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Suspicions follow Rodriguez's success as trainer
On Feb. 3, 2010, Rudy Rodriguez visited the Aqueduct press box to announce that he was giving up his career as a jockey to become a trainer. Tired of riding good horses in the morning and bad ones in the afternoon, Rodriguez finally went on his own and left the employ of trainer Richard Dutrow Jr., for whom he had worked for several years.
It was hard to imagine it at the time, but what transpired over the next 11 months may have been the most significant on-track story in New York racing in 2010. In a year in which the construction of a casino at Aqueduct finally commenced and betting at New York City Off-Track Betting Corp. ceased, the emergence of Rodriguez, 38, as a highly successful trainer was equally surprising.
Although his first horse didn’t start until Feb. 18 and he didn’t record his first win until March 31, Rodriguez ended 2010 with 71 wins from 264 starters on the New York Racing Association circuit, placing him third in wins behind Todd Pletcher (120) and Gary Contessa (86). Counting starters at other tracks, Rodriguez had 76 victories from 292 starters, a 26 percent win rate, and his horses earned $2,117,381 in purses.
Along the way, Rodriguez’s stable has grown to approximately 70 horses, and he won the prestigious Belmont Park fall meet trainer’s title and finished in the top three at NYRA’s other meets except Saratoga, where he finished 12th with seven wins. He won stakes races at Aqueduct, Calder, and Parx Racing (formerly Philadelphia Park).
“I’m pleasantly surprised at his success,” said Chip Acierno of Gabrielle Farm, among the first owners to give Rodriguez horses. “I didn’t think he’d be this good this soon. I think it’s fantastic. It couldn’t happen to a better guy. I don’t think anybody dislikes him. There might be a few people that he claims from that are jealous of his success, but Rudy’s beautiful.”
Indeed, with success − especially rapid, unforeseen success − came accusations from fans and horsemen that Rodriguez was cheating. After he won 8 races from 11 starters at the Aqueduct spring meeting, officials from the New York State Racing and Wagering Board and NYRA began showing up at Rodriguez’s barn, a practice Rodriguez says still takes place. At the beginning, investigators would be camped outside Rodriguez’s barn monitoring and documenting the comings and goings of workers, veterinarians, and other visitors. In some instances, security would be assigned to sit outside the stalls of horses running on that day’s program. When Belmont was running, security would go in the vans that brought Rodriguez’s horses from Aqueduct.
The racing and wagering board, while not willing to discuss its surveillance of Rodriguez, did confirm that Rodriguez does not have any pending medication violations.
For his part, Rodriguez has taken the accusations in stride. He said he is not doing anything illegal, and he and his owners believe the barn’s success is a combination of hard work, good horsemanship, and luck.
“A lot of people think we are cheating,” Rodriguez said. “I wish I knew what we were doing. We just try to put a lot of work into the horses and try to pay attention to what the horses look like, and how they are doing.”
Part of the “we” to whom Rodriguez refers is his older brother Gustavo, who works as Rudy’s assistant. Gustavo and Rudy worked for Richard Dutrow Sr. and Richard Dutrow Jr., both highly regarded and successful horsemen. It was Gustavo, however, who thought his brother would do well as a trainer and who constantly urged him to go out on his own.
“I knew we could make it,” said Gustavo Rodriguez, 39. “A few years ago I said to him, ‘Rudy, we know how everything goes, we know we can make it. I think we’ve got to go on our own.’ But he was afraid all the time. Finally, in the end, he went for it.”
A native of Mexico, Rudy Rodriguez came to the United States in the late 1980s and worked in the fields of Wauchula, Fla., planting and picking fruits and vegetables.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Rodriguez said of Wauchula, which is actually in the southwest section of Florida. “Planting strawberries and picking oranges from the trees. I did that for three or four months. That was hard work. When I got to the horses, I said, ‘I’m never going back there.’ ”
Though he was exposed to horses on a limited basis in Mexico, Rodriguez had not been introduced to horse racing. His oldest brother, Jesus, rode some at Gulfstream Park. His other brother, Gustavo, worked for several horsemen. In 1986, Gustavo was working for Dominic Galluscio, first in New Jersey, then in Florida, before Galluscio came to New York.
Seeking more money, Gustavo left Galluscio and applied for a job with Richard Dutrow Jr., a meticulous horseman with a terrific reputation who had left Maryland to come to New York.
