07/14/2011 11:52AM

Bejarano, Rosario battle for California riding supremacy

Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario have dominated the Southern California circuit, accounting for the last 16 major meets. Rosario led Bejarano, 57-53, entering the final week of the Hollywood meet.

Just about everything anyone needs to know about the contours of the jockey landscape in Southern California was distilled in the running of this year’s Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park on Memorial Day.

From the moment Celtic Princess took the early lead from Dubawi Heights, right where the infield chute joins the main track in front of the tote board, Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario were in command of the quarter-million-dollar race.

Bejarano kept a firm but not discouraging hold of Celtic Princess as she led the way. Rosario had his hands low on Dubawi Heights, giving her the occasional squeeze at the base of the neck to maintain their stalking position. Around the final turn, as urgency required, both jockeys began to ask for more, quietly at first, with smaller gestures and subtle shifts in pressure on the bit, then, in the final furlong, with the finishing styles that have served them so well.

Bejarano had sprung clear with Celtic Princess when Dubawi Heights veered slightly right entering the stretch under the force of her momentum. Rosario took care of that with a left-handed crack, closing the gap, at which point Bejarano went from left to right with his stick, his balance still in perfect harmony.

On came Rosario, hand-riding now, his filly reaching as the wire neared, and on this particular day there was nothing Bejarano could have done to prevent Rosario from winning by a long nose. Neither is this to suggest that any two other jockeys, East or West, could not have produced the same result from the two classy fillies. But as the two riders galloped out past the finish that day exchanging niceties – Rosario’s tinged in Dominican Spanish, Bejarano’s flavored by his native Peru – a wave of familiarity washed over the moment. Neither one of their fillies had been favored in the Grade 1 event, and yet there they were, making the difference, cutting up the spoils.

Since the winter of 2007-08, when Bejarano migrated to California from his comfort zone in Kentucky and Rosario made his way south from San Francisco, they have virtually owned the circuit. Think Roger Federer and that other Rafael, named Nadal, who have dominated men’s tennis since 2004, winning 25 of the 31 Grand Slam tournaments played.

Through 16 straight major California meets it has been either Bejarano or Rosario at the top of the standings – nine for Rafael, seven for Joel – with the other guy usually chasing hard in second.

Putting it another way, there were 6,684 races run at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar between Santa Anita’s opening day of the 2007-08 meet and closing day of the 2011 meet. Of those, 1,704 were won by horses ridden by either Bejarano (861) or Rosario (843). That’s one out of every four races won by just two guys, leaving the rest of the room to scramble for the other three.

Over the last year the tale of Bejarano and Rosario has deepened to embrace the personal journeys of their agents. Joe Ferrer and Ronnie Ebanks, both veterans of the trade, can tap into a friendship that has survived three decades in a very tough racket. Each major meet has come down to these four men, with the outcome often up for grabs until the final days.

The current Hollywood Park meet figures to end on the same note, with Rosario likely to carry a narrow lead over Bejarano into the final weekend. Then the show heads south to Del Mar, when everyone kicks back and takes it slow. Everyone, that is, except for the cream of the West Coast jockeys, who seem inspired each summer to lay claim to the seaside crown, mirroring a similar intensity pervading the Saratoga season.

Del Mar, however, never has been dominated, at least not like Angel Cordero owned Saratoga with a string of 11 straight titles. So evenly spread have been Del Mar’s summertime spoils that no jockey has managed to win three straight championships since 1954, when Bill Shoemaker won his fourth of four straight.

History is ripe for picking this summer as Rosario goes for his third straight Del Mar championship. He will get an argument from Bejarano, the champ in 2008, as well as from Joe Talamo, who comes off a banner Hollywood Park meet. In addition, any given race could fall prey to veterans Mike Smith, David Flores, Pat Valenzuela, or Victor Espinoza, as well as a resurgent Tyler Baze, a popular Chantal Sutherland, or the talented Alonso Quinonez, longshot king of the 2010 Del Mar season.

Rosario’s first two Del Mar titles were not without incident. In 2009, his primary competition was eliminated when Bejarano fractured his cheek in an opening day fall. By the time Rafael returned the meet was half over and Rosario was long gone on the lead.

In 2010, with both riders at full strength, the Del Mar battle went down to the last of the 37 programs, with Bejarano ahead by one. Bejarano opened by winning the first two races. Rosario countered by taking the next three. Then, in the 325th and final event of the meet, Rosario finished first and Bejarano was third.

