By Ed Golden
Manager, mastermind, guru, agent, call him what you will, Colonel Tom Parker was the man who made Elvis Presley.
The King of Rock and Roll’s talent was only exceeded by his raw sex appeal, and Parker, self-proclaimed military officer or not, saw to it that the world would march en masse to a cadence called by Presley’s signature tones.
Elvis died more than four decades ago, but not before he and Parker reached the apex in gold and glory, still yielding riches of infinite proportions all these years later.
In racing, it’s not clothes that make the man; in part it is the agent directing the jockey. Agent and jockey provide a service to trainers, a salesman offering a product.
An agent in this instance is best described as a person empowered to transact business for a jockey. On any given morning at any given track, condition book in hand, there they are, Monty Hall wannabes, ready to make a deal.
A standard arrangement calls for an agent to be paid 25 percent of a jockey’s earnings, but that percentage could vary. If the rider’s services are in great demand, he could pay the agent a smaller percentage. Or, if the agent possesses the persuasive prowess of a Colonel Parker, he could warrant the higher percentage. It’s Economics 101.
Back in the day, agents were not prominent, if in evidence at all. Major stables employed contract riders and in order to ride for an outside trainer, the jockey had to receive permission from his contract stable to do so.
Now, the vast majority of riders have an agent, although jocks on a restricted budget with limited mounts have been known to represent themselves.
Agents wear many hats, including those falling under the Three P’s: politician, psychiatrist, and pacifist, and they can be a boon to racing departments.
“In my career around the country at tracks on both coasts, I’ve worked with agents who mostly helped the racing office,” said Rick Hammerle, Santa Anita’s vice president of racing as well as racing secretary. “We’re both trying to accomplish the same thing: get horses into races. Working with agents and sharing information about trainers’ intentions can help us achieve our goal.”
Even though it’s his first tour as an agent, Mike Lakow has racing’s paradigm of Tom Brady in jockey Javier Castellano, a 40-year-old Venezuelan at the zenith of his career. The reigning four-time Eclipse Award winner, a world class rider be it at Dubai or Churchill Downs, was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2017.
Still, for an agent, the pressure is always on.
Although he never trained, the 60-year-old Lakow (pronounced LAKE-ow) otherwise has an extensive background enabling him to understand ramifications that simmer just below racing’s surface.
“When I was working as general manager at Hill ‘n’ Dale (a major breeding farm in Kentucky),” he said, “I owned a quarter of one horse, and believe me, it’s a tough deal, so I respect all the owners, as well as trainers.”
Lakow, now based on the East Coast, was racing director at Santa Anita before Castellano hired him in August of 2016. Lakow also was racing secretary for the New York Racing Association (NYRA) from 1993 to 2005, served as a racing official in Florida and Dubai, and was hands-on with horsemen regularly at Santa Anita’s Clockers’ Corner during his sojourn at the historic Southern California track.
“I’m incredibly fortunate to represent Javier,” Lakow said, “because he’s a professional who’s liked by everybody. We have no issues as far as not being able to ride for one trainer or one owner. He’s won four Eclipses, done it all, and now we’re trying to focus on riding the top horses.”
Stress and pressure are standard fare in the workforce, whether you’re Donald Trump unceasingly enduring “fake news” attacks 24/7 or a McDonald’s minimum wage burger slinger serving up $2.50 McPicks. It’s all relative.
That includes Lakow, although he is averse to pointing it out, lest he might be looked upon as a malcontent, what with two chickens in the pot.
“People who see all the money we’re making might wonder how being agent for a top jockey could be stressful, but it is,” Lakow said. “I’ve been in administrative positions in racing for many years, with NYRA and at Santa Anita, but if you happen to make a mistake here and there, you move on.
“It affects the company, but it doesn’t affect an individual. If I happen to make a mistake with Javier, it affects him.
“It’s impossible to keep everybody happy. Any agent will tell you that. Fortunately, Javier is level-headed, so I’m in a good position. That’s not the case with some other jockeys, from what I’ve heard. I respect Javier and Javier respects me, but like I’ve said, it’s impossible to keep everybody happy.
“You try to do the right thing. I respect all the horsemen who give us calls, because it’s a tough game for trainers. Horses will fool you, so I understand the stress trainers and owners face. I don’t look at this as a one-shot relationship.
“Luckily, I have the respect of horsemen because of my work in New York and California. When I started with Javier, horsemen gave me the benefit of the doubt. I was a bit green and I think other agents probably thought, ‘Look at this guy. He starts a job and has a top rider,’ but I’m lucky because I didn’t burn any bridges. I get along with most people and treat everybody with respect. That’s what’s made it so much easier for me.
“In the long run, honesty is the best policy, and I’m always honest. It hurts sometimes, but in the long run, I think it helps.”
Another agent who has been on both sides of the wall is Tom Knust, former racing secretary at Santa Anita and Del Mar, now booking mounts for two-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Mario Gutierrez.
“One thing I learned quickly as an agent is that if you have a good rider, it makes things pretty easy, and if you don’t, it’s very, very difficult,” Knust said. “That’s the key, whether you’ve had experience in the racing office or you’ve just come in off the street.
“If you give a call, you want to honor it, although situations develop where you’re in a bind and ask a trainer if he can help you out, but if he doesn’t, you’ve got to keep your word and ride his horse.”
An additional plus comes from riding regularly for a winning trainer, in the case of Gutierrez, that being Doug O’Neill, who saddled I’ll Have Another and Nyquist to capture the Kentucky Derby for principal owner J. Paul Reddam in 2012 and 2016.
“It’s absolutely an advantage, 100 percent, if you have a go-to stable that wins a lot of races, like O’Neill,” Knust said.
As a female, Patty Sterling is in the minority among agents, but with her extensive familial background in racing, she is looked upon as one of the boys.
Her late father, Larry, trained 1978 Santa Anita Handicap winner Vigors and is the father of jockey Larry Sterling Jr. Patty’s uncle, Terry Gilligan, rode and trained, and his brother, also Larry, made his bones as a rider, too. Now 80, he is the quick official at Santa Anita and Del Mar.
“It’s probably a lot easier for a woman in this business than it used to be,” said Patty, 54, a former clocker. “I don’t see that as a problem.
“Being an agent is almost parallel to training horses; it’s very similar. Right now, it seems owners pick the jockeys more so than they ever did before, when trainers were deciding who to ride.”
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