With nothing better to do on a warm Friday afternoon, contributing writers Matthew Irwin and Shane Liddick and I hopped happily onto northbound Interstate 5 and endured stop-and-go traffic just to spend a few hours at the Del Mar racetrack in search of a story or two. The idea was to find some of the characters that bring the track to life and allow them to form a sort of human mosaic that tells a compelling story of one day in the horseracing life.
I soon realized I should have brought three more writers and another photographer to do the project justice, but, of course, we don't have enough space in the paper to profile the number of fascinating people we would surely have engaged. Just know this: the track at Del Mar is colorful-character heaven. You have to see it firsthand to fully know what I'm talking about.
Until then, just to tide you over, we selectively chose a small handful of them, and their stories, such as they are, are woven together here in two pieces-plus a side-story on a character of a different species by contributor Ilana Mignon.
Who knows-maybe this'll become an yearly issue: "CityBeat's Big Day at the Track."
It's 20 minutes before the last race of the day on Aug. 8. The Del Mar racetrack is bustling with more energy and activity now, at 7:10 p.m., than it has all day. In the paddock, Mamaison Star marches with the other horses in front of owners, gamblers, trainers and general onlookers. The 3-year-old is a long-shot, with 30-to-1 oddsand an $85.90 pay-off. His jockey, 21-year-old Scotty Ziesing, is a long-shot rider at the dawn of his career. When Ziesing mounts Mamaison, horse and rider meet for the first time, and together they take a slow lap, awaiting the signal to head to the track.
Track bugler Les Kepics steps up to the winner's circle microphone to play a melody of his choosing. Seven times today he has belted out "Call to the Post," the signal to riders and fans that another race is about to begin. But before the last race, Kepics has an opportunity to feature his talents on a more complicated tune.
"No one notices the bugler," he had said earlier, "until he misses a note." Midway through the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," Kepics fumbles, squawks and pushes through to the end. As he walks out of the winner's circle, he says, "That was a little rough around the edges."
For two months each year since 1985, Kepics has been calling riders to the post. His job, for the most part, is inglorious and routine. Yet, there is something about him that is key to the whole racing experience at Del Mar. He is dressed for the occasion and full of duty-full of the sense that what he is doing means something.
The whole place is on and off, erratically up and down as each race cycle produces winners and losers, but it all keeps coming back to the starting gate and those silent few moments before the bells ring. Before the hysteria and the white-knuckle hope, there is Kepics and his trumpet, calling the entire club back to order, back to the starting gate and another shot at glory.
The right race
There is evidence at Del Mar that luck is an actual force in the universe, not only culpable for thousands of whimsical bets, but also ambivalent and exploitable like wind.
"Not every race is a betting race," Kepics says. "You have to wait for a good betting opportunity." The opportunity, he says, is the moment when all the factors-the horse, the rider, the track, the competition, the odds and the bet-align. A track gambler can use understanding of the sport to see an outcome, but once the bell rings and the horses are off, luck will answer the question: Did the gambler align himself with the right factors in the right race?
"This is not rocket science," Kepics says, "but there is a science, and the science of it doesn't always pay."
On vacation from Sacramento, Brian Keifer seems to have edited the Good Luck Handbook. He has been coming to Del Mar for the past 10 years with his girlfriend, Connie Lewis and her children, Jacob and Sarah. And they always make out well, he says. Lewis jokes that she keeps "the old man," Keifer, around just for the yearly trip. Six-foot-five and in his mid-30s, Keifer is a car salesman by trade. He's wearing khaki shorts and a short-sleeve, navy blue patterned button-down. Drinking Heineken from a plastic cup, he jokes that he's been running on nothing but chicken strips and beer. And he's full of stories about rubbing the proverbial rabbit's foot.
Before heading to Del Mar on Aug. 8, Keifer saw Gary Stevens outside a Coronado hotel (Stevens is a champion jockey who played George "The Iceman" Woolf in the hit summer film, Seabiscuit). Keifer just happened to have the Seabiscuit book and movie poster in his hands. His brush with Stevens was a sure sign to Keifer that he had harnessed the wind. (Incidentally, Stevens suffered a collapsed lung on Aug. 16 in the middle of the Arlington Million, which will put him out of the Pacific Classic this weekend).
