Ronnie Ferraro (above) is 19 years old, weighs 98 pounds, owns three saddles, one whip and a Chevrolet Impala. "When I drive to work," he says, while combing his stringy black hair in front of a mirror, "I take a look into the gutters to see if there are any old jockeys lying in them. How many stories have you read about jockeys who destroyed themselves with drink or who believed everything that was said about them and who just went plain, flat bust?"
Since the start of this racing season Ronnie Ferraro has become one of the leading riders in the U.S. (262 winners, with 10 weeks to go). In a three-man race for the championship he is the jockey no one has heard of. The others are Willie Shoemaker (285 wins) and Bill Hartack (265). "When I was very young," says Ferraro, "I used to have a nightclub act doing impersonations of the great singers—Johnny Ray, Mario Lanza, Nat King Cole, Frankie Laine. But then my voice changed and that career disappeared. Now when I'm through riding I go home in the evenings, close the doors and windows, play the records of Enrico Caruso and try to sing along with him. There are some people who call me The Sparrow."
"At our track," says Bryan Field, the vice-president and general manager of Delaware Park, "Ferraro rode 84 winners in 54 days, easily breaking every existing record. He got 50% of his mounts in the money, and horses he was riding who should have been 6 or 7 to 1, or more, were knocked down by the bettors to 3 to 1, or less."
"It looks to me," says Johnny Nerud, the onetime agent for Jockey Ted Atkinson and a longtime friend of Willie Shoemaker's, "that if Shoe thinks he's going to be able to beat this kid easily then he had better change his mind. Ferraro isn't going to let up. He wants the championship, just like Shoemaker and Hartack wanted it when they first started. And don't let Shoemaker or Hartack kid you. They still want to be the No. 1 rider in point of winners even though they get the big-money mounts today. If you ride the most winners, you're top jock."
Ferraro has no doubt about the matter. "I figure," he says, "just one a day...just one a day and that will do it. I'll ride every day, every race right until the end of December. At the beginning of this year I was riding at Charles Town, wearing gloves and thermal underwear to keep warm. This winter I want to ride at Hialeah and Gulfstream Park where the sun is out and the money is big."
Since 1953 only one rider, Johnny Sellers in 1961, has been able to win a jockey championship from Shoemaker and Hartack. "Last year," says Sellers, "I set myself a goal of seven winners a week. Each day after I'd get through riding I'd wait for the morning papers to come out to see if my opposition had gained on me. It got to be agony. I'm sure Ferraro is going through the same thing. You haven't time to gloat over the three winners that you had yesterday. You have to think about the one you have to get tomorrow.
"I've ridden against Ferraro a few times and I've watched him, probably out of professional curiosity. When most young riders ride against the better jocks one of the first things they do is try to impress the opposition. They raise their irons so that they sit high up on a horse and look pretty. Of course, it's a silly thing to do. But most young riders do it. I watched Ferraro the first day that he rode at Aqueduct. His reputation had preceded him, but he had gained his reputation on the smaller tracks, riding against competition that wasn't as stiff as it is in New York. When he went out in the post parade I saw him fooling with his irons and I said to myself, 'Oh, oh, here he goes.' I'm not sure whether there was something wrong with his irons or not, but he didn't raise them. In fact, I think he lowered them."
Last year Ferraro was one of 400 apprentices who got mounts in the U.S., and one of 135 to win a race. He won that first race on November 28, 1961 at Pimlico, after 53 losing mounts. The horse he rode was named Velvet Bows and the comment in the racing chart was: "VELVET BOWS followed the pace to the stretch, moved boldly along the inside to attain command and drew clear with mild encouragement."
On Thanksgiving Day Ferraro got his second win, on a 10-to-1 shot named Slipperoo II. Slipperoo was, according to the chart, "under restraint until reaching the stretch, responded to energetic handling and outfinished June's Crocodile [by a head]." Ferraro finished the year with 10 winners in 136 mounts.