MORE: Breaking down Bejarano and Rosario's dominance of Southern California 

DRF WEEKEND: Shrinking value of graded stakes | Q&A with Julien LeparouxHandicapping roundups

That whoop and holler heard far and wide came from Ebanks, who has handled Rosario’s book since March 2010 (Vince DeGregory and Vic Stauffer represented Rosario before that). Together, Rosario and Ebanks had won the 2010 Hollywood title, but the Del Mar race was special, fraught with the pressure coming from the perception that the whole racing world is watching.

Ancient history now, though, as Ebanks and Ferrer plot their diversions and flanking maneuvers for the Del Mar meet that begins Wednesday. They are moving targets, these two, wired for sound and texted to the max, befitting the keepers of talent in demand. Somehow they were able to sit still long enough on a recent morning at Hollywood Park to pay homage to their riders, as well as their shared histories.

Agents from different worlds, but close in spirit

Even though they are both from Caribbean islands − Ferrer was born in Cuba and Ebanks in Grand Cayman − it is fairly easy to tell them apart, right down to their personal histories.

Ferrer’s father, Joaquin Ferrer de Blanck, was the grandson of a classical Dutch pianist and member of an influential family in Cuban politics who was passionately opposed to the rise and violent rule of dictator Fulgencio Batista. After being imprisoned several times and then forced to seek asylum in a foreign embassy, Ferrer Sr. was among a group of anti-Batista rebels who sailed from Florida on the steamship Corinthia in an attempt to establish a beachhead on the eastern end of the island. Upon landing they were captured, and 16 of them − including Ferrer, his brother, and his cousin − were summarily executed by Batista’s forces May 28, 1957.

As for Ebanks’s father?

“My dad left when I was 7,” he said. “We were immigrants. We came here in 1971, to Louisiana, and my stepdad worked on the river.”

Ferrer dallied in the halls of higher education long enough to receive an MBA in marketing. Ebanks earned tenure early in life with a record of perfect attendance at the school of hard knocks. Ferrer has the demeanor of a college professor − both of his children are teachers − whereas Ebanks is the guy you want to know if you show up late to Mardi Gras and wonder which way’s the fun.

As we learned long ago from Damon Runyon, agents answer to handles like Fats, Bones, Black Heart, and Snake. Ebanks, 47, is known far and wide as “Love Man” − he is basically his own reality show − and now will be immortalized by Dogwood Stable’s Cot Campbell, who applied for the name to be given to a son of Scat Daddy. Ferrer, on the other hand, has not inspired such a tribute.

“No, no nickname,” he said, wearily, with a practiced shrug. “But I can’t be sure what people call me behind my back. Probably nothing good. You know, when you’re doing well nobody likes you.”

Ferrer, 59, emigrated to the United States in 1959 (“After Castro announced he was a Marxist Communist,” he pointed out) and received his MBA from the University of New Orleans with the full intention of entering the mainstream business world. A sidetrack landed him in racing department at Jefferson Downs, hard by Lake Ponchartrain, where among his duties was running the jockeys’ room as clerk of scales.

“I never thought I’d be a jockey’s agent, at least never planned on it,” Ferrer said. “One thing I found out real quick, though, was that the guys working on my side of the counter weren’t making any money and the guys on the other side were. Those were the agents.”

The racetrack encourages associations, some more wholesome than others. So it was toward the end of 1979 at the Fair Grounds meet approached that a teenaged Ronnie Ebanks, who was struggling as a journeyman jockey after leading the standings as an apprentice at Louisiana Downs and Delta Downs, was looking for an agent to help him out of the doldrums. Ferrer, not long out of the racing office, was looking for a rider so he didn’t have to go back.

“He had all the right habits,” Ferrer said. “He worked hard. Rode hard. Even at that age he knew all the tricks.”

“We had a good meet at the Fair Grounds,” Ebanks said.

“A decent meet,” Ferrer said. “That’s a tough meet, the Fair Grounds.”

When Ebanks hit the road they parted ways, on good terms and with the beginnings of a durable friendship.

“He was tall, though,“ Ferrer said. “All skin and bones. It was pretty clear he wouldn’t be able to keep reducing like he was.”

