Jockeys get wild ride at State Fair

September 01, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Ronnie Gerardo sat in the bleachers at Timonium Race Course, holding a bag of ice close to a nasty-looking bruise on the right side of his face.

A couple of races earlier, a confused 2-year-old gelding had taken an unexpected left turn coming out of the starting gate in one of those four-furlong mad dashes that the State Fair track is famous for and had dumped the 26-year-old jockey on his head.

The day before, another frightened horse had run headlong into a mesh fence with Gerardo, battering the jockey's leg on the outside enclosure.

Welcome to the hurly-burly action at the five-eighths-of-a-mile Timonium racetrack, where the turns are tighter, the track narrower, the Ferris wheel on the final turn looms larger and competing is a bit hairier than it is at the mile-long strips at Pimlico and Laurel, where the activity can seem darn right tame by comparison. Yesterday, for example, there were jockey foul claims in four straight races.

So, why do riders like Gerardo compete here?

"I love it," he said, in between nursing bruises.

But for most of the state's leading jockeys, Timonium means vacation time and a chance for lesser lights in the local riding community to shine.

Don't look for Mark Johnston, Maryland's leading stakes rider so far this year, to compete at Timonium. He's at Walt Disney World. Edgar Prado, the leader in races won, is also on vacation. Mario Pino is in the Bahamas, Donnie Miller Jr. at Ocean City.

Only three of the 16 leading jockeys at the Pimlico summer meet are competing at Timonium, giving riders who get a lot less exposure at Pimlico and Laurel a chance to have some fun, boost their egos and make some money. It's an eclectic group.

Remember John Baboolal? In 1974, he was involved in the infamous St. Valentine's Day fixed race at Bowie Race Course and served a 10-year suspension. He later returned, was a leading jockey at Bowie before it closed in 1985 and then gave up riding. He returned to his native Trinidad to nurse his ailing mother and 95-year-old father, and then served as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor in Michigan.

Now, at 43, he has shed 34 pounds and after several years on the shelf is back in action at Timonium, where he has ridden two winners.

There's Eddie Brown, who once served a five-year suspension in Ohio and is trying to get his career back on track, and Mary Wiley, 31, who injured her knee so badly in a training accident three years ago that doctors said she would never ride again.

In the past few weeks, Wiley's career has caught fire with her mount on stakes-class filly Miss Claratius. She's hoping to keep that momentum going at Timonium, riding for trainers such as Eddie Gaudet and Donald Barr, who use more established male riders like Pino and Joe Rocco on the mile-track circuit.

Agent Eric Fried, who is handling the books for apprentice Dylan Armstrong and 42-year-old journeyman Kenny McMillan, who are currently third and fourth, respectively, in the standings, estimates the leading rider at the 10-day Timonium meet will earn between $7,000 and $8,000.

It's enough money to lure jockey Freddy Castillo back to Maryland from Texas, where he competed successfully at the inaugural Sam Houston Park race meet and where he could return when the State Fair is over next week. Castillo won the Timonium jockeys title in 1992, was runner-up to Albert Delgado and Walter Cullum last year, and currently has a one-win lead over Delgado after the first five Timonium cards.

Delgado is the one "name" rider at Pimlico and Laurel who regularly competes at Timonium.

"He does it simply because he's always done well here, it's fun for him and he loves it," said his agent, Jay Burtis.

Yesterday, Delgado's enthusiasm was apparent. He won five races, although he was disqualified in the fourth race after shutting off Castillo on the final turn.

It seemed a typical Timonium race card. Not only was there the Delgado crowding incident, but earlier McMillan also nearly went down after an apprentice played bumper cars with him on the backstretch.

Said Armstrong, who starts a seven-day suspension today for a similar incident earlier this week: "I'm going to miss all this action when I leave. There's a lot of yelling and screaming going on out there and it's exciting. It's like the bull rings back home in Texas and Louisiana where I got my start. I'm pretty disappointed that I got suspended, because I thought I had a good shot of being leading rider and that would help me when Pimlico and Laurel start back up."

But the 17-year-old jockey said he's still going to enjoy the weeklong vacation that stewards imposed on him. He hopped a plane to Oklahoma City after yesterday's last race, and he and a friend are going to New Mexico to watch the All-American Futurity for quarter horses.

"But I'll be back in time for Pimlico's opening next Thursday," he said.

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