Harry Silbert had a good year around America's race tracks last year, and Harry is having a good year this year, too, and if one were able to look far into the future, Harry would be having good year heaped upon good year. Ever hear of Harry Silbert? Probably not. But when Harry walks through the paddocks people say, "There goes good old reliable Harry." Of course, others say, "There goes good old reprehensible Harry." For Harry is a sunglasses-and-cigar type, and Harry makes his living off a kid who is 28. Harry is a jockey's agent.
There are in America today, according to The Jockeys' Guild, some 1,200 race riders, and behind each of these stands an agent. Some agents handle two or three boys at the same time, maneuvering one against the other like conflicting marionettes. Most of these agents, and their riders as well, will spend the rest of their lives playing the smaller rooms. But once a rider starts to click at the bigger tracks, his agent becomes a very big man. Today Harry Silbert, as agent for Jockey Willie Shoemaker, Bones LaBoyne, as agent for Eddie Arcaro, and Chick Lang, as agent for Bill Hartack, are three of the most important men in American racing. They have reached the top in what is normally considered a very low profession.
This week Silbert, LaBoyne and Lang have maneuvered their clients onto the three top favorites for the richest race ever to be run in New York State, the $200,000 Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds, Shoemaker will be riding C. V. Whitney's Tompion, Arcaro will be riding Leonard Fruchtman's Bally Ache and Hartack will be aboard Tinkham Veale II's Vital Force (although Lang and Hartack may well make a late switch and jump aboard Spring Hill Farm's Easy Spur in the $100,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup at Chicago).
These agents and their riders are gambling very little on the outcome of the Champagne. The real gamblers are the owners of the three runners that Shoemaker, Arcaro and Hartack are riding. The owners have each put up $10,000 to make their horses eligible, after having failed to keep them eligible all year long.
Their gamble is a good one, however, because as the box on the next page indicates, these three jockeys are the "money riders" of America today. They have won, among them, nine of the 15 Triple Crown races over the past five years and have been second five times. They have virtually monopolized the major 2-year-old races of recent years, having won four of the last seven Arlington Futurities (with the lowest winner's share totaling $84,410); five of the last eight Washington Park Futurities (lowest winner's share $79,710); four of the last six Hopefuls (lowest winner's share $36,700); four of the last six Belmont and Aqueduct Futurities (low winner's share $80,690); and the past three Garden States (low winner's share $155,047). The reason for the remarkably consistent success of these riders lies to a certain extent in the hands of their agents, who continually drag them off good horses and put them on better ones.
A perfect example of this is the method with which Shoemaker and Silbert have hopped from one hot horse to another. In the Kentucky Derby, you may remember, Shoemaker was on Tomy Lee, and he won in the tightest of photos over Sword Dancer. Tomy Lee was sent west. Shoemaker stayed east. Who did Shoemaker ride in the Preakness? Sword Dancer, who finished second. Shoemaker rode Sword Dancer back in the Belmont Stakes and won it, beating Bagdad three-quarters of a length. Two weeks later Bagdad was shipped to Hollywood Park for the Hollywood Derby. Who won? Bagdad. Who rode him? Shoemaker.
In order to maintain such a steady stream of stakes mounts for his jockey, an agent must talk to owners constantly and play one against the other. He must move quickly to bump a lesser boy off a mount and put his own boy on it, and he must be unconcerned about the abuse which owners and trainers put upon him.
Naturally, this is a profession for fast-dealing, thick-skinned men. It requires a glib tongue and a fast mind and many pairs of shoes, shoes to keep you moving from an outraged owner to a friendly one and then back to the first—never, never stepping on too many people at the same time.
For their swiftness, however, the agents are well paid. Most of them make 10% of their jockey's earnings, and jockeys normally get 10% of the purses they win. Actually, there is no written law in racing that says a winning jockey must get 10% of the purse. The practice was started originally as a sporting gesture on the part of the owners, but today it is a very strong unwritten law that if a rider does not receive his 10%, then the owner who denies it will have a hard time finding a rider the next time he enters a horse. The rules are quite clear on the minimum a boy should get. At Aqueduct the track rules specifically read, "In the absence of a specific contract, jockey fees shall be as follows: in races where the value to the winner is not more than $400, $5 for a losing mount and $15 for a winning mount; where the value to the winner is more than $400 and less than $900, $10 and $25; where the value to the winner is $900 and less than $1,300, $15 and $35; where the value to the winner is $1,300 or more, $20 for a losing mount, $25 for finishing third, $35 for finishing second and $50 for a winning mount."
As Harry Silbert was saying the other day, "You have to watch a lot of races and see a lot of horses run to be a successful agent. You have to keep in touch with a lot of owners and trainers at different tracks. Most of the time you try to plan your boy's mounts two weeks in advance, but in the $100,000 races you have to figure out, sometimes as far as five or six weeks ahead, just which horse your boy is going to ride. There is always the business of being constantly friendly to all people, trying hard not to get one owner mad at you because your rider cannot ride his horse."
Bones LaBoyne agrees with Silbert that the hardest thing for an agent to do is to be an amateur politician. "Sometimes," says LaBoyne, "you try to keep open for a major stake race until the last minute. You have to do the best for your rider, or at least what you think is the best for your rider. Race riding is not like playing baseball. There are few, if any, endorsements for a jockey. Sometimes you can't help but get an owner mad at you if you are trying to do the best for your rider. And it always seems like the owner that gets mad at you today will be the owner with the big horse tomorrow. A rider is fairly well paid, at least a good rider. Generally, he gets $20 for a losing mount and $50 for a winning mount. His agent gets $4 for putting him on a losing mount and $7 for putting him on a winning mount. But it's the stakes that make all the difference between the good years and the bad. Look, if anybody in this game could be right only 50% of the time, he'd be the smartest man alive."
Johnny Nerud, who trains one of the largest public stables in the East, has his own ideas about agents. "I don't know," says Nerud. "Some people think the agent has a tough job. Well, I was an agent for almost four years. I think it's a pretty easy way to make a living. For one thing, you don't have to make any investments; you put up nothing compared to the owners and the trainers. You have virtually no troubles except those with your rider. If he is going good then you should be going good. When a stake race comes up at a track out of the town in which you are presently riding, the owner pays all the travel and hotel bills, and if your rider wins he gets 10%, and you, in turn, get 10% of his piece. Often, however, owners get mad because they might want to ride a boy in a stake race away from the locale in which he is currently riding, and the agent will step in and ask for a retainer to have his boy ride for just one afternoon; for just one major race. There are cases where these retainers get very high, and if a stable isn't going too good the owner may feel he's being robbed. Always remember," says Nerud, "that the agent must constantly deal with trainers, and trainers are nervous guys, ulcer types, and they blow hot and cold. Sometimes an owner and a trainer will disagree on which is the best boy for a horse. A trainer may like one boy, the owner another. Well, after all, the owner is paying the bills, and he usually wins out."
One owner protests, "We are now moving into a league where some of the riders are demanding 10% of second-place finishes in stakes. Some people should remember that the name of the sport is horse racing, not jockey racing. The owners, and I can speak for just a few, are getting a little too much doubletalk from these agents. Don't be surprised if the dealings between owners, agents and riders are looked into thoroughly very soon."
This week's Champagne will probably show that either Silbert, or LaBoyne, or Lang has been right again. But if it doesn't and another horse pops down to win it, they will be fighting to get their boy on that horse for the major races ahead.
RECORD OF BIG THREE IN RICH RACES
RIDES IN $100,000 RACES
IN PURSE MONEY
*Twices disqualified from first place