07/07/2011 12:24PM

Veteran jockey Rocco hopes to resurrect career at Suffolk

Chip Bott
At age 51, Joe Rocco Sr. is riding through pain at Suffolk Downs, where he has won only 2 of his 58 starts.

EAST BOSTON, Mass. − Joe Rocco Sr. knows his way around every racetrack up and down the East Coast, but he is having a tough time finding the winner's circle at Suffolk Downs.

A journeyman jockey, Rocco has been on the racetrack since the mid-1970s, when his father pulled him out of school at 16 to work in Allen Jerkens's barn at Belmont Park. Now 51 and fighting back from the latest in a laundry list of injuries, he has moved his tack to the sole surviving Thoroughbred track in New England, resolved to resurrect his career, even if it means riding cheap claimers in short fields for bottom-of-the-barrel purses.

"It's been slow. I've only won two races," he said. "I'm not riding the quality of horses that I thought I would. I was hoping to get in with the top outfits, but it's hard working your way in."

Rocco estimates he has won almost 200 stakes races in his career. He notched the first of his 3,711 wins in 1979 and had 27,966 starts through Monday's races, with his mounts earning $54,753,388. But he couldn't stay at Delaware Park, where he once was a sought-after rider, nor could he compete any longer at other tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region. His business evaporated last year, when a broken elbow and punctured lung suffered in a vicious spill knocked him out of action for six months. So he headed north, where the quality of racing has gone south.

"I was supposed to be here two weeks before the meet started [May 21], but the doctors wouldn't release me," he said. "I don't need the practice of riding 20-1 shots, but I don't turn down nobody. I'm going to stick it out here. Where else am I going to go?

"I'm looking for a fresh start," he said. "I am not ready to retire. I don't feel 51. I've been hurt so much, but I know how to ride, and I can ride through the pain. The doctors have said that I might want to find another profession, but this is what I do. I still have the passion, and it's really important to me to get to 4,000 wins. If I hadn't been hurt so much, I'd have over 6,000 wins by now."

The jockey colony at Suffolk is full, with riders of all ages and abilities trying to climb the standings while fighting for their share of about $103,000 in daily purses during three days of live racing per week. There are about 750 horses on the backside, but not all are ready to run, so the cards average 8.5 races per day with 7.1 horses in each field. There are no stakes races scheduled.

Rocco is the oldest rider in the room almost every day, but he is still the newcomer. Through Monday, he had made only 58 starts at the meet, with 12 seconds and 11 thirds to go along with his two wins. His mounts had earned only $60,702.

"Joe is one hell of a rider," said Tammi Piermarini, who at age 43 tops the jockey standings at Suffolk. "He's one of the top riders here. But with only about 600 horses and three days of racing, there just isn't enough to go around. It's really tough for a new person to break in. Everyone knows who he is, but they don't know him yet."

New England racing is insular and provincial. It is where jockeys double as exercise riders, trading free morning labor for the chance to get a leg up in the afternoon from trainers who don't like change. Although the welcome wagon is stuck in neutral, Rocco is trying to make friends fast.

"I'm here every morning getting on horses for trainers," he said. "Sometimes I get on nine or 10, although it's tough to do that and then ride that same afternoon. I'm fit, and I'm not afraid to work. It keeps me light without having to kill myself in the sweat box. I'm going to keep banging, keep working, and keep fighting."

That's the only way he knows, and this is the only life his family knows. The Rocco roots run deep on the racetrack. Rocco's wife, Debora, is the daughter of Baden Hughes, a recently retired trainer who once worked for Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. Debora worked in her dad's barn in the mornings and was out on the track as a pony girl in the afternoons. She also trained a string of horses until the four Rocco kids − Joe Jr., Tiffany, Courtney, and Brittany − came along: Joe Jr. is a rider based at Delaware Park and is married to Jamie Auterburn Rocco, a trainer at Delaware. Tiffany is the wife of Jed Doro, the assistant racing secretary at the track. Courtney is married to Yamil Rosario, who rides these days at Thistledown. And Brittany is the girlfriend of Gabriel Saez, a Delaware-based jockey.

