will time out from running in those starter races next year so Moore sees some Jersey-Bred stakes in his future. The horse will always be eligible for the Claiming Crown Express as that is for horses that have started for an $8,000 claiming price lifetime.

“We’ve been doing this for 15 years and we’re so in love with him personality wise and everything,” Krangel said. “He’s just so special. I can’t get over him.”

Sue comes to the barn from their New Jersey home several times a week and spends an hour or so hanging with Brother Chub and some of their other horses, most trained by Moore and some by Kate DeMasi.

Brother Chub has given the owners and trainer so many wonderful moments in a game where the moments are everything.

“That’s what horse racing is and that’s why people love it and that’s why it gives you such a high,” Moore said. “I always say this game has so much frustration and setbacks; if winning a race didn’t feel so good, nobody would do it.”

BRICKS AND MORTAR OR MITOLE

By Dick Jerardi

You know it’s been an unusual year when Horse of the Year voting will come down to a grass horse or a sprinter. No Triple Crown winners like American Pharoah or Justify. No dominant older dirt horses like California Chrome or Gun Runner.

Just an unbeaten in 2019 five-time Grade I winner in great turf horse Bricks and Mortar or a once-beaten four-time Grade I winner in great sprinter Mitole who was versatile enough to win the most prestigious Mile race in America.

I am not sure there is any right or wrong vote here, but, judging by the polling after the Breeders’ Cup, it certainly looks like Bricks and Mortar is going to win when the votes are counted and eventually announced at the Eclipse Awards in January. Bricks and Mortar is going to be my vote and that is no reflection on Mitole.

Beyond having an amazing 2019, it was perhaps even more amazing that Bricks and Mortar made it back to the races at all following a career-threatening right hind leg condition that required surgery by Dr. Larry Bramlage.

Bricks and Mortar probably would have been unbeaten in a brilliant three-year-old season in 2017 were it not for two troubled trips in his final two races when he finished third.

After the surgery, trainer Chad Brown brought the horse back very slowly and brought him back even better than when he left.

Bricks and Mortar won an optional claimer in December after a 14-month layoff. It seemed rather audacious to make the horse’s next start and first of 2019 in the Pegasus Turf at Gulfstream Park. Brown, however, knew exactly what he had and what he was doing.

Bricks and Mortar, under Irad Ortiz, his rider all year, won convincingly. Then he won at Fair Grounds, Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Arlington Park and, finally, at Santa Anita Park, picking off the Muniz Memorial, the Turf Classic, the Manhattan, the Arlington Million and the Breeders’ Cup Turf over distances ranging from 1 mile to a mile and a half.

In the BC Turf, Bricks and Mortar was stuck in traffic much of the race, surrounded by inferior horses. When he finally got a clear run in the stretch, the five-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway had to make up a few lengths in the final hundred yards to run down 51-1 United just before the wire. It was the perfect ending to a perfect campaign.

Brown had expressed reservations about the mile and a half BC distance, but, in the end, decided to give perhaps his greatest horse a chance. And Bricks and Mortar, who raced in January, March, May, June, August and November, delivered with one final reminder of how consistently great he had been all year.

Mitole raced seven times in 2019 with six wins and a third. The four-year-old son of Eskendereya (interestingly a son of Giant’s Causeway) won at Oaklawn Park (twice), Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Saratoga and, finally, Santa Anita Park, winning the Count Fleet, Churchill Downs, Metropolitan Mile, Forego and Breeders’ Cup Sprint over distances between 6 furlongs and 1 mile.

His lone loss, a third behind Imperial Hint in the Vanderbilt at Saratoga, can be excused in two ways. Mitole was caught up in a speed duel on a dead rail and had the misfortune of running against Imperial Hint when the “Little Rocket Ship” set the track record for 6 furlongs at Saratoga.

Otherwise, Mitole was perfect, versatile enough to hold off McKinzie in the Met Mile and brave enough to run down the supersonic Shancelot in the BC Sprint.

Mitole’s season was absolutely Horse of the Year worthy, but Bricks and Mortar was just a bit better in races that were a touch more prestigious. So Bricks and Mortar gets my vote, but not without a lot of thought as to just how good Mitole was in 2019.

CARLOS MERCADO, THE SINGING JOCKEY AGENT

By Dick Jerardi

When he was growing up in his native Puerto Rico, Carlos Mercado was drawn to the sights and sounds of the racetrack on the island, El Commandante (now Camarero), 20 minutes outside San Juan.

“My mom brought me to the racetrack for the first time when I was a young kid,” Mercado said. “I loved the horses, the jockeys, the trainers.”

