From the head to the belt a jockey is dressed like a clown, from the knees to the ground like an English lord, and for the rest he is covered by translucent nylon breeches that reveal his under-shorts. In such undignified attire it is not easy to be as impressive as Michael Venezia, the 19-year-old apprentice (or "bug boy")who is now riding winners in Florida after a spectacular opening season in New York. Venezia is small, even for a jockey; fully dressed, he weighs 95 pounds and stands one inch over five feet. When he appears atop a horse he looks like a dreadful error, and one waits hopefully for the P.A. announcement: "Will Mr. Venezia come to the starting gate and pick up his lost boy Michael?" A few minutes later the poor child has stormed across the finish line two lengths ahead of his nearest competitor and one begins to get the idea that the little fellow may be adequate after all.
Every year brings its hot apprentices; they tiptoe out of the wings and whirl and pirouette to the oohs and ahs of those who fancy innocence. Then, as quickly as they arrived, the bug boys vanish behind the barns, where they are to be found in their golden years walking hots and shoveling manure. This could happen to the Brooklyn-born Michael Venezia, but don't hold your breath till it does. There are apprentices and apprentices. In 1964 Bug Boy Venezia rode more winners than any other apprentice in New York history and climaxed the season by rattling off six firsts and three seconds on a single day at Aqueduct—a feat accomplished about as often as the electric light bulb is invented. For his labors atop 192 winners last year the little kid from Brooklyn earned about $95,000, or $1,000 a pound. And now one question is heard wherever he is discussed: What will happen when he loses the bug?
The bug is an asterisk, that same mark of punctuation that has bedeviled athletes like Roger Maris and Ford Frick. In horse racing an asterisk is used to show that a jockey is an apprentice, and it is good for a weight allowance that varies from three to 10 pounds—Venezia's is now five pounds and will be until April 23. Many an apprentice has been a winner with the asterisk and an also-ran without it. Is Michael Venezia worried about losing his bug? "I think about it a lot," he says in a rare burst of volubility.
But in the meantime he is finding that life as a bug boy can be beautiful. He drives a Pontiac 2 + 2, a dashing convertible into which he almost disappears when he gets behind the wheel to tool out to the track for morning workouts. The car has 376 horses and pushbutton windows and tires that cost $90 apiece and a radio with two speakers and a "reverb" switch that sends the music rocking back and forth. He prefers driving the car with the top down, and nothing short of a monsoon will cause him to raise it. When he parks the car in the horsemen's lot, he gets out and combs his hair in the reflection on the polished door. He wears his soft brown hair in a small wave disciplined by a touch of greasy kid stuff; he has a minor complexion problem, like many another teen-ager, but seems to be growing gracefully out of it. His big brown eyes and John L. Lewis eyebrows tend to dominate his face, and he has a slightly jutting jaw and low cheekbones that give him a sullen look—an optical illusion, for he is quick to smile and scrupulously pleasant. He lives with his uncle and agent and éminence grise, Al Scotti, who is equally soft-spoken and mild and who is respectfully called Uncle by the jockey. Both of them speak in the new Brooklynese—which is to say they do not refer to 33rd Street as Toity-toid Street, oil as erl, or murder as moiduh, nor do they punctuate their speech with glottal stops. But you would not mistake them for the boys on the train to Scarsdale, either.
January 25, 1965
At the racetrack young Venezia is the invisible man. While the other jocks play racehorse rummy for a dollar a point and table tennis for $10 a game, Venezia watches television or studies the racing form to see what kind of horses he is going to be racing against. He is neither unfriendly nor antisocial; he simply is perfectly satisfied with his own company. Another jockey with Venezia's 1964 record might have been tempted to blow into Florida's Tropical Park like Charlemagne, with heralds of trumpets clearing the rabble before him. But Venezia was so quiet that several weeks passed before most of the other jocks knew who he was. "Where you been ridin', kid?" a veteran jockey said to Venezia in his second week at Tropical. "New Yawk," Venezia said, in the same respectful tone with which one would answer a college professor. He does not mind being drawn into a conversation, but he is not likely to have anything earth-shaking to say. "What's your favorite food?" he was asked one day in the jocks' room.
"I don't know," he said. "I like good food."
"What kind of good food?"
"Listen, if you had to spend the rest of your life eating one kind of food, what would it be?"
Venezia pondered. "Well," he said, "if I had to spend my whole life eating one kind of food, then I'd have to think about it."
Michael Venezia came to the racetrack via the south side of Brooklyn, where he "played stickball and hung around." "Those were the two sports we did," he explains. "Anything after that was work, and work we ditn't go for. But we always felt we'd accomplished something even though we ditn't do nothin'. We ditn't feel like we were bored, knowwhatImean?"
