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Jockey boycott has no winners in Jersey

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Joe_Bravo_AP_Indian
Joe Bravo, shown after a 2016 victory, has been the most vocal critic of new crop restrictions that led to what amounts to a jockey boycott this week at Monmouth Park. (NYRA / Susie Raisher)

Louisville, Ky.

There are no picket lines on the Jersey Shore. The mainstream news is not full of management’s talking points and labor’s counterpoints. And nobody directly involved appreciates the use of the “B” word. Or the “S” word. But make no mistake. What is going on right now at Monmouth Park is a boycott. And at times it looks and sounds and smells like a strike.

“I wouldn’t say boycott is necessarily the right word,” said Steve Worsley, the jockey agent representing veteran Monmouth riders Antonio Gallardo, who is staying away, and José Ferrer, who is accepting rides starting with Friday’s opening-night card. “They’re not necessarily boycotting the track. They’re pursuing opportunities in other jurisdictions.”

Comme ci, comme ça. Whatever the semantics, a lot of jockeys are mad as hell and not going to take New Jersey’s draconian crop rules anymore. By staying away from Monmouth, they are carrying out a threat they made last September, when the state’s Racing Commission unanimously ramrodded harsh regulations into place without inviting more than perfunctorily minimal comment from riders.

The old yet well-tended racing factory in Oceanport will not be shut down. With its hand forced by the new rules, management declared any rider who was not available Friday would be ineligible to ride there this summer. Then it rounded up 23 less-strident jockeys to ride in 18 races during the first two days of the meet. They may be labeled lower-profile jockeys. But again, make no mistake. There are some who are already fitting handles on their grudges by calling them scab labor.

Is that fair?

“I don’t think so,” said John F. Heims, a senior executive at Monmouth who, among many duties, is the racing secretary. “At no point in my conversations with the (Jockeys’) Guild has this ever come to a level where they said that this is a strike or it’s a boycott.”

But then Heims admitted, “It just seemed like it was turning that way.”

Attention-getting colloquialisms or not, there has been plenty of saber rattling in social media in the eight months since the state Racing Commission dropped the hammer on the riding crop. In an obvious move to appease animal-rights extremists, New Jersey is now the only state and perhaps the only fiefdom in the world to forbid a rider to strike a Thoroughbred except for reasons of safety. Urging a horse forward to avoid colliding with a rival? Guiding one away from a potential foul? Getting a young colt or filly to change leads? Sorry. Such an instinctively smart and reasonable maneuver will lead to a fine, a suspension or both.

“This rule is dangerous, and you can put that in capital letters,” Jockeys’ Guild CEO Terry Meyocks told Horse Racing Nation. That does not even take into account how safe it is – or is not – to be running races without top-level jockeys.

Joe Bravo, the face of New Jersey racing with a record 13 Monmouth riding titles, has been the loudest critic of the new rules. Whether he likes it or not, he is also the face of the, ahem, boycott.

“Honestly, I really don’t see me riding under these conditions,” he said on Twitter. “Even though Monmouth has always been my home, and I am known as ‘Jersey Joe,’ I am going to have to find other tracks to ride at this summer.”

It is not just Bravo. Monmouth’s top 2020 rider Paco López is conspicuous by his absence, although he was idled by a suspension. Gallardo and Jorge Vargas were familiar names to bettors last summer, and they were no strangers to the winner’s circle. They are not at Monmouth this week.

“We’ve got riders who have committed to ride,” track boss Dennis Drazin told the Asbury Park Press. “If they don’t, it’s because people – and I don’t know who’s doing all the talking – but I know Joe Bravo is involved, and a couple of New York riders are involved, and now I’m hearing that jocks are offering money to not ride. And that kind of conduct is unacceptable and might even raise the eyebrows of investigators.”

Want to say again this is not a boycott or a strike? Ladies and gentlemen, start your retaliations.

One of those “New York riders” would be Jockeys’ Guild co-chairman John Velázquez, who just four weeks ago rode Medina Spirit to that hanging-by-a-thread victory in the Kentucky Derby. He has also ridden his share of wins at Monmouth with a pair of triumphs in the $1 million Haskell on his Hall of Fame résumé.

“After talking to a few owners I don’t see how Monmouth Park is going to have a successful meet,” Velázquez said on Twitter. “Owners are realizing how dangerous this rule is for their horses and jockeys.”

While all the demagoguery is flying around, there is a voice that can barely be heard.

“Yoo-hoo. Over here.”