He wanted to be a rider, but became too big too fast and had to be content with galloping a few horses on the beach in his late teen years.

“That was my dream,” Mercado said. “I was so heavy. I dropped weight to 129, but one day I passed out.”

That was the sign he was not going to be a jockey.

“In my beginnings, I was a singer in Puerto Rico,” Mercado said.

So he sang Merengue and Reggaeton while plotting a way to be part of horse racing.

“I couldn’t be a rider so I said, ‘I need to be on the racetrack; work with the riders,’” Mercado remembered. “I said I’m going to be an agent. I enjoy my work. When they’re riding, I’m riding.”

He represented many of the better riders in Puerto Rico, but he wanted more.

“If I stay here, I’ll never win a Kentucky Derby,” Mercado said to himself. “I’ll never win a Breeders’ Cup. Big races.”

When he came to Parx in 2010, he started with Roberto Rosado and Luis Hiraldo. Now, he has Dexter Haddock and Anthony Nunez. They are just names to most people, but in Mercado’s world, Haddock is “The Black Panther” and Nunez “The Golden Boy”.

“I am the kind of person that wants to promote my riders differently,” Mercado said. “I love to give them funny names because when you promote something different then people say ‘oh, I like that.’”

When one of his riders wins a race, Mercaco puts out videos with music on Facebook. Like he said, he’s different.

“I think you need to create new things because the world is moving different every day,” Mercado said.

He also does the grunt work.

“I am the kind of person, I get to my house, I’m working hard on the condition book, watching replays; I’m different,” Mercado said.

He is definitely that.

Mercado has worked with Haddock since the jockey’s career began in 2017. Haddock has already won 211 races and his mounts have earned nearly $6 million.

“I go to Puerto Rico and one rider said, ‘I got a kid for you, this kid is humble, hard working in the morning,’” Mercado remembered.

So he watched Haddock, knew instinctively he was going to be good and brought him to Parx.

“I said, ‘this kid’s got it,’” Mercado said.

The kid has it: Haddock was Leading Apprentice Jockey at Parx that first year.

Mercado picked up Nunez after he lost his bug.

“I watched Anthony for a long time when he was a bug,” Mercado said. “When he lost the bug, the agent fired him. I said. ‘the agent is crazy, this guy is going to be a good rider.’”

Starting in 2017 like Haddock, Nunez has 76 career wins and $2 million in mount earnings. He is closing on $1 million in 2019. Agent and jockey have been together for just six months.

“I love working,” Mercado said. “I don’t sleep.”

Actually, he thinks he sleeps about five hours per night.

“I’m working on the condition book until 1 o’clock in the morning and I wake up like 5:30,” Mercado said.

And then he heads to Parx to talk to trainers to get his jockeys some mounts in races so they can win and he can put their performances to music.

SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HORSE AND RIDER

By Dick Jerardi

Luis Villanueva has ridden three winners in 2019. Each has been on three-year-old Pennsylvania-Bred filly I’m the Talent, including her first win in her first start on April 22 at Parx, the race that gave trainer Scott Lake his 6,000th victory.

“I’m the Talent, she came in, she was this little ratty-looking thing, looked like she’s been turned out in Siberia,” Lake said. “Villanueva was getting on her the whole time, he was the only one ever getting on her. She got a shin, she got a foot problem, she got a little crabby behind, she had all these little issues going on, but he always took his time with her, really liked her.”

Her first couple breezes, Lake said, were just okay. Villanueva, however, kept telling Lake she could run. Lake wasn’t so sure.

“Can I ride her when she runs?” Villanueva asked.

“You know what?” Lake told him. “I’ll let you ride her when she runs. I ended up working her with one of my good horses and she outworked him by five or six lengths.”

Now, Lake knew what his exercise rider already knew. I’m the Talent had talent.

Did he still want an exercise rider/jockey who rarely rides in races anymore to ride the filly in a race?

“Man, I committed to him and I’m a loyal guy,” Lake said.

So, Villanueva rode I’m the Talent in her debut, a dominating 6 3/4 length win. Trainer and rider ended up smiling together in a historic winner’s circle picture—Lake’s 6,000th career training victory.

“It was a nice thing,” Villaneuva said of getting to ride Lake’s 6,000th winner. “Yeah, it’s a special feeling and thanks to Lake and the owner for giving me the opportunity.”

I’m the Talent and Villanueva have gone on to win two allowance races and also finish second in a stake and second in another allowance. Villanueva’s 11 mounts in 2019 have earned $140,777, with all but $5,587 on I’m the Talent.