During Venezia's childhood, his uncle, Al Scotti, was fashioning his own career as a hot-walker, exercise boy, jockey and trainer. When Michael was 10, Uncle Al took him to Belmont Park and put him on a pony, and the boy began his riding career in the predictably cliché manner: he was thrown. Five years went by before he approached another horse, this one a playful Thorough bred named Fort C. and owned by Uncle Al. "I got up on that horse, and he dropped me," Venezia recalls. "I came back the next day and he does it again, and then he drops me for the third straight day. On the fourth day I stayed on." His own childhood experiences with big, tough horses have left Venezia with a compassionate attitude toward nervous riders. "You don't ever call a jockey yellow or chicken if they don't want to ride," he says. "Some people are just afraid. I've seen guys exercising horses that were really scared of horses. You feel sorry for 'em, you don't knock 'em. Especially like half of 'em started riding and took a very bad spill and it shook 'em up. Yeh, I fell, too, but it affects some people more than others. Me, I just ditn't think about it. Some people think too much."
Indeed, if Venezia started thinking too much about all the spills he has taken and all the horses that have caused him trouble he probably would go to night school and take up accounting. For a while last year he rode for Edward O'Brien, an owner-trainer who is known for his patience with both horses and riders, and there was one spell when an O'Brien horse named Naybor was carrying on a blood feud with the bug boy. "Naybor was a common [troublesome] horse," Michael recalls with no gusto. "He came out of the gate and went down on his knees and I went right over his head. The next time I rode him he was all over the racetrack. When he was on the outside he wanted in, and when he was on the rail he wanted to get out. He'd pass another horse and he'd turn around and try to bite him. Naybor wasn't a nasty horse, he wasn't rank; after a race you couldn't find a nicer horse. But I just couldn't seem to handle him; the best I could do was third, and the horse should have won both races. So Mr. O'Brien put Bob Ussery on him, and right away they win. I learned something from that. Naybor needed somebody to really school him, and that's what Ussery did. Ussery's really too much at bossin' a horse. He lets 'em know right away. He could kill a horse if he wanted to, he's that tough."
But another jockey switch paid off for the boy, at Al Scotti's expense, and now that both uncle and nephew are prospering they relish telling the story. "I rode a horse for Uncle Al," Venezia begins, "and he figures to win easy. His name was Reely Swift, and he was really swift, but I lose on him."
Al Scotti jumps in: "So the next time I run Reely Swift, Michael is already committed to ride a horse named Me Cavan, so I hire Bill Hartack to ride Reely Swift, and I figure I got a lock on the race. I'm 2 to 1, and I've got money bet on my own horse—that's how sure I am."
"So we go into the stretch," Michael says, "and I'm fourth on Me Cavan, and Hartack is first on Uncle Al's horse. But all of a sudden Reely Swift came out and lost ground, and I sneaked through on the rail and won."
"And paid $52.90," says Uncle Al ruefully.
Soon after I' affaire Reely Swift, Uncle Al, an affable blue-eyed man of 38, decided to retire from the business of owning and training horses and devote himself full time to handling the business of his talented nephew for the customary 20%. As Michael Venezia's agent, Scotti is perhaps as much of a success as the jockey, though the evaluation of jockeys' agents is not an exact science. "Winners bring winners," racetrackers say, and as soon as Venezia began scoring heavily at Aqueduct and Saratoga, the trainers flocked to Uncle Al for the boy's services. But Scotti had already done his most important work; he had taught Venezia a riding style that won races and also appealed to trainers. "The main thing about him," says Scotti, "is his ability to give a horse a chance. He doesn't use a horse up too early. That is the biggest defect of apprentices, and it's only natural. They get too excited, anxious to win, and they move early and use a horse up too quick.
"But Michael is cool. He whips with both hands, but he's not what you would call a whip rider. A lot of trainers don't like you to hit their horses. You hit a horse once or twice and if he doesn't respond there isn't much point in hitting him anymore. If Michael hits a horse a few times and nothing happens he'll go back to hand-riding him. Most apprentices just keep banging away."
Arnold Winick, a leading young trainer, was impressed by another Venezia characteristic. "I like the way he rides long in the irons," Winick said. "That makes him very attractive to me as a jockey. Too many bug boys jack the irons way up; they think they look sharp on top of the horse. But you have better control with longer irons."