"Family means everything to Joe and me, and we are a really tight family," Debora Rocco said as watched her husband ride at Suffolk and Joe Jr. compete at Delaware via simulcast. "We talk to all four kids every day at least once, and we always talk to our son before he rides. We have seven grandchildren and another on the way. Even when he was riding day and night, Joe has always been a wonderful father, and he's an excellent grandfather."

Debora Rocco knew what she signed on for when she married a jockey 31 years ago, including the frequent and sudden moves.

"It wasn't easy to just pick up and move to Boston, and at the last second," she said. "We had to wait for the doctors' release, and that was only right before the meet started. We came the next day, drove eight hours, and got here in time for Joe to ride on opening day. Joe used to ride Gulfstream, Tampa, Monmouth, the Meadowlands, and Atlantic City every year and ride day and night. We once bought a farm in New Jersey and I took in layups, but then we moved to Maryland so Joe could ride there and stay at home for the kids. Then we kept moving. You get used to it."

What Debora Rocco hasn't gotten used to is the injuries. The broken elbow Joe recently suffered caused nerve damage in his right arm, and he said his fingers turn numb when the weather is cold. Two years ago, Joe missed six months when a broken finger required two surgeries after it became infected and necessitated partial amputation. Over the years he has also suffered breaks to his back twice, both wrists, his legs, and several vertebrae.

The worst injury he suffered may have happened when he was only 22.

"I went down on the track and was paralyzed for 10 days," he said. "My wife drove two hours to be by my side at Hackensack Hospital. The doctors were sticking pins in me, and I couldn't feel a thing. I was scared, and so was she. Then one day I just got the feeling back. But I never thought about quitting. I thought about riding again."

First, he had to learn how to walk again. After he was able to throw away the crutches and the cane, Rocco ran back to the racetrack. After all, it had been his home since the day his dad got him in with Jerkens.

"Allen's the one who made me a jockey," he said. "I didn't have a clue. I was lucky to get out of Brooklyn and get on the track. Most of my old friends are either dead or in jail. I owe Allen a lot. He taught me how to gallop, and then he put my son on his first stakes winner."

Through Monday's races, Joe Jr., 28, had almost as many wins as his father had starts, 55 to 58. He said he fully supports his father's comeback and looks forward to another fiercely competitive stretch duel with him.

"We are so lucky that we've gotten to do that. Not a lot of fathers and sons have," said the younger jockey, who has been riding for 13 years. "I always wanted to be just like him. I learned everything about being a jockey and being a man from him. Without him, I wouldn't be where I am today. What I respect most about my dad is that so many people on the racetrack like him and respect him. He treats grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders, and everyone the same way you would want to be treated. Some jockeys have big egos and get big heads, but he never acts like he's better than anyone else. I am very proud to be his son."

Although his business has yet to take off at Suffolk, Rocco has made has a positive impression, both personally and professionally. In the second race June 27, he got every inch of run out of Lily's Goldmine, a 7-year-old Massachusetts-bred making her first start in eight months, against open company in an $11,000 starter allowance. Lily's Goldmine went off at 45-1, but with Rocco aboard, she finished fourth in the field of eight.

"He has a lot of class, and he is an absolute gentleman," said Lisa Welch, who trains Lily's Goldmine. "As a rider, he has fantastic finesse. He's from the old school, and that gives him the edge over others. He goes with the horse and gets the best out of the horse. I know he came here to win number 4,000, and I hope I put him on that one."

Rocco said he hopes more of the local horsemen soon will feel the same.

"Ninety percent of it is the horse," he said. "You get on the right horse, and you're going to win. I'm going to keep working hard. No matter what, I'm here to stay. I'm sure it will be OK."