"I pull it out and he signs it. And then I come [to Del Mar track]," Keifer muses, "and schlack 'em for I don't know how many hundreds and thousands of dollars."
Keifer and Co. are handicappers-they analyze the statistics in the program before placing their bets. Keifer concedes, however, that he often lets the kids pick the horses with whatever whim or fancy they can conjure. This morning, Keifer and Lewis were on the beach "handicappin'" in the sun before heading to the big payoff. The family split into two teams-girls against boys. By late afternoon, the boys are way up, and the girls are getting a little frustrated, but all told, the family has taken Del Mar for more than $600.
"For a hard-working guy like myself," Keifer says, "it pays for the vacation.... By the way, when I left [Sacramento], I was No. 1 out of 50 salesmen, so I'm on fire."
Indeed, Keifer seems to have luck on his side. He remembers a horse named Comet Returns at a track in Santa Rosa:
"We had a dog named Comet that was just cursed," he recalls. "She jumped out of my car doing 70 once-snapped every bone in her body. I almost killed myself saving her. And we rebuilt her like the million-dollar man or whatever. Then what does she do playing fetch? She runs into a sprinkler doing a hundred, tears her chest up, and that's another three G's. But this is a great dog and I could never put it down.
"So, years later, I bet dollar running-doubles on Comet Returns to win everything, and we won $1,100. It was this time last year-so [a win] keeps you coming back. It's better than the Indian casinos, is all I can tell ya."
A day in a jockey's life
This is the land where Seabiscuit is king. At every turn, gamblers and jockeys, fans and critics are alluding to the film or bragging about the horse, as if they had sat down with it over cognac. There's even a display in the clubhouse foyer that celebrates the life and victories of Seabiscuit. The film seems to do for jockeys what Backdraft did for firefighters, or Almost Famous did for aspiring writers. As in any profession, there is the reality and the legend, and in every jockey's mind, legend status is the obvious goal.
Scotty Ziesing is in his first year at Del Mar. He knew he wanted to be a jockey by his early teens, he says, when he realized his growth spurt was over. Today, Ziesing won't even look at the scale when he is weighed before each race (he weighs in officially at 115). He began racing at the bush tracks in his hometown, Lafayette, La. To describe the environment in the bush league, he paraphrases a scene from the movie, Casey's Shadow:
""OK, I'm gonna run my little horse'-his horse was a little Shetland-"against your big, purty, fast thoroughbred,'" Ziesing says. ""OK? No rules, we'll just run them together, run them against each other... like half a mile.' This lightweight jockey gets on the tall purty horse. Then, on the little Shetland, they tie a chicken. They make a big ol' mess about it, but there are no rules. The Shetland won with a little chicken on its back."
At 16, Ziesing began racing professionally across Louisiana, and then he got a call from trainers offering to put him up in San Diego if he would come to ride. Without hesitation, he accepted. Del Mar, he says, is the toughest meet in the country. "I have a good record in Louisiana," Ziesing says, "but I'm here for the first time. You can have a good record all over the country and start all over here. Half the guys here are hall-of-famers, and I'm not respected very much because I'm a new rider and I'm young and I'm not a hall-of-famer. I've probably rode as many horses as [other jockeys] have won."
Zeising begins his day by glad-handing owners and trainers, so that they might recognize him in the future. A rider's agent makes most of the connections, he says, but the way he repeats "with the right agent," hints that maybe Zeising isn't happy with his own. Six months in California and he hasn't jockeyed many "good horses," he says, and most jockeys come and go within a couple of months or even weeks. "I usually ride every day," he says, "but I'm having a bit of a slump right now. I haven't been riding much."
The jockey room just before a race is flippin' crazy-like the changing room at a fashion show. It's amazing how so few people in a relatively large and empty space all need to be standing in the same places at the same times.
At 7 p.m., amid the buzz of the room, Ziesing frantically dresses-a base layer, a protective vest, and, on top, a dark blue and green shirt with the horse owner's initials on the back. He talks about the wager of his career: Should he stay in California and risk missing new opportunities? "I never expected to come to California and make $20,000 a week," he says, "I just expect to get a lot of experience, meet a lot of people and get an opportunity to go somewheres else, and be No. 1 somewheres else and maybe come back and be really good here. But right now, I'm just really happy to be here."
