Updated on 09/17/2011 1:43PM

Just reward? Not for this rider


OLDSMAR, Fla. - Like most horseplayers, I am a chronic jockey-hater, one who believes that the little people rarely make a positive contribution to the horses they ride and frequently screw up their chances. But this year, as I followed a particular jockey's fortunes, I felt an unfamiliar emotion: compassion.

I was playing the races at Tampa Bay Downs last winter, and I observed that this was an undistinguished jockey colony, even for a minor-league track. One rider in the bunch was utterly hapless - a veteran named Craig Faine.

At the Tampa Bay meeting that opened in December 2002, Faine was winless in December, winless in January, winless in February. Statistics in Daily Racing Form mercilessly documented his ever-growing record of futility; by mid-March he had lost 122 consecutive rides. He finally broke the streak on his 123rd mount, but his woes continued thereafter. Many bettors automatically eliminated any horse he was aboard.

I was watching all of the Tampa Bay races closely, and I didn't see Faine make an inordinate number of mistakes. He didn't run into traffic or go wide on the turns more often than the typical Tampa Bay rider. He looked good on a horse's back; he didn't have the herky-jerky style that often characterizes untalented jockeys. He didn't deserve his fate, and I often wondered how he endured it, financially and emotionally.

When I visited Tampa Bay Downs this week, I sought out the 42-year-old jockey and told him I wanted to write a column about him. I assured him, "I'm not going to embarrass you." He replied, matter-of-factly: "I lost a hundred races in a row. You can't embarrass me."

Faine's life is surely similar to that of many jockeys who never make headlines and struggle to subsist. Raised in upstate New York, he rode his first race at Aqueduct in 1979 but has spent most of his career at lesser tracks, principally Finger Lakes Race Track in Canadaigua, N.Y. In his very best year, 1988, his mounts won 79 races and slightly more than $400,000 in purses. Since a jockey typically gets 10 percent of the purse (less an agent's commission), Faine hasn't made a bountiful living.

He came to Tampa Bay last season because he got a job galloping horses on a farm in Ocala, Fla. The trainer for whom he worked had promised that Faine would ride his horses at Tampa Bay. But the trainer reneged on that promise, and, Faine said, "I had to regroup." He tried to get mounts from horsemen he knew at Finger Lakes, but the pickings were slim.

Faine would drive 2 1/2 hours from Ocala every racing day, often to ride one dismal horse. He would spend the entire day in the jockeys' room, hoping to get a "pickup" mount when another rider couldn't or wouldn't ride his assigned horse. If a rider thought there was might be something physically wrong with an animal, Faine was ready to take his place and accept the risks.

"I've had plenty of injuries - I've been trampled, I've had six horses run over me - but I'm willing to take the shot," Faine said. "I knew a lot of these pickup mounts didn't have a chance in hell. But normally you'll pick up a mount here and there who can run."

Faine couldn't. As his losses mounted, he struggled to maintain his self-confidence in his own ability. "I felt in my heart that I could still ride," he said. "But it was like I was jinxed. Pretty soon I didn't know if I was ever going to win another race."

A few trainers continued to give him mounts. Pete Wasulik, who has known Faine for years at Finger Lakes, said: "Craig is by no means a bad rider. He's also the best galloping boy you can find; he can gallop horses that nobody else can [handle]. When he was 0 for 100 he might have been pressing too hard, but I tried to stick with him because I know he's going to give you 110 percent every time."

When Faine finally won a race, on a 27-1 maiden, his fellow jockeys doused him with a bucket of water when he walked into the jockeys' room - the typical initiation given to an apprentice who wins his first race. Faine was buoyed by the victory.

"I thought I'd go out on a real roll," he said. "But it didn't work out that way."

Nor did he have much success when he went north for the summer, riding mostly at Delaware Park and Penn National. When he came back to Tampa this month, his record for the calendar year was 6 wins in 314 mounts. Even so, he didn't line up any work as an exercise rider to help pay the rent.

"I'm just riding to make my income," he said. "It's going to be really tough. But I've made a living at this before. I can do it again."

On opening day, Dec. 13, Faine had two mounts, both horses with early speed. When the first one stopped to a walk, Faine said to himself: "This is going to be another friggin' year like last year." And when he dismounted, a fan hollered: "Are you going to go for 100 again?"

His second mount was a 25-1 filly who hadn't raced in 15 months. Faine hustled her from the gate, and as he opened a six-length lead he might have wondered what disaster was going to befall him this time. None did, and Faine went to the winner's circle, having earned $572 for his victorious ride.

"It was awesome!" he said. "I got the monkey off my back."

For a few days, that one victory put his name on the list of the leading riders at Tampa Bay Downs. He won't stay there by riding two or three longshots a day, but at least he'll be spared the ignominy of last season's eternal losing streak. A rider who has struggled so long and hard deserves at least that small blessing.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post