In the summertime, dawn at Del Mar Racetrack means the workday is an hour old. Most of the action is in the stables, on the side of the track farthest from the grand stand. There, rows of orderly beige buildings with thin walls shelter hundreds of thoroughbreds and ponies and provide rude offices for the trainers who manage them.
Some trainers have been at the track since 4 a.m. They look over race schedules and assess the condition of their charges. Meanwhile, stable hands muck stalls, brush the horses or get equipment into good repair.
As the sun rises at around 5:15, other workers guide the horses in stately procession around the short yards near the stalls to get them limbered up for their 15-minute workouts. Around 6 a.m., the exercise riders who make their living at $15 a session start to show up to take horses out on the track and put them through their routines. Some of these riders are racing jockeys who like to exercise horses to get a feel for who's strong and who's temperamental and to show the trainers their enthusiasm.
Well, they're supposed to show up that early. On a recent Friday in August, jockey Michael Baze overslept, making him 10 minutes late for 6:30 session. By 6:35, his agent, Ronnie Ebanks, was having a bad day.
“I'm going to have to move him in with me,” Ebanks muttered, not exactly serious, but not exactly joking, either. “These guys,” he gestured toward the people working in stables all around him, “are up at 4 in the morning—they're not exactly sympathetic to a jock who's still in bed.”
As an agent, Ebanks is part manager, part negotiator, part peacemaker and part nursemaid. At its most basic, an agent's job is to convince trainers that they want their best horses ridden by the agent's jockeys. An agent wants to put his riders on a mount in every race of every day and, if at all possible, on the favorite for each race. That means keeping on good terms with every trainer and every owner. He wants to be the one called when someone's needed. And having a jockey late to an exercise session just makes that job harder.
When I meet him, Ebanks is standing on a dirt road lined with hay bales that runs between two long ranks of stable buildings. Thoroughbreds pass us in groups of two or three—huge, beautiful animals standing about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, their riders towering three feet above us. Ebanks is a lean 5-foot-10, his short hair still dark despite his 46 years, his olive face tanned from a life in the sun. He wears a hat, short-sleeved shirt and heavy-laden cargo shorts that hold his race schedule, pens, his cell phone and a small black computer with data on every horse and every race run in the country for the last couple of years. For Ebanks, cargo shorts carry cargo.
While Ebanks' two clients come from a large extended family of trainers and jockeys, he didn't come from a racing family. He grew up in the Caribbean before moving to Louisiana at age 13. He got a job cleaning stalls, and six months later, he learned to train. He started riding backwoods quarter-mile races at 14, and by 15 he'd already gone pro. Like many jockeys, this marked the end of his formal education, though he has a GED, as many jockeys do. But at his height, Ebanks had trouble maintaining his race weight of 120 pounds. For 10 years, he was voluntarily bulimic. He was in more than a thousand races before the pressure of his diet forced him to retire at 24. Within two years of eating like a normal human being, he'd put on 25 pounds and grown two inches.
A talker and a flirt by nature, Ebanks made the transition to agent fairly smoothly. He quickly hooked up with jockey Shane Sellers, and the team was together for 15 years. With Ebanks picking mounts for him, Sellers rode in 14 Kentucky Derbys and several Breeders Cup races and won $120 million in purses. Jockeys are paid 10 percent of their purses, and top agents get 30 percent of what their jockeys make. Thus, Ebanks earned $3.6 million over that period, for an annual salary of $240,000.
All the deals at the track between jockeys and agents and agents and trainers are on a handshake basis. In an informal world like this, jockeys can and do change agents frequently, often after just a year. Ebanks prefers to work with a client until retirement, but Sellers hurt his knee in 2000, forcing him out for 18 months. Ebanks left the industry for a year and a half, but he came back with jockey Joe Talamo, and the two moved out to California together. After six months, he signed up Tyler Baze, Michael Baze's cousin. When Tyler started winning, the normal friendly competition between two riders grew into jealousy and rivalry. Finally Talamo gave Ebanks an ultimatum: Pick him or Tyler. Ebanks stayed with Tyler. Together, Tyler and Ebanks have remained near the top of the standings all across the Southern California circuit, which includes Del Mar, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Tyler, Ebanks is quick to point out, is like clockwork when it comes to exercise sessions and appointments.
A top rider is one who wins more than 20 percent of his races, but a lot of being a top rider is being on top horses. Bettors know their business—odds-on favorites win roughly a third of their races—so it's key for jockeys to ride those horses.
But jockeys go in and out of fashion. When a jockey is on a hot streak, the trainers will wait in line to get him on their best horses. The agent has to choose the animal best suited to the race and get his rider on it. If another rider is already on his preferred horse, he'll lean on the trainer a little. Once in a while, the trainer will find an excuse to switch riders, which leads to some bad blood, but it rarely lingers. Agents will sometimes do the same thing to trainers.
But it also means that when a rider is doing well, it's easier to stay on top. As of this writing, Tyler was the second-ranked rider at Del Mar. Ebanks can get him into nearly every race on a given day, and often on one of the best horses. For Tyler's cousin Michael, on this particular day, the going is tougher. In fact, he's the flip side of the popularity coin.
“When a rider is going good, the trainers want him on their horses,” Ebanks explains. “When he's not, they don't want him for anything. And you can rise and fall fast.”
Michael knows that lesson well. A professional since 2000, he started his career strong. Now 22, he's won eight of the big-money “stakes” races in his career at Del Mar, and he was hot on the California circuit until disaster struck at Hollywood Park last June. The horse he rode, Charlotta, broke an ankle, and Michael fell off. The next horse in line ran him over, and Michael fractured a vertebra in his neck, putting him in the hospital and taking him out of racing for five weeks.
