03/05/2010 12:00AM

New kid gets old-school lesson in winning


Up in the stands, Gary Stevens saw it coming.

"Oh, Danny," Stevens said, his eyes glued to the big infield video board."That's the kid in there. Come on, kid. Either get in or get out."

This was all fair warning. Stevens and the Thursday crowd at Santa Anita were witnessing an education on the fly. Tyler Kaplan, all of 16 and riding his first professional race for trainer Vladimir Cerin, was letting his mare, Soldier Betty, probe a narrow space between the rail approaching the three-eighths pole and the filly Too Pink, ridden by the hard-boiled veteran, Danny Sorenson.

Now, there are more dangerous things to do in this life than to try getting through inside Sorenson while he still has horse, but not many. Bull-riding drunk comes to mind. Or rattlesnake wrestling. Despite Too Pink's odds of 62-1, Sorenson still had horse, as he later made clear.

"In that situation, I'm still riding with the best interests of my owner in mind," Sorenson said. "I wouldn't let God through inside."

Kaplan got the drift and tapped the breaks on Soldier Betty, sucked back and angled right. There was some minor commotion, then turning for home Kaplan found himself on the far outside with nothing between him and the wire but four horses and half a furlong of daylight. Some horses head for the barn. Soldier Betty got her rider home by half a length.

Kaplan is currently in the midst of a memorable internship as part of his schooling at the North American Racing Academy run by retired Hall of Famer Chris McCarron. Even so, Kaplan admitted he didn't know quite what to do once the race was through.

"I kept thinking, 'Do I pull up here? Now? What then?' " he said.

In truth, after cracking the ceiling in his first try, the winner's circle was the least of his problems. The moment the race was declared official, and after Kaplan had a teary reunion with his family, his fellow riders, now brothers in blood, were transformed into a maniacal cabal of hazing frat boys, intent on giving the new kid as good as they got after their first score.

"Where is he?" wondered a wild-eyed Joe Talamo, peeking around the door of the room. He was wearing a yellow rain slicker and carrying a bucket.

"He won't know what hit him," said a grinning David Flores, the unofficial master of ceremonies.

In this age of high technology and digital realities, it is comforting to know that there still are some messy, hands-on racing rituals faithfully observed. Even when those rituals amount to borderline assault.

"The first race I won, I had no clue what they were doing," recalled Bob Baffert, who gave up a career as a jockey in the Arizona bushes a long time ago. "All these toothless old guys, I thought they were mad at me for coming in there and winning a race. When the worst they did was paint me, I was so relieved."

Thus spared a scene from "Deliverance," Baffert still got the ultimate treatment, which is to say his genitals were liberally swabbed with the traditional black shoe polish. Such a fate clearly awaited young Mr. Kaplan as well, as Martin Pedroza lifted him off the ground like a squirming feather and carried him into the jocks' room, amidst a great flailing of arms and at least one valet trying to rescue Kaplan's silks from the onslaught to come.

The sounds coming from the other side of the hallway partition were frightening, and hilarious, and when it was over, the floor of the jocks' room was awash in a slurry of ice water, broken eggs, hot sauce, ketchup, baby power, the contents of a couple trash barrels, and a dark, meandering smear that was whatever shoe polish did not attach to Kaplan. He was in the shower, and would be for another half-hour at least.

"A tsunami!" proclaimed clerk of scales Charlie McCaul as he hiked his pants above his ankles. "It's been a while, but the guys haven't lost their touch."

Kaplan earned praise for the grace with which he accepted his fate, as well as some constructive criticism on his ride.

"I basically told him that he needed to learn to anticipate things happening well before they happened," Sorenson noted. "After the race, while we were walking back, Vladimir offered me a tuition check."

And the memories flowed.

"Of course I remember my first winner," Sorenson said with a cackle. "It was at Hollywood Park. I beat Darrel McHargue a dirty nose. He couldn't wait to get me back in the room."

McHargue, now a steward in Northern California, did not recall the particulars of the Sorenson hazing. But he couldn't forget his own.

"After getting painted, I swore I'd be blistered all over," McHargue said. "After that, of course you have to pass it on down. And it's okay, as long as it doesn't get out of hand. It's a celebration type of thing."

And, apparently, a very American celebration.

"I came here in 1970, and was very surprised when I saw it the first time," said the retired Chilean great Fernando Toro. "You never forget your first winner. In America, jockeys make sure you never forget."

Such pagan, Lord of the Flies behavior by mature professional athletes can only be appreciated after a few visits to the hospital bedsides where they lie broken and crushed. If they are lucky, they get up and go back to work, where they whistle past their own graveyards every day. This is the life Tyler Kaplan has chosen, at least for now.

"I'm still dazed," Kaplan said late in the day, as he emerged from the room, scrubbed reasonably clean. "It all seemed so surreal."

At least he's got that behind him.

"Don't be so sure," Gary Stevens said. "I got it after winning my first Quarter Horse race, then again after my first Thoroughbred win. There are guys who'll get you after you win your first distance race, your first grass race, your first stakes race. You just never know."