"When I was 13 or 14," he says, "my father bought a motel in Florida right across from Gulfstream Park and a few jockeys stayed there. I used to go over across the road and watch them early in the morning. I'd try to think to myself what they were doing, try to understand. Some of the jocks used to tell me things and I'd remember them.
"By the time I was 15 I was hooked. My family lives in Bucks County [Pa.] now, in a place called Cornwells Heights. We have a ranch home and about two acres of ground. My father is an air-conditioning contractor. I used to get up at 3 o'clock in the morning and hitchhike to Atlantic City or Pimlico and gallop horses. Finally, a trainer named Lyle Marmon hired me. By the time I was 16 I was taking care of six horses, galloping and mucking stalls for $21 a week.
"Right now Ambrose Cremen, a trainer, has first call on me. I gallop his horses and ride wherever his horses are stabled. I get paid $350 a month plus the standard fees for a mount ($25)."
The advantages of a bug
Ferraro, of course, is still a "bug boy," the racetrack term for an apprentice, and he rides with a five-pound apprentice allowance. He will lose this advantage on December 12. There are many opinions about what happens to a jockey when he loses his bug. "Once you lose that five pounds," says Bill Boland, who rode Middleground to victory in the 1950 Kentucky Derby while still an apprentice, "people start to look the other way. A lot of people don't like to try a kid once he has lost his apprentice allowance. For some riders, losing the five-pound edge becomes a mental block."
Johnny Sellers has a different opinion. "When I lost my bug," he says, "I knew that I was still the same rider and if I could produce, people would ride me."
Ronnie Ferraro feels that the loss of the bug will hurt him not at all. "I think," says Ferraro, "that I have what it takes. I won't let things bother me. There is a man, a big fat guy, that follows me around from track to track. He stands in the grandstand in a sport shirt and when I go to the post he hollers, 'Come on Ferraro, you Rat Face.' Actually I hope that he enjoys himself. He is paying to yell and after all he's probably paying at least $2 a yell."
Ferraro's style of riding is unusual for a youngster; most apprentices, still learning a sense of pace, try to get out of the gate first and stay there. Ferraro has the courage to lay off the pace, come from behind and drive his horses inside along the rail. Twice this season he has been suspended for driving through holes too small, but suspensions are not likely to stop him. His ability is such that he has already been put on horses good enough to win three stake races this year, and three stake victories for an apprentice is a remarkable number. Already he has tried to sell his contract to the best stables. "I'd like to sell it to a stable like Greentree," he says, "because I figure they are the best outfit for a jock to get mixed up with. Mr. Whitney [John Hay Whitney] and Mrs. Payson [Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson, who also owns the New York Mets] are fine people. When you are young you must put yourself in the way of success."
Last May 21 Ferraro courted success as few young riders had ever done before. He decided that he was ready for New York and good enough to ride against the Ycazas, Baezas, Bolands, Rotzes and Shoemakers. He walked into the jockeys' room at Aqueduct in a magnificent brown cashmere jacket, brown slacks and tiny, pointed brown shoes. He was met by silence.
He slid into a pair of purple silks, put on a gold cap and examined the jockeys' room. He stopped in front of Ismael Valenzuela's locker, stood on tiptoe and looked inside at a note written on yellow paper. "Dear Daddy," it read. "Just a few lines to say I love you Daddy and miss you a lot." It was signed, "Your son that loves you very much."
Ferraro walked a few lockers away and gazed into one that said "Shoe" on the top—Shoemaker's. At the bottom of the locker was a blue American Legion cap with gold piping that said, VICE COMMANDER ROBERT F. WAGNER. Wagner, the Mayor of New York, had given the cap to Shoemaker in 1959 when Shoemaker won the first race ever run over the Aqueduct track.
"I wonder," someone said, "why Shoe never took the cap home?"
"When you get to be like Shoemaker," said Ronnie Ferraro, "you only do what you want to do."
And in a year, or maybe two, Ronnie Ferraro will be doing what he wants to do.