The last race
It's 7:20 p.m. Amplified over the house speakers, "Call to the Post" rings from Les Kepics' trumpet and over the racetrack and grandstands. The riders, who have just mounted their horses in the paddock, take the signal and direct their horses to the track. Ziesing takes Mamaison Star for a warm up lap around the track with the other horses before lining up in the gate.
The bell rings and the announcer hollers, "And-they're off!" Ziesing and Mamaison Star bump out of the gates to a slow start and speed past two horses before fading and ending second to last. Just like that-way too quickly-Ziesing's daily shot at greatness is done.
As Ziesing heads back to the jockey room, Kepics is packing up his trumpet, finished for another day. Tomorrow, he will call himself back to the winner's circle for another featured performance, and, with the trainers and riders and gamblers and see-and-be-seens, he will have another shot to prove himself. But then there is the day after that and so on-the track is open every day but Tuesday for seven weeks a year. ©
Update: A week after we first spoke with Scotty Ziesing, he took a bad spill when the horse in front of him broke down. He sustained minor injuries and jumped back up again the next day. On Aug. 18, he was riding a 60-to-1 horse, the longest shot in the race, in second place, until the horse faded down to sixth. Ziesing says he will move to New Mexico in November to work with the state's "top agent."
The trainer, the blacksmith, the stable worker and the jockey on fire
Del Mar offers a microcosm of America
by Shane Liddick
Flowers, gold with black eyes, wilt in the afternoon sun. Cell phones, crisp blazers and fake breasts dance in the background. Del Mar Racetrack is a cornucopia of tanned and beautiful people-a world unto itself.
"You get the wealthiest of the wealthy and the poorest of the poor, all coming to the same place, everyday," trainer Dan O'Neill says.
One of the track's middlemen, O'Neill is large and jovial. He's dressed casually in a sporty button-down shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. Fellow trainer Paul Aguirre, dark-haired and tan, wears a polo shirt, smart slacks and polished loafers. His smile is reciprocated by an equally debonair James Jimenez-the blacksmith for both men.
The paddock is regal ground. Owners and trainers, family and friends, chat mirthfully. The grass they're on is like carpet. The three men shuffle their feet as the public looks on and bettors scan the circling horses for final clues.
It's minutes before the fourth race and O'Neill's horse, Elan, will be running against Aguirre's We Have a Problem. Jimenez has put 4-ounce aluminum shoes on the hooves of both animals.
"You only put three nails in his front shoe," Aguirre says in the direction of Jimenez.
All three men smile. O'Neill laughs.
"Now I see-you're fixing the race for him," Aguirre says, nodding in O'Neill's direction.
Jimenez explains the hoof's bad-there was barely enough room to get three nails in.
"It'll hold," he says confidently.
"You're sure about that?"
"Guarantee it?" Aguirre asks.
"I'll bet you 20 bucks," he says. Aguirre smiles again and they seal the wager with a handshake.
Nineteen-year-old Tyler Baze approaches from the jockey room with a knowing smile and swagger. A trackside celebrity, he'll ride Elan, one of his favorite horses, in the upcoming race. He quickly talks strategy with O'Neill.
"Come out hard," O'Neill tells him, "but not too fast. Take it easy till about half-way, and if he feels good, let him go."
Other side of the stands
Past the ticket booths, to the north of the stands, neatly tucked away on the other side of a 50-foot corridor, lay the stables housing the animals and the accommodations housing the industry's Mexican labor.
It's Aug. 8 and a merciless late-summer sun beats down on the dirt road that winds through the continuous line of stables, portable pens and diminutive apartments. Inside, the stables are cavernous and dark, thick with the smells of fresh hay and fauna. Soft, chocolate earth gives way gently under foot. Faint swooshing sounds of swatting horse tails break the silence; and from time to time an agitated whinny. The sedate but curious horses-well-maintained in clean, dimly lit cubicles-are the finest of the equine world. They are arguably the most awesome display of sheer power and graceful motion in sport.
Across the dirt road, tattered laundry hangs on lines in front of the three-story apartment buildings that house the track's labor force-like a snapshot of urban America. Their facades are generally muddled with horse gear, garments, occasional beer bottles and all manner of daily living equipment. Faint smells of authentic Mexican cooking waft by. The view from the apartments, through the unrelenting glare of the sun, consists of a cinder-block wall on the far side of the pen-lined dirt street-a visceral feel of the Wild West hangs over the scene..