He wasn’t. Ebanks bounced around a number of outposts for the next few seasons, from Phoenix to Detroit and stops in between, before finally hanging up the boots in 1987 to become a jock’s agent. At that point, he’d already had experience.

“I once was 28 wins in front at Turf Paradise and fired my agent,” Ebanks said. “Took my own book for the next three years. I was a great jock to work for.”

This last line dripped with sarcasm. Ferrer protested.

“You were always your own best agent,” Joe said.

“It was a good experience,” Ronnie said. “I eventually learned how to manage my business. I mean, I always looked to get a good agent and wouldn’t mind paying one. But if I couldn’t, I did okay. I could do that riding two a day, and keep the 25 percent.”

“But if you’re riding nine a day,” Ferrer said, “with two or three horses possible for every race, it feels like you’re making a thousand decisions a day. A jockey can’t do that for himself.”

Series of turning points shape careers

The confluence of Ferrer, Bejarano, Rosario, and Ebanks at the pinnacle of the California racing world probably dates back to April 8, 2006, when Bejarano, then tops in Kentucky, dropped into Santa Anita for an afternoon and won six races. Eighteen months later he was back for real. For his agent, though, it was a second chance after a swing and a miss in the mid-1980’s.

“I drove out with Thad Ackel from Louisiana,” said Ferrer, referring to the trainer of the turf star Great Communicator. “We lived together for two months, and I hated it. But Laz Barrera was here, and he was a friend. He said he would get me a rider, a kid named Gary Stevens. So I came out one morning to meet him. Laz says, ‘That rider? He just went through the fence yesterday. Busted up his leg and everything. Might be out for six months. Can you wait?’ ”

Ferrer considered his options.

“I left the next day,” he said.

Ferrer went on to various levels of success with the likes of Sam Maple, Eibar Coa, Rene Douglas, Wigberto Ramos, and Chris DeCarlo before landing Bejarano in 2005. Ebanks handled a number of top jocks, most spectacularly Shane Sellers and more recently the young guns Joe Talamo and Tyler Baze.

“Him and me were fighting to get Rafael and didn’t know it,” Ebanks said with a nod toward Ferrer. “I was in New Orleans, out of the business at the time and not looking for a just any rider. Then I got tipped Rafael was looking for a new agent. He was the rising star, the next champion. He could be that trophy jockey everybody wants.

“It was one of Bejarano’s friends, a guy who knew Joe, who told Rafael he was the guy he wanted,” Ebanks said. “That pulled the plug on me. I’d have liked to have gotten him, but my best friend got him, so it didn’t really bother me. Anyway, now I’m OK.”

Rosario and Bejarano have a long way to go before their narrative challenges the great rivalries of Shoemaker and Pincay, McCarron and Stevens, or Cordero and Velasquez − although that last note gives retired jockey Richard Migliore an eerie case of déjà vu.

“When I look at Rosario, I swear I’m looking at Jorgie Velasquez in his prime,” said Migliore, a big-event analyst for HRTV and consultant with the New York Racing Association. “I mean his seat on a horse, the way he finishes − it’s almost spooky the way he reminds me of Jorgie.”

This is high praise, since Velasquez, a native of Panama, is a Hall of Famer who retired with 6,795 wins. Though Dominican, Rosario does have that complete Panamanian-style package that emphasizes aesthetics and strength as much as the particulars of technique. Far from being labeled a swashbuckler, he loves nothing more than to win a close one using only hands, shoulders, and maybe an underhand flick of the whip. Rosario is closely attuned to the philosophy espoused by Laffit Pincay, the patron saint of all Latin riders out West, who would always insist, “If I look good I know I’m riding good.”

Physically, Bejarano is not as compact as Rosario, nor does he come across as the same kind of power puncher in the closing yards. Once away from the gate, Bejarano sits lightly, hands quiet, allowing his mount to enjoy the journey. By the time a live horse reaches deep stretch for Bejarano he already has benefited from a series of subtle decisions that has put him in a position to win.

“I still haven’t got a good line on why horses run for Rafael,” Migliore noted. “Except that horses run for Rafael.”

Both riders are natural lightweights who get to eat for pleasure as well as survival. Bejarano is a bachelor. Rosario and his wife, Breanna, have an infant son named Liam, born May 3.

“He’s good,” said Rosario, who has two older children who live with their mother in Texas. “The only time he cries is when he’s hungry or needs a change.”