“He was paying very good,” Gustavo said, explaining why he sought out Dutrow.
Rudy Rodriguez was light enough to be a rider, but he never truly considered it until Jesus showed him the ropes. One of Rudy’s first exercise riding jobs was for Howie Tesher in Florida.
Rodriguez then joined Gustavo as an employee of Dutrow Sr., and his experience and education truly accelerated. Dutrow would give his horses three or four days off the track after they raced, Rodriguez said, and they would tack-walk the day before they returned to the track.
“He was checking every horse every day,” Rodriguez said of Dutrow. “Sometimes he’d show me the horses and say this horse has this and that horse has that. I was very lucky to work for [him]. You work hard, but you learn. If you’re willing to learn, they give you the opportunity.”
In 1992, Rodriguez was still working for Dutrow, but he decided to ride in the afternoon, as well. As an apprentice jockey − one who rides with less weight than a journeyman − Rodriguez won 34 races from 502 mounts. Those would be his highest yearly totals in wins and mounts. His career lasted 19 years and ended with 221 victories from 3,900 rides.
In 2008, already several years into working as an exercise rider for Dutrow Jr. − who that year won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Big Brown − Rodriguez scored his biggest victory as a jockey, guiding Frost Giant to an upset victory in the Grade 1 Suburban. He won three other stakes as a jockey in his career.
“It was a lot of work for me to be a jockey,” Rodriguez said. “I tried very, very hard to be a jockey, struggling with the weight, reducing all the time. But I enjoyed it. I never complained, I rode a lot of bad horses, I always tried my best. The people I was riding for, I was very thankful they gave me the opportunity to ride for them.”
Rodriguez said he believes one of the best horses he rode was General Maximus, a New York-bred on whom Rodriguez won first time out at Belmont Park in the summer of 2009. In the hopes of riding him again when the horse returned from injury in early 2010, Rodriguez put off his planned departure from riding until February, when he learned General Maximus had gone to Florida.
In beginning his training career, Rodriguez had the support of owners Acierno, Michael Dubb, and Aristoklis Haymandos of Our Dream Stable Inc. On Jan. 10, Rodriguez won his last race as a jockey on Wicked Climb, trained then by Chip Dutrow. On Feb. 18, Wicked Climb, owned by Dubb, became Rodriguez’s first starter as a trainer, finishing sixth of seven in a second-level New York-bred allowance race.
Dubb, one of New York’s leading owners and a member of NYRA’s Board of Trustees, said Rodriguez’s experience working for the Dutrow family and his tremendous work ethic were appealing to him.
“I believe people who work hard and pay attention deserve the chance to be rewarded,” Dubb said.
Rodriguez would lose with his first six starters before Aegean Breeze gave him his first winner in the second race at Aqueduct on March 31, the first day of Aqueduct’s spring meet. By the end of the 19-day meet April 25, he had won with 73 percent of his starters.
Before Aegean Breeze won that race for $7,500 claimers, he had lost his previous three starts − albeit against tougher company − by 104 lengths.
On April 8, Chromospere won a $16,000 maiden claiming race on turf after having been claimed by Rodriguez out of a third-place finish for $10,000 sprinting on dirt.
On April 10, Rodriguez won a starter allowance race with Temecula Creek, whom he claimed for Dubb off David Jacobson for $7,500 six weeks earlier. Temecula Creek had finished ninth of 12, beaten 12 1/4 lengths in that $7,500 race, his first start off a year layoff. Since the claim, Temecula Creek has 6 wins from 11 starts and just over $198,000 in earnings, including a victory in the $75,000 Valley Forge Stakes at Parx on Dec. 7.
Temecula Creek began his career in the barn of Bobby Frankel. The horse did okay, running second and third in allowance races to subsequent Grade 1 stakes winners Bribon and Street Boss. Before the winter of 2009, Temecula Creek was sold to a client of Jacobson’s. The horse ran three times before being sidelined for a year. When he returned, Jacobson ran him for a $7,500 claiming price, and Temecula Creek ran terribly, finishing ninth by
12 1/4 lengths.
Rodriguez had remembered getting on the horse a few times in the morning when Frankel had him at Belmont, and he thought it wouldn’t hurt to put in a claim for him. According to Rodriguez, there was some apprehension among owners Steven Speranza and Robert Joscelyn when the horse ran so poorly.