From the front door of his apartment, past the four-story palm trees and through the brilliant sun, laborer Bruce Armstrong can see the north side of the tawny-colored grandstands. His African-American profile stands out prominently in the sea of Latino co-workers. Squinting into the sun, in the direction of the stands, he can make out tiny dark figures in the forward-sitting boxes. They are the track's biggest spenders and the owners of $80,000 horses that bring in six-digit purses.
Armstrong rests on the balcony rail in front of his second-floor apartment, slowly sipping a beer. His day began at 4 a.m.; he was done by 8:30 a.m. He now has nothing to do, nowhere to go until bed time. It's too hot to be inside, too sunny to be out.
Down the road a piece, around the bend and tucked away in a corner of the stable building, is Dan O'Neill's office. A TV chatters in the corner, a fan hums soothingly from somewhere above. The room is identical to millions in corporate America-tile floors and inoffensive tan walls, standard desk, a window to the right. But all similarities end on the other side of the door. Abutting the far side of the threshold is hay-covered earth. On the other side of the wall, a half-ton animal gnaws at fodder.
From this office, O'Neill-one of the more successful trainers in the Southern California circuit-directs his team in caring for and training more than 60 horses that he runs year round. When Del Mar's season closes in September, the team will move on to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita racetracks.
Employees and associates alike describe him as genuine, gregarious and kind. He grew up going to the races with his father, in Michigan. Through his brother he got into the track lifestyle, starting out as a hot-walker-the person who warms-down a horse with an hour-long walk after a race-a post he describes as one of the most important, least appreciated and underpaid in racing culture.
After scratching his way up from the bottom rungs of the sport's ladder, he seems content to have settled in one of the posts of prestige in the world of professional racing.
"I love the track" he says. "It's its own little world, right in the middle of the big city. One that nobody really knows about."
One of the preeminent tracks in the country, Del Mar is a neurotic American wet dream for the rich of Southern California. It's the agony of defeat; it's the thrill of the long shot. It's a Euro-centric pie, with the brown crust pushed neatly to the periphery.
And Tyler Baze is one of its rising stars.
A contagious smile gives the first indication of the energy constrained in Baze's small frame. With his fair hair, green eyes and the occasional pimple, he could pass for a common high-schooler. In betting circles he's a growing celebrity and world-class athlete. He signs autographs. He smiles continually. He rubs shoulders with the rich and powerful with a beguiling sense of ease. He's a man in a boy's body and he has no apparent worries.
A year ago Baze was invited to the internationally renowned race at Dubai, Saudi Arabia, where he mingled with the world's traditional princes. He took second, on Elan. Insiders say the then-18-year-old walked away with $40,000.
Caprices of fate
Elan is a horse-possessed. When the gates open on the fourth race, he darts ahead, stays wide and takes the lead. At half-track, with a furlong between him and the closest jockey, Baze opens things up. He crosses the finish line with a nearly two-furlong lead. The race will net Elan's owner, one of O'Neill's bosses, 60 percent of the $54,000 purse.
With a dusty face and contagious smile, Baze walks slowly through the crowd's cheers, back to his dressing room. An attractive girl stops him for a chat; she smiles with an energy that matches his teenage vivacity. She has no way of knowing Baze was just another anybody-a high school hot-walker on his parent's rural Washington farm-only two years ago.
Neither of them can know Baze will go on to win the eighth and final race of the day-and its biggest purse. Nor are they aware of the rapidity with which trackside fate can turn on a rider.
Two days later, Baze will be involved in the worst racing accident in the track's history-three horses involved in the accident will be destroyed.
Perhaps Bruce Armstrong, still clinging to racing's bottom rungs, has the clearest perspective of all. "The thing is, you've really got to love horses," he says. "It's a lot of toil, a lot of long days. If you don't love the horses, well...."
By early evening the long day and toil is over for O'Neill's team. He looks forward to the night's departure for a Hawaiian vacation with his wife and two boys.
Armstrong will soon be preparing for bed. Tyler Baze lounges in the jockey room-one of the securest spots in the entire track-waiting for the final race.
James Jimenez sits in his box, relishing the brief roar of the crowd when the horses come around the final bend. It's a sound he says was a constant fixture in his father's day; one that fades more every year.
He joins O'Neill and Baze in the winner's circle after the fourth race-$20 richer.