01/03/2008 12:00AM

From stooping for tickets to standing tall


ARCADIA, Calif. - Trainer Jorge Periban refers to them as "colegas," Spanish for friends.

Others call them "stoopers," slang for the scavengers who stoop over racetrack litter looking for uncashed wagering tickets and vouchers.

A competent stooper can earn $200 to $300 a week in Southern California, according to Periban. He would know.

Before quietly emerging as one of the most effective low-profile trainers on the circuit, Periban spent five years as a stooper. He looks back, without remorse. "Those guys picking up tickets are my colegas," Periban said. "They are still my friends."

The time that Periban spent as a stooper was lean. He was in pain much of the time and was forced to squat rather than bend over. He hoped that panning waste in search of winning tickets was not the final stop in his racetrack career.

But he had a broken back, a wife and two small children to support. Options were limited.

"You do what you have to do to survive," Periban said. No regrets, no disgrace, no choice. Today, when Periban looks back, his eyes get misty and he points to the sky. "The guy up there took care of me," he said.

Periban, 48, is coming off his best year. In 2007, his runners won 29 races and more than $600,000 from 171 starts; during the Hollywood Park fall meet he was 7 for 28. And from a wagering perspective, Periban is lethal. Each of the past three years, thanks to several longshot winners, Periban starters generated a flat-bet profit for each $2 bet.

A cheerful man born and raised on the backstretch of the Hipo'dromo, Mexico City's racetrack, Periban has an unlikely past. He fudged his birth certificate by two years and began riding races at 14, got heavy and stopped at age 20, and worked for trainer A.C. Valenzuela (father of Patrick Valenzuela). Periban trained horses in Louisiana in the early 1980s, returned to Mexico and became a top trainer with more than 130 horses. In 1987, he set his sights on California.

"California was my dream - I wanted to be with the big boys," Periban said. The first thing Periban had to do was find work. Although he once saddled five winners on a card in Mexico, nobody knew him in California. He started over, initially as an exercise rider.

The dream nearly ended in February 1998 at Hollywood Park. A horse he was galloping stumbled, and although Periban did not fall off, the jarring concussion injured his back. Initial X-rays revealed no breaks, but Periban knew he was hurt. Bad.

It took eight months before Periban could get an MRI that revealed the extent of his injury.

"That was a hard time for me," Periban recalled. "I was galloping 10 to 15 horses a day, and making $700 to $800 a week. Then my life changed."

Periban's monthly rent payment was $700, but he received only $1,000 in monthly benefits. A weaker man might have called it quits.

"It would have been easy for him to give up and head back to Mexico," said trainer Ed Halpern, a close friend of Periban. It also would have been out of character. Periban, a loyal family man, found a way to make ends meet. No riding horses, no heavy lifting.

The only thing he could do was squat down and pick up discarded mutuel tickets.

"I would do anything for my family," he said. "I had to do it to survive; that's how I made my living for five years."

His income varied. Periban's best find was a discarded ticket on an Arlington exacta worth $2,290 that he found at Los Alamitos. "Sometimes you find one for 10 cents, sometimes for $100 - people throw tickets away," Periban said, still surprised.

However, track security frowns on stooper activity, and Periban said Los Alamitos security commanded him to stop collecting tickets or be ruled off. Periban merely changed job location and commenced stooping at Hollywood. When the same thing happened there, Periban switched to Santa Anita.

"It was the only way, and I'm proud because I kept my family together," he said.

Periban finally had back surgery in fall 2001 to alleviate the pain. "They put wire inside, and it worked," he said. It allowed Periban to return to his lifelong dream - working with horses. With help from his friend Halpern, he gradually eased back into training.

Things started slow for Periban, who has two children - a daughter Carmen, 13; and a son, Jorge, 11.

Periban told his wife, Carolina, "If in 20 races I don't win, I'll quit." That would have been out of character, and Periban now admits: "Sometimes I talk too much."

After 26 losses, he finally won with Timeless End on Oct. 7, 2004, at Los Alamitos. It was the same track he had been chased away from only a few years earlier for collecting discarded tickets. Timeless End was Periban's only winner from 37 starts in 2004, but things picked up in 2005, when he went 8 for 51, and in 2006, when he was 17 for 140.

Periban now has 30 horses in his care at Hollywood Park, including one that runs Saturday at Santa Anita. My Friend Luis runs in race 8, a $12,500 claimer that is his first start since Periban claimed him for $8,000.

"Horses change, and he has improved," Periban said, explaining why the horse is jumping two class levels.

The trainer continues to recognize one fundamental truth. "A horse makes the trainer and the jockey," he said. "If you don't have a horse, you can't do miracles."

Periban already has accomplished one miracle - rising from stooper to top trainer.

As for his colegas, Periban said they are still out there, picking up tickets.

He smiled and said, "But now, they ask me for tips."