08/11/2008 12:00AM

Agent gets back in the picture


DEL MAR, Calif. - The gathering in the winner's circle following Sky Cape's victory in the La Jolla Handicap last Saturday included most of the cast and crew from the glory days of Imperialism, who won a pair of tough Santa Anita stakes and finished third to Smarty Jones in the 2004 Kentucky Derby, then came back the following year to win the Pat O'Brien Handicap at Del Mar.

Owner Steve Taub was there, alongside Sky Cape's trainer, Kristen Mulhall. The new face in the photo, though, was Vince DeGregory, the former Saratoga Springs star athlete and legendary jockey agent who currently represents the rising Dominican star Joel Rosario.

Jock's agents aren't usually found in such a setting. In fact, it was traditionally discouraged from on high. But there was DeGregory, beaming like a proud dad at the 23-year-old Rosario sitting proudly atop Sky Cape, having just upset the La Jolla at a fat 12-1.

"I've never gone down to the winner's circle since way back, when I had Pincay," DeGregory said Monday morning. "The rule was no agents in the winner's circle. It was a hundred-dollar fine. I was riding a horse named Page for Joe Arena. W.R. Johnson claimed him from Bob Wheeler. W.R. said, 'Vince, if this horse wins I want you in the winner's circle. I'll pay the fine.'

"Sure as hell he wins, and sets a track record," DeGregory went on. "We're in the winner's circle, we took the picture, and the phone rang. 'Vince, it's the stewards.' I said, 'Mr. Johnson, I think you better answer this.' "

It would be a daunting task to tally all the winners DeGregory has racked up through the decades. At one time or another, over a career approaching half a century, he has represented practically an entire wing of the Hall of Fame, including Angel Cordero Jr., Laffit Pincay Jr., Jorge Velasquez, Jacinto Vasquez, Chris McCarron, and, briefly, Bill Shoemaker.

DeGregory got his agent's license at Aqueduct in 1959, and in 1961 he found himself at Turf Paradise with Vasquez, freshly imported from Panama.

"One day he was riding a horse named Too Gone for the owner of the track, Walter Cluer," DeGregory said. "He came out of the one hole, wheeled, and Jacinto broke his leg. I've hated the one-hole ever since. In those days I didn't have enough money to stay alive. So I had to go work in the mutuels for six dollars a day, and I played trumpet at night with Pete Bugarin and his Latin Band, a 14-piece dance band playing in downtown Phoenix."

Things picked up after that, but it has been awhile for DeGregory since the glory days and the national championships. In December 2006, at the age of 74, he underwent heart surgery, and as 2007 dawned, he was all but resolved to hang up his condition book for good.

Then Rosario surfaced in Northern California, and DeGregory knew a good thing when he saw it. Hard work, persistence, and DeGregory's steady hand have shaped Rosario into a major player on the Southern California circuit, with a strong second to Rafael Bejarano at this year's Hollywood Park meet. Right now Rosario is battling Tyler Baze for second behind Bejarano at Del Mar.

Rosario was nailed with a 10-day suspension for careless riding near the end of the Del Mar meet last summer, but his record since then has improved along with his business. He has received only two three-day suspensions in 2008.

"I do try to go over a lot of things with Joel, to make sure he stays out of the stewards' office," DeGregory said. "When you're young and you come here and don't talk much of the language, it's easy for them to give you days because you can't explain yourself when certain situations come up."

In Sky Cape, Rosario might have a colt that could take him places. He is a flashy chestnut with a solid finishing kick who was showing enough this time last year to have a crack at the Del Mar Futurity. That didn't work, but since then he has had 4 wins and 4 seconds in his last 10 starts.

Mulhall, who also bred and owns half of Sky Cape, had to scratch her colt from a division of the opening-day Oceanside when he spiked a fever and needed antibiotics. The La Jolla also was Sky Cape's first crack at graded company, and Rosario was riding him for the first time.

"I thought a mile and a sixteenth against better horses was going to be pushing it, just because he would never totally relax," Mulhall said. "Everyone has been wanting to take a real tight hold of him, and that's when he gets rank. So the only thing I told Joel was to take the longest hold possible, and if he could get him covered up a little it would help. He broke sharp and Joel got him back, then when he started to get a little strong he drifted off the rail a little bit and got him to relax. He did a great job."

Good enough to get DeGregory in the picture.

"I was kidding around before with Taub," DeGregory said. " 'You never give me any mounts!' After the race he says, 'Come on. You've gotta get in the picture. I'll pay the fine.' I said, 'Steve, there's no more fine.' "