01/12/2009 12:00AM

Work ethic a crucial piece of gear


ARCADIA, Calif. - Take your time when you say his name, and enjoy. Agapito Delgadillo. Agapito Delgadillo. It tumbles off the tongue, eight lilting beats to the bar, rich with a Mexican heritage that traces to the horse-crazy region of Jalisco and the grand old Hippodromo de las Americas in Mexico City.

Delgadillo - his friends call him Agapito - lit the board on Jan. 4 with the 4-year-old filly Tizfiz for trainer Rafael De Leon in the $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap, then a few days later he added another win on the undercard for A.C. Avila. Two wins through 14 days of the meet hardly rocks the standings, but for a stubborn 42-year-old journeyman like Delgadillo, every opportunity counts for something.

The San Gorgonio was his best winner ever at Santa Anita and his richest payday since 1997, when he won the $200,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields. Delgadillo had a great run aboard the sprinter Jungle Prince for Juan "El Jefe" Garcia, winning four stakes in 2006, and he had some good days with Swiss Diva, who romped to victory in the filly version of the 2006 California Breeders' Champion Stakes and went on to finish second to such quality fillies as Magnificience, Dawn After Dawn, and Spenditallbaby.

Still, in an environment in which just 10 guys rode the winners of nearly half the graded stakes offered in the U.S. in 2008 (220 out of 481), Delgadillo's stats sound like a tiny drop hitting the bottom of a very large bucket. Welcome, though, to the world of most American jockeys.

Delgadillo answers the challenge by working in the morning for a loyal circle of clients and being ready to take advantage when lightning strikes. The perfect storm of circumstances that came together for Delgadillo's San Gorgonio included a subpar Grade 2 field that included only one true front-runner - Tizfiz. Everyone knew it going in, but no one could do a thing about it.

"She's a professional filly," Delgadillo said, still savoring the experience days later. "She can do anything you want. She broke on the lead, and I just threw the reins at her. I don't have to fight with her at all. When she saw the other horses coming, she didn't want to let them by."

After more than 20 years as a jockey, Delgadillo sports the usual collection of scars. There is evidence of surgical incisions on his right shoulder (rotator cuff) and left collarbone (broken three times), as well as the more invisible damage of fractured and compressed vertebrae. Delgadillo's hands - "fat hands," as he describes them - have been relatively free from damage, leaving them nimble enough to trim his classic, pencil-thin moustache.

"I went down two times in January, the last two years, right here," he said. "Last year, it was Jan. 6 when I broke my collarbone again."

While wounds heal, the battle with weight rages on. In the past, Delgadillo has taken brief breaks to restore both body and mind from the pressures of reducing. At 5-foot-4, he is naturally thick-chested, and must drop weight daily.

"Especially this time of year when it's cold, it's hard to sweat," he said. "In the summer, working in the morning and riding, it's no problem. But right now, I have to reduce three, four pounds every day. I like to jog, every day, on the treadmill, for maybe 30 minutes."

Delgadillo's journey through horse racing began at the jockeys' school in Mexico City. He migrated to Caliente, where he was a hot apprentice and hooked up with Garcia, then made the leap to Northern California, where he worked for two years at the Vine Hill Ranch of Robert and Barbara Walter, near Sebastopol.

"We would work their horses at Santa Rosa in the morning, then go back to the farm and gallop more horses in the afternoon," Delgadillo said. "It was a great place to work, and I learned a lot. But I missed racing. I didn't have the right immigration papers to ride, though, so I went home in 1990."

Had Delgadillo stuck around at Vine Hill a few years longer, he would have been getting on such future major stakes winners as Charmonnier, Batroyale, Cavonnier, and Tout Charmant. But riding was in his blood, and when he returned from Mexico he set up shop in Northern California. He galloped for trainer Fordell Fierce, then established himself on the fair circuit before business was good enough to settle down at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate, where he finished second to Russell Baze in the 1997 standings.

Now Delgadillo is concentrating on Southern California once again, and a room that is led by two of the three Eclipse Award finalists for 2008, Garret Gomez and Rafael Bejarano.

"It's hard here," he said. "There's a lot of good riders. But all I need is the opportunity to ride a little better horses."

Tizfiz is already yesterday's news, and it will be a while before she runs again. In the meantime, it was back to a harsher form of reality for Delgadillo over the weekend, when he rode seven horses who averaged 48-1 and never hit the board. If he was discouraged, it didn't show. And at least, as Delgadillo noted, he has one thing going for him:

"There's not too many Agapitos."