01/29/2010 12:00AM

Dueling in the stretch

DRF Illustration
No matter how stern the penalties, jockeys will continue to take out their frustrations on each other.

The time line winds back through the history of high-speed, equine competition like a white-hot cable. Eriluis Vaz and Ademar Santos, the combatants in a recent horseback brawl at Philadelphia Park, were doing nothing more than adding a chapter to the madcap tradition established by battling charioteers Judah Ben Hur and Messala, somewhere around 33 A.D.

"It's an odd thing about jockeys," Eddie Arcaro once told Joseph C. Nichols of the New York Times. "They're the only paid athletes who, if you left them alone, would kill one another."

Arcaro was speaking from visceral experience. On Sept. 19, 1942, while riding heavily favored Occupation in the $10,000 Cowdin Stakes at Aqueduct, Arcaro took exception to an early, indiscreet move by Vincent Nodarse, aboard Breezing Home. Arcaro's blood boiled, and he spent a good portion of the rest of the 6 1/2-furlong event bouncing Nodarse off the inside rail.

Occupation finished second and was disqualified to last. Arcaro, called before the stewards, was given the chance to justify his behavior. Instead, Eddie opted for honesty.

"I'd have killed that sonofabitch if I could," Arcaro declared, as a tape recorder ran.

At the time, Arcaro was 26 and on his way to his second title as the sport's leader in purse earnings. He had won the Kentucky Derby in 1938 with Lawrin and the Triple Crown in 1941 with Whirlaway. Such accomplishments were beside the point, though, in light of his blatant transgression and lack of remorse. The stewards suspended Arcaro's license indefinitely, and it was only through the intercession of an influential owner that Arcaro able to ride again, one year later.

Nodarse and Arcaro eventually became friends. Whether the same will be said someday about Vaz and Santos remains to be seen. A hearing into their incident - which featured Vaz using both his fist and whip on Santos, Santos trying to retaliate, and a great deal of swerving through the field - was held Jan. 21, with a ruling expected about 10 days later.

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No matter what the hearing reveals in the way of motives, though, or how stern the penalties, jockeys will continue to take out their frustrations on each other wherever races are run. Most of the time, they will wait until the race is over and either treat fans to a tussle at the scale, or take matters back to the room. Sometimes, there will be a confrontation while their horses are pulling up, and the action has wound down. And then there are those rare occasions, like the one at Philadelphia Park, when the race itself is tarnished by abhorrent behaviors.

Of course, it used to be that way all the time. At least that's what the old-timers claim.

Were it not for a remarkable photograph taken from under the inside rail by Wallace Lowry of the Louisville Courier-Journal, there would have been no evidence of the involving Don Meade on narrow winner Brokers Tip and Herb Fisher on Head Play.

"He grabbed ahold of me, and we grabbed, grabbed, grabbed all through the stretch," Meade told Billy Reed of Sports Illustrated.

"I hit him across the head with my whip once or twice before the finish and once after," Fisher said, in the same story.

Five years later, it was either George Woolf, riding Seabiscuit, or Noel "Spec" Richardson, on Ligaroti, who initiated the rough stuff , although the issue became moot when Richardson lodged a protest and the accusations flew. After a 15-minute "he said/he said" inquiry, Seabiscuit's win was allowed to stand.

And if Manny Ycaza, who rode Ridan, had not claimed foul on John Rotz, aboard Greek Money, after narrowly losing the 1962 Preakness, Pimlico officials would have had no reason to develop the head-on patrol film that showed Ycaza dropping a rein and aiming an elbow straight at Gentleman Johnny's chest in the final 100 yards.

"Manny just forgot all about riding his horse," said Rotz, from his home in Warrensburg, Ill. "He still had his right hand on the reins, but his left elbow was over in front of me. Greek Money was a lot smaller than Ridan, so I was able to crouch a little bit lower and stay below his elbow."

Both Rotz and Ycaza ended up in the Hall of Fame.