The people at the track were sympathetic, sending flowers and visiting the hospital, but the races went on. Other jockeys rode and won on his favorite horses. Trainers forgot his agent's phone number. Someone else got hot. When Michael came back, he had trouble getting mounts. He blames his agent to some extent, who stopped making the early-morning rounds. Riding long shots or not riding at all, Michael's fortunes were at an ebb when he jettisoned his agent and signed on with Ebanks in mid-July. Already low on the totem poll, Michael's tardiness for exercises seemed like an especially bad choice.
At 6:40, when Michael finally gets to his session, Ebanks has already been at the track for more than an hour. He visited the trainers stand, a high platform 30 feet above the track that trainers use to time their horses and see how their sessions are going. He'll swap gossip and tell stories and analyze the day's and weekend's races with whomever is there. Then he makes his rounds, keeping up a walking pace that would leave a hardened New Yorker huffing and puffing.
“I talk to everybody,” he tells me as we zoom through the stables. “I want them all to see that I'm here and I'm ready to help them out. Even the exercise riders sometimes give me tips about who's going good, who's not feeling well.”
Ebanks is the kind of outgoing fellow who seems to know everyone. He greets stable hands and chats with riders as they go by. When he spots a trainer or an owner, he'll head straight for them and call out, “Anything the Baze boys can do for you today? I got the Baze boys, and let me tell you, them Bazes are loaded!”—almost like a carnival barker selling popcorn or sideshow entries. Few women ride or walk by without a friendly or flirtatious comment from Ebanks, prompting one horse owner to say to me, “Don't let him talk to your daughters for too long.”
But with Michael late on this particular day, the joshing has a bit more of an edge. Ebanks chats with one trainer who tells him he'll take Tyler for a race the following week, but not Michael, attributing it to an owner who doesn't like Michael. Another trainer responds to Ebanks' entreaties with, “Sure, if Michael ever shows up.” Ebanks does what he can to calm the water, but Michael was already the talk of the stables. At one point, he had to cut a deal with a trainer, agreeing that if the trainer got Tyler on one horse, he had to put Michael on another in a different race.
Fortunately for Michael, this is a good day to be late. The race season at Del Mar cycles around the biweekly publication of the condition book. This pamphlet lays out all the races that'll be run in the next two weeks, with a welter of variables: grass or dirt, length, how old the horses will be, what gender, maiden races, claiming races, the size of the purse and so on. Every one of these factors can change the likelihood of a horse's victory—some horses hate grass; some are great on a mile, but can't do the shorter sprints; and some mature faster than others. Part of the trainer's art is to find the optimal conditions for each of their horses.
It's part of the jockey agents' art, too. The book comes out on Tuesday, when the track is closed. Ebanks will spend his off day poring over it, comparing the upcoming races to the performance histories of the horses at Del Mar. He crunches the data, adds in his own decades' worth of experience and intuition and decides who he thinks will give him the best chance to win. He's normally a day ahead of the trainers in his preparation, but he believes this gives him an edge.
The day of “The Incident,” as Michael refers his late arrival, the races were already set. Ebanks knew he needed to ease trainers' concerns, but he didn't have to actually get any new mounts. There would be time for it all to blow over.
After three more hours of glad-handing and chatter, Ebanks' morning is about done. Normally, he'd continue fielding calls until 10 or 10:30, as trainers stopped worrying about exercise and care and begin to worry about the next week's races. But this late in the cycle, Ebanks' phone is quiet. He goes home to catch a few hours of sleep before the afternoon's racing session.
Going from the behind-the-scenes life of the stable to the race itself is like going from work to a work party. The trainers who wore jeans or riding habits are in their party clothes. They're drinking, they're rooting, and they generally look a lot like the racing fans who surround them. Ebanks makes use of the time to network, but mostly his work is done, and he's a spectator with everyone else.
Races begin at 3 p.m. and are run every half-hour. Ebanks lives and dies with his Baze boys, knowing that his livelihood depends on their victories. The day Michael was late happened to be a big race, the $150,000 Sorrento Stakes, an annual event at the track. Michael had Mi Sueno (“My Sleep” in Spanish), a 2-year-old filly that had never won. She was up against Necessary Evil, an undefeated horse that had crushed her opponents in her previous two races and was the favorite for that day's race. The winning jockey would take home $9,000 for a little more than a minute of work. Mi Sueno was such a long shot that she wasn't even discussed as a contender in the Daily Racing Form, the bible for bettors.
Necessary Evil stumbled out of the gate and slipped to the tail of the eight-horse pack. The next favored horse, Well Deserved (ridden by Ebanks' old client, Joe Talamo) took the lead and set a fast pace. Michael kept Mi Sueno in the middle of the pack, but as they came out of the turn on the home stretch, he broke to the outside. Michael would later say that the trainer had told him the filly doesn't like to be in the crowd. Alone on the outside for the stretch run, Mi Sueno took off, overtaking Well Deserved and powering to an astonishing six-and-a-half-length victory.
And that's all Michael needed to break his slump. It was a big win, both for the margin of the victory and because it was a prestigious event. By next week, “The Incident” was forgotten, or at least it went unmentioned. Trainers sidled up to Ebanks in the stables, hoping they could get either Michael or Tyler for a preferred horse.
“That's how it goes in this business,” Ebanks said. “When you're going good, you get the good horses, and you keep going good. Until the next time something happens.”
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