11/21/2013 4:17PM

Fox has no regrets about crossing picket line to ride in inaugural NYRA mile

Barbara D. Livingston
Forty Niner and jockey Billy Fox Jr. after winning the 1988 NYRA Mile for trainer Woody Stephens.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Billy Fox Jr. sits in the covered atrium of the original J. Gumbo’s restaurant he founded in the historic Frankfort Avenue district of Louisville in 2005. He smiles when asked for his recollections of a quarter-century ago, when he crossed a picket line to ride, as he calls them, “big, strapping racehorses.”

It was a different time and place, of course, a lifetime removed from his self-made career as an on-the-go businessman with a blossoming franchise of Cajun-style eateries. It was New York, and people were not very nice to him, although circumstances certainly did not dictate that they be.

“Being a jockey is a very cutthroat business,” Fox, 47, said. “Everyone I asked about me going up there to ride said to go on and do it, and I did.”

As the years have passed, Fox has come to personify the several dozen riders who defied their brethren by accepting mounts in races at Aqueduct in the borough of Queens in fall 1988. The Jockeys’ Guild had called for its members to strike as it sought increased financial benefits for all jockeys, including a better pay scale for in-the-money finishes. As the show went on, the regular jockeys manned a picket line outside Gate 14 while controlled chaos and uncertainty reigned inside the gates.

Today, with the Grade 1 Cigar Mile firmly entrenched as a major event on the late-season North American racing calendar, Fox marvels at the series of events that landed him on the heavy favorite, Forty Niner, for the inaugural running of what was unveiled as the NYRA Mile on the opening-day program at Aqueduct on Oct. 22, 1988.

“I’d been riding at Philadelphia Park and Keeneland, doing fairly well, actually,” said Fox, who was born into a racing family in Louisiana. “I believe I was third in the standings behind Julie Krone and Chris Antley at Philadelphia before I moved down here to Kentucky.”

Dale Romans, who eventually would become his de facto brother-in-law, and Billy Badgett, a former assistant to Forty Niner’s trainer, the legendary Woody Stephens, were most instrumental in convincing Fox to go to New York. Fox said Badgett is a first cousin on his mother’s side, and with New York Racing Association officials vowing to continue racing with or without their regular riders, “Billy told me he thought he could get me the mount on Forty Niner for this new big race they were having,” Fox said.

Romans, the 2012 Eclipse Award winner for outstanding trainer, said he has always felt that “Billy has no fear of anything – I mean, nothing,” and that he saw little harm in Fox’s actions.

Fox is 14 months younger than his sister, Tammy Fox, a former jockey who is Romans’s longtime life partner and a key member of the Romans stable. Throughout their childhood and beyond, their father, William Fox Sr., ran a sizable stable that operated mostly in southwest Louisiana. The elder Fox disbanded his stable in 1995 before making a short-lived comeback in 2000. He now lives in Louisville assisting his son with the restaurants.

It is instructive to know that the younger Fox is a man of keen intellect, mostly self-taught, highly articulate, noticeably self-confident, impervious to outside influences, and unquestionably successful in what have become his midlife business ventures. J. Gumbo’s started here eight years ago and now has branched out into 12 states and several Asian countries, with more than 100 stores planned by 2015. Combined sales are projected to surpass $20 million next year.

Fox is well aware of what was at stake with the 1988 work stoppage and all the principles that came into play.

“I came from a family of horsemen, and I was not a member of the Jockeys’ Guild,” he said. “I’ve always been more loyal to owners and trainers than jockeys. Obviously, it’s a pretty complex issue, but that was basically my bottom line. I had no allegiances to other jockeys.”

Forty Niner, by the great Mr. Prospector, was a true marquee horse of the era. Bred and owned by Claiborne Farm, he was the 2-year-old champion of 1987 and had finished a close second to Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby before winning the Haskell and Travers for the iconic Stephens, who after a controversial Preakness had switched from using Pat Day on the colt to Laffit Pincay Jr. It was Pincay’s refusal to cross a picket line being honored by comrades such as Angel Cordero Jr. and Jorge Velasquez that opened up the mount.

Fox said he vividly remembers being in Stephens’s tack room in the days before the NYRA Mile, and “the phone just kept ringing off the hook. There were jockeys from all over the country wanting to come in to ride Forty Niner – it was unbelievable how many. It was a $500,000 race, which was huge money back then. It wasn’t like I was the only one willing to cross the picket line, not even close.”