"To this day, I have no idea why he thought he could pull something like that off," Rotz said. "And I really don't know why he claimed foul. But had I finished second, I would have claimed foul, and his number would have come down."

There can be any number of reasons for jockeys to take the law into their own hands. There can be a knee-jerk overreaction to a questionable piece of race riding by an opponent. There can be a "last straw" scenario built from a series of nagging incidents, or the flowering of an ancient, competitive grudge. Sometimes it's even personal.

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"I remember two guys getting into it coming down the hill on the turf at Santa Anita," said Don Pierce, who retired in 1985 after a career that included five victories in the Santa Anita Handicap. "I think one of them made advances toward the other guy's wife or girlfriend. They were up on the lead, standing up and trying to drag each other off. And these horses were really running. They were on the outside fence before we got to the left-hand turn, so that's the last I saw of them. I was just glad to get by in one piece."

In the wake of the Philadelphia Park fight, students at the North American Racing Academy run by retired Hall of Famer Chris McCarron peppered their mentor with questions.

"The first question was what kind of penalty they'd receive," said McCarron, who retired in 2002. "I didn't know for sure, but it would have to be pretty severe, because the stewards have to put that to a stop right away. What they did, though, isn't usually something that just happens. There must have been some kind of battle going on between them prior to the incident."

McCarron was once fined for slapping Patrick Valenzuela with the whip going down the backstretch of a race at Hollywood Park. McCarron attributed his actions to frustrations and anger over the way Valenzuela had been riding close to the edge with apparent impunity.

"It was stupid, and you feel terrible about it afterwards," McCarron said of his actions. "It's just something that can happen in the heat of battle."

McCarron tries to be realistic with his student jockeys. He does not tell them that they might someday get into a fight with another rider. He assures them that they will, especially if they are displaying the kind of competitive fire that it takes to succeed in major league racing.

"I probably got in about five fights over the course of my career, and I was 0 for 5, or maybe there were a couple of draws," McCarron said. "There were a few incidents out on the track, but nothing as grave as what those two guys at Philadephia did.

"I was in my second year of riding at Delaware Park, and a talented rider from Chile, by the name of Hector Pilar, was riding there," McCarron went on. "He was also a very ornery sonofagun. He put me in a real bad spot around the turn, but it was in a place you couldn't pick it up on the cameras. In the next race, he was trying to move me out to make room for himself, and I wasn't going to let him out. He reached over with the stick and hit me across the back. I retaliated and hit him across the back. We both got fined a hundred dollars.

"I don't condone violence," McCarron said. "But I do teach my students that if you cannot restrain yourself, if you can't stand it any longer, and you think you need to retaliate for some way you've been wronged, wait until you're off the horse and back in the jockeys' room. If nothing else, it's much safer."

The incident at Philadelphia Park, widely reported and ), even tripped memories half a world away. Australian racing writer Carl Di Iorio noted that Vaz and Santos were celebrating the Jan. 8 anniversary of the notorious 2006 Bairnsdale Cup affair, at Bairnsdale Race Course in Victoria, when journeyman Danny Adam punched and then struck apprentice Michael Guthrie with the whip the instant they crossed the finish line.

Adam was suspended four months, while Guthrie got the equivalent of 17 days for careless riding. Guthrie maintains Adam would not give him room. Adam testified that Guthrie called him an obscene name, and that's when the older jock lost it.

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The stewards recommended Adam be set down a year, but the commission dialed that back and cited, as a mitigating factor, Adam's severe regimen of dieting to make weight. This did not surprise Rotz.

"It's so competitive to get the mounts," Rotz said. "And a lot of them are less than a hundred percent when they're out there, due to the weight restrictions. It doesn't take a whole lot to set them off."

It can be argued that Adam at least showed enough restraint to wait until the race was concluded before handing down his brand of frontier justice. Still, their horses were in the midst of the pack, and a dislodged rider could have caused serious havoc.

Similar incidents occurred nearly a quarter of a century apart following races at Del Mar, when experienced older riders did not wait for stewards to take action in the face of a transgressing novice.

