Updated on 09/16/2011 7:55AM

There's no room for loyalty at top

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - To bring a 3-year-old into the Triple Crown series, a trainer needs skill, sound judgment, patience, and coolness under pressure. Should his virtues also include loyalty?

That is a question Ken McPeek has confronted at the start of the most important year of his career. The trainer has two colts who are among the top four in the Daily Racing Form's ranking of Kentucky Derby contenders: Harlan's Holiday and Repent. Both have been ridden in all of their races by Tony D'Amico, a 46-year-old jockey, little known outside the Midwest, who has never competed in a Triple Crown event.

McPeek's phone has been ringing regularly with calls from agents offering the services of jockeys with the credentials for classic races.

Should McPeek get a big-name rider or stick with the man who has waited a lifetime for an opportunity like this? This week he made his decision: He will replace D'Amico on both colts. Edgar Prado will ride Harlan's Holiday in his next start, the $1 million Florida Derby, and Jerry Bailey will be aboard Repent in the Louisiana Derby.

D'Amico had surely paid his dues to earn a shot at the big time. He started riding in 1974 at Thistledown in Cleveland, where his stepfather was a trainer, and moved to the Kentucky circuit in the late 1980's. Over the years he has taken a lot of physical punishment.

"I've broken my neck twice, broken my leg in half, and broken my collarbone, plus all the little injuries," he said. "I've got two plates in my neck and a rod in my leg."

Despite all these travails, he has been a productive rider, winning nearly 3,000 races, though few major stakes are among them. D'Amico had been riding for nearly a quarter-century before he won a race worth more than $100,000.

D'Amico started riding intermittently for McPeek's Kentucky-based stable some 10 years ago; he stops by the trainer's barn every morning and climbs aboard horses for workouts whenever necessary. When he first rode Harlan's Holiday and Repent, neither was considered a potential superstar; they had cost $97,000 and $230,000, respectively, typical of the mid-level stock in McPeek's operation. Once D'Amico started riding them, the trainer wanted him to stay aboard.

"I believe in consistency with a young horse," McPeek said. "If you change things all the time they don't develop a pattern. Tony's been instrumental in developing these horses."

Toward the end of their 2-year-old seasons, both developed into good stakes horses. Harlan's Holiday won a Grade 3 event at Churchill Downs; Repent rallied to finish second at 42-1 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Suddenly the eyes of the racing world were on D'Amico, and his performances generated much second-guessing.

In a field of six at Churchill Downs, D'Amico and Repent were blocked in traffic but found racing room in time to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. When the colt made his 3-year-old debut in a stakes at the Fair Grounds, D'Amico avoided trouble by staying outside everybody else and turning eight wide into the stretch. Neither ride was a tactical masterpiece, but at least D'Amico won both races.

His results with Harlan's Holiday were not so fortunate. Breaking from post position 6 in the Holy Bull Stakes, D'Amico used his colt's speed just enough to get hung four wide at the first turn; then he dropped back, and allowed his main rival Booklet to take an uncontested lead. Harlan's Holiday's furious late finish fell short.

In the Fountain of Youth Stakes, run over a track that was strongly speed-favoring, Booklet again got a clear lead; Harlan's Holiday challenged him too late and missed by a nose. Of couse, it is easy to second-guess any jockey when the margin is so narrow, but Harlan's Holiday could conceivably have won both races with different tactics.

McPeek was frustrated by these narrow losses, and when he made his decision to put Prado on Harlan's Holiday he said, "We need to find a way to get past Booklet."

As recently as Sunday, however, he declared that D'Amico was still on Repent. It would be unusual for a trainer to fire a jockey after two straight winning rides. But by Monday McPeek had changed his mind and hired Bailey.

"It's heartbreaking," D'Amico said. "I really wanted to ride the horse back in the Louisiana Derby, and I felt I should have ridden him back. I don't understand it."

McPeek said: "Tony is a first-class guy. The hard part is that he hasn't been riding at this level [Grade 1 stakes]. My principal responsibility is to the owner. And I can't walk away from these races saying 'woulda, coulda, shoulda.' "Most trainers would agree with McPeek's decision, partly because they know that jockeys and their agents will readily desert a principal trainer when they get a better mount. "In this game," said two-time Derby winner Nick Zito, "we're not married to them and they're not married to us."

No trainer ever displayed more loyalty to a jockey than Bud Delp, who rode the inexperienced and modestly talented Ron Franklin on the great Spectacular Bid, and watched Franklin's panicky performance in the Belmont Stakes cost Spectacular Bid the Triple Crown. I asked Delp the other day how he looked back on that decision.

"I stuck with Ronnie," he reflected, "but I never should have done it. I should have gone for the best. Having a good jockey takes a lot of pressure off the trainer. I would have told McPeek: 'Get Bailey. Go for the best.' "

This attitude will surely strike most outsiders as callous and heartless. Anyone who has read the best-selling "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" knows that part of the charm of the horse's story was his partnership with a washed-up, one-eyed jockey, Red Pollard, who developed a wondrous rapport with the animal. Where is the romance in today's racing?

It doesn't exist when classic-winning horses can earn tens of millions of dollars at stud, making the stakes too high for owners and trainers to indulge in sentiment. This can be a cruel game and Tony D'Amico, a product of the school of hard knocks, understands this truth as well as anyone.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post