LAUREL — In yesterday's editions, a photograph of jockey Mike Luzz was incorrectly identified as Mark Johnston.
The Sun regrets the errors.
LAUREL -- Has the bug been exterminated from Maryland racing?
Eddie Gaudet, who has coached many top "bugboys" to prominence on the circuit, says it has. Bobby Suggs, agent for an Eclipse Award-winning apprentice rider, says it has. Even veteran Maryland riders who stand to gain from the apprentices' lost business say it has.
FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION
At issue: how a new rule in effect since August 1990 has impaired the development of apprentices in Maryland.
The rule, approved by the Maryland Racing Commission upon recommendation by the Jockeys' Guild, gives new riders a 5-pound weight allowance for their entire apprenticeship, which now can last up to two years. Previously, an apprentice was allowed 10 pounds until his fifth winner, 7 pounds until his 35th winner and 5 pounds until one year after the fifth winner.
Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and West Virginia have agreed to the new standard.
John Giovanni, national manager for the Jockeys' Guild, said the lack of uniform rules led the Guild to recommend the guideline to racing commissions in the many jurisdictions in North America. Giovanni also said the career-opening, 10-pound allowance for apprentices -- called bugboys because of the asterisks, or "bugs," used to designate their weight allowances in programs and in newspapers -- was causing too many apprentices to force themselves to lose too much weight. A 102-pound assignment obviously is harder to make than a 112-pound ride.
What would seem to be a subtle change has had a drastic effect on the fortunes of Maryland apprentices. Since Tim Peterson, sixth in the current Laurel Race Course standings, lost his bug last Sunday, the winningest apprentice left at Laurel is Gilberto Delgado -- with three winners.
Maryland has produced five of the past nine Eclipse Award-winning apprentices. It has not been uncommon for a handful of apprentices to be among the top 20 Maryland jockeys at the same time. And given the circuit's national reputation, it has not been uncommon for a promising youngster to move to the state.
So, if this weren't Maryland, no one would care too much. But it is, and they do.
Suggs, who books mounts for Mark Johnston, the 1990 Eclipse-winning apprentice, said the rule "has essentially killed the bug in Maryland. This used to always be the best place in America for young riders. Now, it's mediocre at best, and I think it's terrible."
Gaudet, a trainer for nearly 40 years, has been instrumental in the careers of many successful apprentices, including Eclipse winners Mike Luzzi and Allen Stacy. Gaudet said that unless the commission considers reverting to the old rule, the era of bugboy dominance is over. The virtual disappearance of the bug, he said, is not coincidence, but the result of the rule change.
"When you start an inexperienced kid off, he can do so many things to cost you," Gaudet said. "A trainer needs a trade-off so that it's worth riding a kid like that. Five pounds isn't enough. It's better to get a veteran rider or an apprentice with experience."
Trainers feel that the 10-pound allowance -- though a seemingly minuscule difference on the back of an 800- to 1,000-pound animal -- can mean the difference between winning and losing. But cut that back to five pounds, and some trainers don't believe the possible rewards are offset by the risk of an inexperienced rider.
"What this rule has done is discourage people like myself from developing young kids," Gaudet said. "Look around -- you just don't see any young men or women getting the experience they need to become good riders later on."
"[An apprentice] didn't have the 10 pounds long," said Suggs. "But if it took them 100 mounts to win five races, that's 100 mounts of valuable experience. Now, how long is it taking a new kid to get 100 mounts? It was a critical running start to a career."
Peterson, 23, said: "The other bugs are a lot slower getting
started. Trainers just don't want to put green riders on their horses without getting compensation."
Joe Rocco, a veteran rider who serves as local manager for the Jockeys' Guild, said he believes the majority of his colleagues on the circuit think the rule is too harsh. "They're not getting the schooling they need," he said, "so nobody's coming up through the ranks."
Gaudet said the Guild's movement to unify the rule was self-serving in that it could allow its members to gain more mounts and have longer careers. Giovanni said there was no such motive, only that "something fair and equitable to everyone across the country needed to be implemented. We've had problems before with purses having to be redistributed because of confusion in the rules that differed from state to state . . . we badly needed uniformity. Show me something that's good for everyone, and let's do something about it. If this rule has caused a problem, I certainly haven't been aware of it."
John H. "Jack" Mosner Jr., chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said the panel approved the change "because the Guild asked for it. Personally, I don't think five pounds makes much difference for a horse, especially in sprint races."
Suggs and Gaudet said they may address the commission on the issue, but whether they can touch off a reversal is questionable. A trend in racing is uniformity on many issues -- and on this one, a part of Maryland racing's identity may have been sacrificed for the sake of compromise.
"It's sad," said Gaudet. "I've gotten many young people their starts, but I've also gotten something in return. I don't see it being that way any more."