Villanueva has ridden in 1,164 races. His best year was his first, 2012, when he won 63 times, with mount earnings of $1.4 million. From 2016 to 2018, he won just three races, not because he did not have the ability to win, but because he just was content exercising horses in the morning.

“He’s a very capable rider,” Lake said. “He’s got good hands. I didn’t really know him until he started working for me, but I think his work ethic wasn’t the best early on and that kind of hurt his career.”

Which makes him not so different than many young jockeys. It’s a demanding sport and it’s often hard to understand the demands when you’re young.

So, Villanueva has carved out a living as one of Lake’s exercise riders and, when needed, one of his jockeys.

In the fall of 2018, Zafiro Azul just wasn’t running well for Lake.

“Lake, let me ride her, let me ride her,” Villanueva asked.

He let him ride her and she promptly won her last two races of 2018. Villanueva has ridden her in all five 2019 starts. She finished second in a March race, but has not hit the board since. Those 2018 wins, however, still resonate.

So does that 6,000th win.

“He’s a good kid, really quiet,” said Lake of his exercise rider/occasional jockey. “He’s a really good hand in the morning.”

And, when needed, quite capable of getting a horse out of the starting gate into the winner’s circle.

I’m the Talent came out of her last race on Oct. 15 with a shin issue so she will be out for five to six months.

When she’s ready to run again, Lake will have a decision to make about who rides her. But he knows at least one jockey who gets along quite well with the filly.

Kirby Family Tradition Moves To Parx

John F. Kirby trained horses for decades; the last one, according to Equibase, was in 1999. Timothy Kirby began to train horses in 1991. And most recently, John Timothy Kirby, 22, took out his trainer’s license in 2017.

John T. Kirby’s grandfather and father were fixtures at the New England tracks for years – Suffolk Downs, Rockingham Park, Narragansett, Lincoln Downs, old track names right out of “The Sting”. One by one, those tracks shut down, but the memories of the John F. Kirby-trained African Prince and But Jim remain. So do those of that hard-trying mare African Princess, trained by Tim Kirby.

The Kirby family farm in Dover, Massachusetts, 30 minutes south of Boston, is down from 40 acres to 15. Where 50 broodmares and racehorses once roamed and the family’s foundation sire Sundance Ridge once stood is still home to John T. Kirby’s grandmother, mother and sister. But the horses are gone.

John and his dad Tim, however, are still training horses, now at Parx Racing with a small stable of seven between them. They have won just three races this year, but the Kirbys have proved through the years if they get good horses, they will run for them.

“When Rockingham closed, that was unfortunately the beginning of the end (of racing in New England),” John Kirby said, while standing near his horses in Barn 6. “When Suffolk Downs was denied casino gambling, that was about it for us.”

That’s when they sold part of the family farm and moved to Pennsylvania.

“We recovered and we’re here now,” John said.

He knows the family history even though much of it happened before he was born. African Prince, a Mass.-Bred like almost all of the family’s horses, was the best horse they ever had. The son of Liberty Hall won five stakes at Suffolk in the mid-1980s, one by 8 lengths, another by 20 lengths. Sadly, just at his very peak, African Prince, who had a stakes race named in his honor at Suffolk, was injured in a race on April 21, 1986 and had to be put down.

“He was an orphan foal,” John said. “We had our driveway at the farm repaved. He actually was let loose and followed my dad and grandfather around. We still have his hoofprints in our driveway.”

But Jim, a son of Mass.-Bred legend Rise Jim, raced 89 times at the Rock and Suffolk from 1989 to 1998, with 12 wins, 10 second and 18 thirds, the very definition of honest whether racing in state-bred stakes or $8,000 claimers.

“We always had Mass-Breds,” John said. “They treated us well. We mostly kept them when they were done and let them live out to their old age on the farm.”

African Princess, a daughter of Sundance Ridge, raced 45 times from 2002 to 2006 for owner John F. Kirby and trainer Tim Kirby, all at Suffolk. She ran in the John F. Kirby Stakes and won five stakes, including four for state-breds. She finished her career with $211,400 in earnings.

Seeing all that growing up, there was never any chance

John was going to be in anything but horse racing.

“My teachers would often scold me for having the ‘Daily Racing Form’ open inside my binder in high school,” John said. “If we had a horse racing, odds were that I would be at the track and not in the classroom.”

Now, John Kirby is here at Parx Racing every day. And he won’t be leaving anytime soon.

– By Dick Jerardi