“I think the issues he had when we got him were with his feet,” Rodriguez said. “We took the shoes off, and he could not walk one step. The next day we put the shoes back on. He kept moving along. We worked him a couple of times, and he was working better.”
Rather than run him back in a claiming race, Rodriguez entered Temecula Creek in a starter allowance, which he won by nearly three lengths. From April 10 to July 9, he won four straight starter allowance races.
“It makes me scratch my head how he got him to run so fast,” Jacobson said. “He came from Bobby Frankel, and Bobby couldn’t get him to run that fast.”
On April 16, Rodriguez claimed Endless Circle from Jacobson for $14,000. In his next five starts, Endless Circle won four times, including a pair of New York-bred stakes. Endless Circle bled as the favorite in the Hudson Handicap in October before coming back to win the Grade 3 Fall Highweight on Thanksgiving Day.
“Endless Circle, we got very lucky with that claim,” Rodriguez said. “Since we got him, we didn’t do anything to him. That horse hasn’t seen any needles.”
Rodriguez pointed out that as a maiden 2-year-old making his second start, Endless Circle won a stakes at Finger Lakes. Still, the dramatic form reversals of horses such as Temecula Creek, Endless Circle, Humilarity, and D’bigcat are what cast a cloud over Rodriguez’s success.
“There are two schools of thought,” Dubb said. “This is Rudy the cheater or this is Rudy the American Dream. The average guy in the street kind of thinks all trainers are created the same, but they’re not. All doctors are not created the same, all sportswriters are not created the same. It’s how hard they work.
“I know what Rudy is, I know why Rudy is successful, and I also know the character of Rudy,” he said. “How can an exercise rider all of sudden be winning races? They don’t know his history or work ethic or who mentored him.”
It’s shortly after 5 a.m. on a recent Monday in December. It’s dark and cold − much colder than the 33 degrees the thermometer reads − and there is little activity on the Belmont backstretch. At Barn 60, where Rodriguez has approximately 24 horses stabled, Rodriguez is checking on some horses, going over things with his assistant.
It is still dark as night when the track opens at 5:30 a.m., but Rodriguez is aboard D’bigcat, getting ready to breeze him three furlongs. The clockers say Rodriguez’s horses are almost always the first ones on the track.
After getting on two more horses, Rodriguez jumps into his Nissan Maxima and fights rush-hour traffic to get to Aqueduct, where he has more than 40 horses stabled. Rodriguez takes the back roads, jumps onto the congested Belt Parkway for one exit, before taking a few more shortcuts to get to the barn.
Out of the car and onto another horse Rodriguez leads a set to the inner track. This scenario repeats itself several more times before training hours close.
“He’s a hard worker. He’s always been a hard worker,” said Joe Imperio, an Aqueduct-based trainer who watches Rodriguez ply his trade daily. “He’s got good owners, too. Dubb, [Jim] Riccio, [Vincent] Scuderi − those guys win. It doesn’t matter who trains for them. If you’ve got owners behind you, you’re going to win.’’
Rodriguez said he believes getting on his own horses helps him get a better idea of what’s going on with them. He gets on some of the same ones every day but often changes it up.
Dubb said he also thought it was an advantage for him to have Rodriguez getting on his horses each day. But trainer Tony Dutrow, who worked with Rudy when both worked for Dutrow’s father, told Dubb that Rudy would be good even if he didn’t get on horseback.
“Tony believes if Rudy never got another horse, what he learned about horsemanship, decision-making, and everything else in relation to his horses from Rick Dutrow Sr., he would be just as successful as he is right now,” Dubb said.
Still in the infancy of his career, Rodriguez said he hopes to someday graduate from winning claiming races to being involved in the sport’s more high-profile events.
“We got a lot of cheap horses. Hopefully, better ones will come,” he said. “I’ve got to prove to myself I can do good with cheap horses to be able to get good, quality horses. Right now we’ve got to be dreaming about Kentucky Derbies and Belmont Stakes and Grade 1’s and Breeders’ Cups. Hopefully, one day we’ll be able to run in those kind of races.’’
Rodriguez also said he hopes that one day he will be viewed as a horseman and not a magician.
“That’d be nice, but I don’t think that’s going to be easy,” he said. “But I’m very happy the way we are going.”