Fox said when he walked into the Aqueduct paddock for the NYRA Mile, he was thoroughly unimpressed with how Forty Niner looked.

“He was nothing like some of these big, strapping horses I’d been seeing there in New York,” he said. “I actually thought, ‘I think they led the wrong horse over.’ ”

With a laugh, he added: “I looked down to see if he was standing in a hole or something.”

What Forty Niner may have lacked in looks was more than compensated by his ability to run. Bet down to 2-5 in a field of six, he stalked the pace, then overcame traffic late in the final turn to edge clear in midstretch. Fox kept him to a steady drive, and Forty Niner held on to win by a neck over the late-running Mawsuff. The winning time was a swift 1:34.

Fox said he felt the other jockeys knew he was on the horse to beat, and “at about the five-sixteenths pole, one came up to me on the inside and another on the outside. Forty Niner was just going along, and it was the only time I’d ever felt something like this – it was like he squatted down and just accelerated to get out of the trouble.”

Claiborne’s Seth Hancock was there.

“I just remember they bounced [Fox] around pretty good,” Hancock said. “He was the new kid on the block there with the jockeys’ strike going on and all. It was a little disconcerting.”

Dean Sarvis, then 20 and based in Maryland, was aboard Mawsuff for trainer Tom Skiffington. While Sarvis said he is thankful for the opportunity to have ridden Mawsuff – “Still the best horse I ever rode,” he says – his recollection of the entire strike-breaking experience is markedly different from Fox’s.

“I wouldn’t do it again because I had a lot of riders mad at me for a long time,” said Sarvis, who now rides mostly in Ohio. “I was a Jockeys’ Guild member, so that had a lot to do with it.”

Sarvis also hails from a family of horsemen; his grandfather was the late trainer John Tammaro, who had a very successful stable in Maryland in the 1970s and 80s, and two of his uncles became trainers.

“The guild does very important things for us,” he said. “As a young guy, I didn’t understand that. I do regret it. If that’s one thing I could go back and change in my life, I would.”

The strike lasted less than two weeks, although Fox, defiant, remained in New York for almost another year and fared relatively well. His combined mount earnings for 1988-89 were more than $3.1 million, representing easily his career peak.

On Nov. 3, 1988, the first day the regular jockeys returned from the strike, Fox and Antley got into an argument walking back from a race.

Said Fox: “Antley said something smart to me, and I just popped him.”

Antley, who eventually won the Kentucky Derby twice before his death in 2000, rode the Breeders’ Cup that year at Churchill Downs in Louisville with a fresh shiner to his left eye, courtesy of Fox.

Forty Niner also took part in the Breeders’ Cup that year, finishing fourth in the Classic after a highly eventful trip under Krone, who, incidentally, became the first female jockey in Breeders’ Cup history that afternoon. Pincay did not get the mount back from Claiborne and Stephens essentially because he refused to ride the NYRA Mile, which is another story altogether.

This year, the Grade 1 Cigar Mile (the name was changed in 1997 to honor Cigar, the 1994 race winner and the 1995-96 Horse of the Year) is expected to enjoy one of its best renewals on Nov. 30 at Aqueduct, with likely starters including such standouts as Groupie Doll, Goldencents, and Verrazano. Through the years, the race has been won by numerous top milers, a precedent established at the very outset by Forty Niner, who ultimately became a sensational sire in Japan.

Fox won more than 600 races in a riding career that began at age 17 in 1983 and effectively ended in 1993, when he broke his back in a spill in Hong Kong. (He did ride sparingly in 1995 and again in 2005-06.) Aside from the isolated incident with Antley, he said he does not recall any jockeys being overly spiteful to him or any particular vitriol directed against him because of his prominent role in that short and tumultuous window of racing history.

“I mean, you would hear ‘scab’ and other insults by the people on the rail there at Aqueduct,” Fox said. “But they’re usually pretty tough on you regardless.”

He said Cordero and others “weren’t exactly cordial, but it’s a business, anyway. Nobody directly confronted me. You would maybe notice people talking about you or gesturing at you, maybe even in the years after it all was over, but none of that really bothered me.”
Unlike Sarvis, he would do it all over again.

“I don’t regret it,” he said. “I don’t feel like I did something dirty or bad – not at all. I live my life every day with a clear conscience. And it’s not like you can go back and change it anyway.”