That faint peep in the back of the room belongs to horseplayers. As usual in this sport they are caught in the middle – pawns who are helpless victims. But they are not without their own exclamations.

“Monmouth is the former home of (indicted trainers) Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis,” David Gutfreund, a Las Vegas-based finalist for the National Horseplayers Championship Hall of Fame, said in a roundtable on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “From my own personal betting perspective, that track has been off my radar for some time. What’s going on with the whips this weekend in New Jersey has zero effect on my betting preferences.”

Jim Goodman, the director of wagering development at Keeneland and another NHC Hall of Fame finalist, believes Monmouth will feel the impact. And fast.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate rule,” he said. “I think it was ruled on by a commission that has no earthly idea what a jockey does. I think you’re going to see a substantial loss of revenue this weekend at the very minimum.”

Sally Goodall, another Las Vegas-based Hall of Fame candidate, was more blunt.

“I really don’t like this rule,” she said. “Too many rules in this country. They are animals. If you don’t whip them, they don’t listen to you.”

Although there are few if any jockeys who would disagree, Monmouth Park found enough to defy whatever peer pressure may be out there. Many who accepted assignments for Friday and Saturday are not household names in the homes of regular horseplayers. Christian Navarro has not ridden a race since 2019. Luis Romero Rivera Jr. raced last fall at Monmouth, but not since. José Báez at Finger Lakes and Luis Reyes at Camarero in Puerto Rico have labored in obscurity. Derbe Glass, who has two races to her name on Equibase, is normally a track photographer. She has shot more races than she has started.

Not that the cards are completely void of good jockeys. Ferrin Peterson, Héctor Rafael Diaz Jr., Nik Juárez, Jomar Torres, Carlos Hernández, Tomás Mejía and apprentice Isaac Castillo were among the top dozen jockeys on the Shore last summer, and they are booked to ride Friday and Saturday. So is Ferrer, who, at 57, continues to compete full time in the Florida winter and the New Jersey summer.

“José has ridden for a long time,” Worsley said. “I’m sure he’s been through similar situations to this. Ultimately he has to provide for himself and his family. No one is going to do that for him.”

Dylan Davis, who has 818 wins and nearly $42 million in earnings, takes almost all his rides at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. But rather than New York, he chose Monmouth to make his comeback this week from a broken clavicle.

The familiar names are certain to get the better mounts, so it makes sense they will attract most of the smart money from horseplayers. Since that is no secret, value will be really hard to come by. That is as long as everyone directly involved in the controversy holds his ground, whether it is a Racing Commission and management digging into the sandy ground at Oceanport or recalcitrant jockeys toting 10-foot poles from 11 or more feet away.

Will this impasse (another touchy word) last through July 17? That is the date of the Haskell, long the signature race at Monmouth Park. When trainer Steve Asmussen decided not to send Midnight Bourbon to next week’s Belmont Stakes, he said the Preakness runner-up would train up to either the Haskell or the Jim Dandy on July 31 at Saratoga.

Midnight Bourbon has had six different jockeys in his nine races, and he has yet to win a Grade 1. If Asmussen cannot convince a first-class rider like Irad Ortiz Jr. or Mike Smith, also a Jockeys’ Guild co-chairman, to reclaim the mount for the Haskell, he may be resigned to going to the Grade 2 Jim Dandy.

Heims is upbeat about the summer. Even though Friday’s program has only six races after the condition book offered twice as many, he thinks the corner has already been turned.

“It’s been interesting,” he said. “Hopefully it’s behind us. Based on Saturday’s (12-race) card, it sure looks like it is.”

The breezy conclusion is that racing continues to concoct new ways to shoot itself in the foot. But look around. This happens in all walks of sport and life. Does anyone think baseball is not screwed up nowadays? How about college basketball? Or the on-again, off-again COVID masks? Or the federal government? Or those damned cicadas?

Not to rationalize what is going on in New Jersey. Again, make no mistake. To accept this mess is to accept an ill-conceived recipe. The crop contretemps, in conclusion, is nothing more than a second scoop of wrong getting thrown in a blender to whip up a batch of right.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. It is posted more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. Sally Goodall, Jim Goodman and David Gutfreund are finalists for the National Horseplayers Championship Hall of Fame, and they discuss the challenges that horseplayers face these days. Jockey agent Steve Worsley and racetrack executive John F. Heims talk about the controversial riding-crop rule that led riders to stay away from this week's season opener at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Clocker Andy Harrington handicaps some of this weekend’s stakes races at Santa Anita. Every episode of the RFRP is available via free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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