Venezia was surprised to hear that anyone had noticed how low he keeps his stirrups. "Some fellows are embarrassed to ride long," he says, "but I figure it helps me stay on horses if they get rank. If I was riding real short I wouldn't be tight on when I came out of the gate. Yeh, I know it looks great to shorten up and ride way up on top of the horse, but I'm not out there to look sharp. They don't care how you look if you go by the wire first." This utilitarian attitude impresses trainers and gets Venezia even more mounts. Says Frank Mc-Manus, one of the trainers for Greentree Stable, Venezia's winter employer: "For a bug boy to be so cool and have such judgment is amazing."
Venezia's unshakable coolth has almost become a personal trademark in his first year of racing. In the prerace warmup one never sees him hot-dogging it: strutting or posturing or crowd-pleasing, like some jockeys. "It doesn't make any difference what's going on around him," says an exercise boy at Tropical Park. "Venezia just sits there with his head down, maybe talking quietly to an outrider or walking the horse off by himself. Other horses can be tearin' up and raisin' all kinds of hell, but this kid moves around like him and the horse was alone in the world. He's the same way in a race. If he's gonna rate his horse, he's gonna rate it, and he don't care what's goin' on around him or what the others are doin'. One day I saw him go to the lead and then take back and take back and take back till his horse was just about walkin', and all the rest followin' behind, afraid to move out and make the pace. At the quarter pole he just flew away before the rest of 'em knew what was happenin'. Man, he's ice water!"
All the high praise notwithstanding, there are those who still take Michael Venezia with a grain of salt, and one of them is Michael Venezia. "Whenever I ride now, I get those five pounds," he says, "and who knows what I'll be like when they take the bug away? Right now I'm getting live mounts because that five pounds makes a difference, to the horses and to the trainers. Like you have a horse that's maybe just a little sore and yet the horse has class and'll run anyway. So they'll put the apprentice up, because it means just that much less weight on the sore leg. But when I lose the bug. maybe they'll try to get Ycaza instead of me, knowwhatImean?"
Racing is littered with bug boys who faded away when the asterisk evaporated, and with others who were big winners as apprentices but only run-of-the-mill jockeys later. "Every year there's an apprentice that's gonna be another Arcaro," says a New York racing official. "I remember when it was supposed to be Mickey Solomone; he sat a horse like Arcaro, looked like him just like one cabbage looks like another cabbage. Then there was John Beebe, and Terry Bove, and Ronnie Ferraro as a bug boy was the hottest thing since Coca-Cola. Two years ago it was Michael Carrozzella, and this year it's Venezia. But the last outstanding apprentice to become a really outstanding rider was Howard Grant, and that was seven or eight years ago. It's just like rookie ballplayers. At first nobody knows much about them, nobody knows their weaknesses, their style. It's that second time around the league they get him. After losing his bug, a jock is in for a John Foster Dulles period—a time of agonizing reappraisal."
The crucial time for a jockey is the first two or three weeks after he loses the bug. If he continues to get live mounts and win with them, he can go on to become a top rider. If he starts to lose, there is a reverse momentum; everyone attributes his apprentice success to the five-pound allowance and drops him cold. A key factor, then, is an agent who can convince trainers that the jockey will be a winner with or without the weight allowance, and thus can keep the boy on strong mounts. In April that will be Al Scotti's job, and he is girding for the challenge. The other night Scotti and Venezia and Joe Shea (Ron Turcotte's agent) were sitting around discussing the future. "The trouble," said Joe Shea, whose real name is slightly longer and more Neapolitan, "is that racing is a game of situations: getting your boy on the proper horse in the proper race on the proper day. And then some other horse with a little more class drops in on you and wins it. Racing isn't a game of absolutes, is it? Absolutely not! Now Al'll have to be dealing with all these situations when Michael loses the bug."
"Winners bring winners," Uncle Al said. "It's all a game of winners. Whoever's winning at the time, he gets the business."
Michael usually sits quietly during such discussions, but sometimes he cannot resist administering a needle. "The guys who got it easy are the agents," he said, nudging a friend under the table. "The jock has to do all the work."
Joe Shea snapped to attention, cleared his throat and intoned: "Did it ever occur to you, Michael, that you may be very capable as a jockey and yet you're not worth two cents as an agent, because you don't have the ability to be an agent but you have the ability to be a jockey but an agent has this ability to be an agent. That's why they're necessary." And he rapped the table by way of Q.E.D.
"Joe," said Michael. "I was only kid-din' you. I think every jock needs an agent."
"The thing is," said Joe Shea, laughing, "there's some question about whether an agent needs a jock. In the age of automation, the jock'll be completely gone. We'll use monkeys and pay 'em peanuts." Apprentice Venezia feigned anger, but Uncle Al, apprentice agent, remained silent, perhaps thinking of April and the missing asterisk. "How much," said Joe Shea, "is 20% of a peanut?"