I was watching an NFL program the other night with my son, and he asked a million dollar question. “Dad, was Lyle Alzado as tough as he looked?” Well, if you have a good memory or access to the NFL highlights. You would have seen one of the biggest, toughest men who ever wore a helmet (or threw one at an opposing player). But he left us way too soon, and admitted he was “jacked up” on steroids that would killed a herd of elephants. After our initial conversation about the abuse he endured for the sport; I directed him to racing. “What about jockeys? They weigh about 105 pounds, no pads, and are drug/alcohol tested quite regularly. They ride in winter conditions, the summer heat, and encounter danger on a daily basis.”
I was sitting around trying to heal a cold today when I randomly caught the 5th race at Aqueduct. Manuel Franco is sitting 4th in the rider standings, and owns a 14% win clip. Not bad considering the top three are New York veterans Cornelio Velasquez and Irad and Jose Ortiz. Pretty tough to make a living with these guys hanging around, but I digress. In the 5th race today, Franco was aboard Mr. Rico is Valid, and had a garden spot along the inside. He started working off the rail over the sealed sloppy track, and encountered a (50-1) shot named Princess on the Lake, ridden by Alexandra Jara. The longshot broke down causing her rider to go down, subsequently causing Franco’s mount to trip over the fallen horse. I’ve been watching races for quite sometime, and it never gets any easier seeing this happen. Both riders lay motionless on the track as track announcer John Imbriale tried with great effort to continue, but his heart wasn’t into the action as he said “there was a terrible spill on the track,” and gave very brief commentary from the 1/4 pole to the wire. There was no word on Jara or Franco’s condition, and Winning Ponies wishes them best of luck.
I nodded off a bit and stayed under my blanket like a three-year-old. The cold was getting the better of me, and a brief nap was calling my name. I figured I would catch a later race when I heard the race call kick up. The nap didn’t last long, and I found myself watching race #6. Here is a the 6th race from Aqueduct, and there was a big favorite named All Is Number getting to the leader as they turned for home.
When I watched the rider bring the winner back, I saw his name on screen and couldn’t believe my eyes. Manuel Franco piloted the winner home like nothing in the world could be wrong. It’s amazing for this horse player, and to this day I cannot believe the incredible shape they keep themselves. I’ve known riders over the years, and love to watch them ply their trade.
They work horses out in the morning, jog hours before post, and I’ve even watched a yoga-type stretching from a red-hot Peruvian rider. Some battle weight, and others are “naturals” and don’t miss a meal. They have hands as strong as iron, and as light as feathers. Their legs are used for balance, and sometimes used for steering. Incredible shape, and it all comes in a 110 lb. body. A reporter came out to do a story on “what it was like to be a jockey.” He was in good shape, young, and had the look of a weekend warrior. This should’ve been a walk in the park, but John Engelhardt wanted the media and public to know what great athletes jockeys can be. He enlisted the services of a longtime horseman George Bush who was a 2nd generation player in the game. He rode a little a bit long ago, and his brother was a rider in Ohio. George is a trainer andgreat for the game. He loves to talk racing, and if you stop by his barn he’ll have carrots for you to feed. – But on this day, his task was different. John wanted the reporter to know what it took, and before he even got near a horse, he was put to task. The trainer took out a towel and wrapped it once around a pole. It looked like the reins on a horse, and George popped right down into position and grabbed the towel in a rider’s stance. “Easy stuff. All you have to do is keep your balance and don’t make too much of a commotion aboard. I think you’ll do pretty well.” The reporter laughed at first as John Engelhardt readied his camera. This was good stuff and John has an eye for capturing the moment. When the reporter took hold of the wrapped towel, he started complaining how his thighs were on fire, and this was about 20 seconds into the race. As he neared the 30 second mark, he started moving around quite a bit, and George reminded him to be still in the saddle. As the 45 second mark approached, he let go of the towel and claimed this was the hardest athletic endeavor known to man.
It’s a tough job, and not for the faint of heart. Winning Ponies wishes Alexandra Jara the very best, and hope she returns to the saddle very soon. For Mr. Franco, it was pretty evident he was feeling pretty good about 20 minutes after his fall. This is not to say he wasn’t banged up like a football player, or sore like a baseball pitcher. He could be bruised like a boxer, or rubber-legged like a NASCAR driver going 500 miles. But this athlete is one-of-a-kind, and picked himself off the muddy ground. He made his way to the “Jock’s Room,” and washed off quickly. They have a valet who lays out their silks for their next mount, and off to the paddock to do it all over again.