In 1997, Corey Nakatani knocked apprentice Ryan Barber out of the saddle after a race in which Nakatani said Barber cut him off. There had been other incidents involving Barber and other riders as prelude. Nakatani was suspended 30 days and ordered to enter anger management counseling.

In 1973, during the last race of the Del Mar season, veteran Rudy Campas did something to annoy apprentice James Felton, which was kind of amusing, since by then Felton, 19, had run out of chances with most of the jocks in the room. Upon reaching the stretch of the two-turn event, their horses were near the back of the pack, but that did not stop Felton from giving Campas a whap-whap-whap with his whip. Campas waited until the race was over, then reach over and pulled Felton out of the saddle. Both riders were suspended 10 days.

"I remember Jimmy Felton," said Rotz, who rode at Del Mar that summer. "If he drew number 12, there were a lot of jockeys inside him taking up going into the first turn."

Still, Rotz maintained, there was never a good reason for any rider to take such action, at least when there were still horses and other riders involved. After retiring from the saddle, Rotz had a successful second career as a steward, serving for many years in New York. In that role, he had a chance to nip potentially dangerous activity in the bud.

"It's on your watch," Rotz said. "If somebody's going to get hurt out there, and you saw it coming and didn't do anything about it, that's going to be on your mind for a long time. So if you saw something that had the potential of getting out of hand, you would definitely call them in and tell them how it was going to be. If they didn't go along with that, we'd look at the calendar and decide when their days would start."

Stewards and riders are constantly faced with the extremes in riding personalities. At one end there are the inexperienced and/or reckless, badly in need of both schooling and behavior modification, while at the other are the coldly calculating veterans who use their considerable skills to ride the fine line between fair play and foul.

"When a jock is constantly taking an edge, that edge can become dangerous at times," said retired steward Pete Pedersen, winner of the Eclipse Award of Merit. "I guess we shouldn't be surprised that sometimes there has been retaliation. If a guy gets hit in the face with a whip, and the other guy says it was an accident, just in the natural motion, the stewards have to take into consideration that possibility."

Any number of apocalyptic stories persist of tough old-timers offering life lessons on the fly, free of charge.

"Ralph Neves, for instance. He could be brutal," Pedersen said. "I remember him and another guy were running last and next-to-last. Neves cut over and put the guy on the fence, almost over it. The jock came back and was going to kill him. 'What the hell you doing, Ralph?' screamed the jock. Neves said, cool as you please, 'Just practicing.'"

Former jockey Joe Steiner, now exercise rider for Kentucky Derby favorite Lookin at Lucky, among other stars in the Bob Baffert stable, learned his trade from the legendary John Longden.

"When John was just a kid, he rode up inside this older guy," Steiner recalled. "He yelled, 'Hey, I'm right inside ya!' The guy goes, 'Now get out the same way you got in.' John said the next thing he knew he woke up a week later in the hospital."

The message was clear, and one that Longden passed along to generations of young riders to follow. The motive can be selfish - after all, purses are at stake - as well as altruistic, laced with self-preservation, and illustrated by the approach of perennial Hall of Fame candidate Alex Solis.

"The guys in all the rooms know me," Solis said. "Don't do that to me, once. Don't do that to me, twice. The third time? The third time is not a charm."

Solis laughed, but he wasn't kidding. And yet he is the kind of slow-tempered enforcer who once went to the trouble of inviting the young rider Felipe Martinez - nicknamed "Lethal Weapon" - home to view racing videotapes, in hopes of preventing further Martinez mayhem.

"After a month of coming to my house, he dropped me," Solis deadpanned. "Then I invited him over to the house again. Some guys, they take longer to learn."

And sometimes, the message is crystal clear because there is no mistaking the intentions of the messenger.

"Bill Hartack might have been toughest guy in the world to get along with," said John Rotz, summoning the name of the intense Hall of Famer and five-time Kentucky Derby winner. "But when I had the bug, and some old jock was giving me a rough time, Hartack walked up to him one day and said, 'That'll be enough of that.' I never had any trouble with that guy again."

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