To hear their agents tell it, this is about the same amount of complaining Ferrer and Ebanks hear from their clients, which is to say not much.

“Joel never says to me, ‘Ride that horse’ or ‘Why didn’t I ride that horse?’ ” Ebanks said. “I can’t tell you what peace that brings me to be able not only to do my job, but to enjoy doing my job.”

Likewise Bejarano.

“Joel’s got a great attitude that way, and my guy, too,” Ferrer said. “When you get off a horse it’s always good to tell a trainer or an owner standing there something positive about that horse. They know how good or bad he ran, and I know whether or not I want to ride him back. So why not give them something to build on?”

Neither Bejarano nor Rosario has strayed very far from their roots. Bejarano was born in the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa, in the shadow of the Andes, where he was studying to be a pharmacist when he discovered the racetrack. After a sterling apprenticeship he emigrated to Florida, and he was immediately taken under the wing of fellow Peruvian Edgar Prado, who entered the Hall of Fame in 2008.

Rosario’s father farmed cacao on the Dominican Republic half of the island it shares with Haiti. Of the 18 children in his blended family, Joel is the only one who drifted seriously into the world of horse racing.

“I love to play baseball,” Rosario said, which is hardly a surprise given the game’s rich tradition in the Dominican culture. “No home runs, but a lot of line drives. I wanted to be a pitcher, but I never got past 5-2, 5-3. So when I was 13 one of my stepbrothers took me to the jockey school. It’s a poor country. I didn’t have that many choices.”

Rosario had been competing locally for about three years when he watched Jose Santos, a champion from Chile, win the 2003 Kentucky Derby aboard Funny Cide.

“I watched a lot of American racing on TV,” Rosario said. “That was the first time I remember thinking, ‘I would really like to do that.’ ”

Unlike Rosario, Bejarano arrived in Southern California a name brand. Still, despite winning the Santa Anita title in his first full meet, he felt like a stranger in a strange land.

“I feel a lot better riding in California now,” Bejarano said. “There are so many good riders, all of them with a different style. In Kentucky I used to be more quiet in the race. I would ride a lot of horses who come from behind. Here, you have to change your style depending on the track. At Hollywood you’ve got to keep your horse closer to the pace. Del Mar the first two or three weeks the track could be very slow.”

He wasn’t supposed to stay.

“That’s right,” Bejarano said. “We were coming just for Santa Anita. But then the business got good, and it’s much easier to stay in one place all year, only moving the one time to Del Mar. If I ride in the East, you feel like you’re moving all the time.”

Neither Rosario nor Bejarano is the type of guy to gab your ear off. Trash-talking rivals they are not. Both men are keenly aware that, while they may be on top right now, the rest are always at their heels.

“I like him,” Rosario said of Bejarano. “He seems like a nice guy and a very good rider. There are a lot of good riders here. I learn something every day.”

“It’s important for me to be leading rider,” Bejarano said, “but I’m not gonna die if I don’t win a title. When I was having my good times in Kentucky, I was 40, 50 in front. Nobody close to me. Now it’s tougher. And not just with Rosario. Look at the standings. I have to work very hard. But it’s good for fans. They can bet anybody out there.”

Not surprisingly, both Rosario and Bejarano want what all ambitious young jockeys want: national championships, great horses, the Kentucky Derby. Each man has two Breeders’ Cup wins, most recently Rosario’s victory in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile with Dakota Phone. At some point, both agents concede that their riders will need to shift eastward to be assured of such opportunities.

“There are quality horses in California, but there just isn’t the depth of quality any longer,” Ferrer said. “If you want to ride Derby horses you almost have to be in the mix back East.”

“Very true,” Ebanks said. “We’re like big fish in a not-quite-big-enough pond in California right now. But to go back East, you’re going into the jungle.”

“Right now the lifestyle is a consideration,” Ferrer said, “for both the jockey and the agent. We’re all looking forward to Del Mar.”

And perhaps to a wild showdown comparable to last summer, when Rosario won that 57-56 nail-biter in the final race.

“We were going to celebrate no matter what,” Ebanks said.

“Yes,” Ferrer said, “but whoever won was going to buy dinner.”

The bet was settled not long after that at one of Miami’s finest restaurants. Ferrer is still laughing.

“Twelve hundred dollars!” Ebanks said, choking on the memory. “A lot more than I got for winning that race.”