The art of the deal
By MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun
It is a dreary, rainy day along the backstretch at Woodbine. Lorne Spearman is wet. He is wearing a worried look and a Winnipeg Jets T-shirt.
Spearman is dressed appropriately. The shirt is a homage to the ultimate defeat, a hockey team that left town, and a token of Spearman's lovable brand of fatalism.
Richard Dos Ramos, the jockey Spearman has represented over the past seven years, was shut out the day before.
No one takes losing worse than Lorne Spearman. That's part of his charm.
"He's really hard on himself," said veteran trainer Bob Tiller, finding a bench that will keep him out of the rain.
"Lornie should get married. He needs to find a good woman to take his mind of his work."
Work, for Lorne Spearman, usually means grief.
Spearman hears what owners and trainers want the jockey to hear without having to say it to their rider's face.
Disaster, of course, is never far away in the thoroughbred game.
During the early 1990s, Spearman lost jockey Dave Penna to a career-ending neck injury incurred when a horse spooked in the post-parade. Spearman went 18 months without a new client before hooking up with Dos Ramos.
There are about 250 trainers who will race through Woodbine. About 30 jocks, represented by 20 or so agents, will parcel up the 12,000 rides in a meet.
Booking jockeys is a face-to-face business. Every morning, the agent works the backstretch, taking some rides, deferring others, all the while trying to get his jockey the best rides while keeping the trainers and owners happy.
There is one fundamental problem with booking rides. When you book your jockey with one trainer, you book him against the very same people you will be doing business with all day.
"I've had a couple of calls today from people who told me to get out of the barns because they never wanted to see me again," Spearman said. "Forever is not a very long time in this business."
Patrick Husbands, who rode Wando to wins at the Queen's Plate and the Prince of Wales and will attempt to win Canada's Triple Crown in the Breeders' Stakes tomorrow at Woodbine, is booked by 35-year-old Tom Patton.
"Compare it to hockey," he said. "You're a free agent. You sign a three-year deal to play with a certain team and you know who you're working for. A jockey can be working for eight or nine different teams in one day."
If a jockey rides a particular horse to victory, the trainer, naturally enough, will want that same jock for the horse's next run. Saying no makes the jockey the bad guy.
If a treasured horse runs poorly, the problem easily can be laid on the tiny shoulders of the jockey. Sometimes it really is the jockey's fault.
Trainers will lean on an agent to ride a poorer horse with the promise of a better one down the line. Jockeys remit and cash in favours like Tammany politicians.
That's why mending fences is as necessary a skill for the agent as knowing horses.
In 1998, five days before the Queen's Plate, Todd Kabel's agent, John Bell, turned down an offer from Bob Tiller to ride his horse in the Queen's Plate and rode instead for Roger Attfield. The decision was disastrous for both. Tiller's horse, Zap Happy, ran ninth while the filly Kabel was aboard, Primaly, finished 10th.
"It was a bad situation," Bell said. "We sat in the penalty box for a couple of years with Bob over that but eventually, things got smoothed over."
"A good agent can walk into a room where everyone is mad at him," Dos Ramos said. "By the time he leaves, everyone is happy as hell."
Each agent is allowed to represent only two jockeys, three if one of the riders is an apprentice. The jock generally earns 10% of the purse if he wins and a straight fee if he doesn't. The agent garners 25% of the jockey's gross income.
"It's like selling cars," Bell said. "If I tell you the Cadillac will cost you the same as the Toyota, you're going to want the Cadillac."
Spearman has managed 27 years of booking jockeys at Woodbine, including the past seven for Dos Ramos. He has flourished thanks to a simple precept: Any man can navigate success, the real measure is how long the same man can stomach abject disaster.
That he has worked for a sampling of the best jocks, from Irwin Driedger to Sandy Hawley to Robert Landry and Chantal Sutherland, also speaks to the fact that the jock retired, or, for whatever reason, took his business to someone else.
"I'm proud to say that I am friends with all my former clients," Spearman said. "You're not fired but you haven't been rehired."
This isn't to say that every pairing ends quickly. Patton is entering his 10th year with Husbands. Kabel and Bell have worked together 14 years.
It's just that jockeys and agents exist as the perennial odd couple.
"I have a saying," said agent "Coffee" John Calleja, who worked with jockey Larry Attard for 25 years. "A rider doesn't know an agent is around until he starts going bad."
Jockeys complain that agents are lazy in researching potential mounts. They worry their agents mishandle long-term relationships for a chance at a hot horse. Either that or they feel their rep didn't do the necessary leg work to secure the best horse in the field.
The fatalism inherent in such a capricious business has long since been ingrained in Spearman.
He doesn't bet his own races.
"I feel good enough when we win," he said. "I don't need to feel any worse when we lose."
Spearman grew up in Winnipeg. Thoroughbred racing was a family passion. In high school, he bought and sold shares in a race horse to students. The principal complained until he learned several teachers had bought in.
Spearman booked rock acts into his high school and promoted bands in different venues. When he was 20, he started working with Driedger at Assiniboia Downs. When Driedger decided to step up to Woodbine, Spearman came along.
Bell came to his job the honest way. He rode at Woodbine and spent time as a steward in Winnipeg. Calleja drove a canteen truck into the backstretch for years before deciding to give the business a try. He started at the bottom, shovelling manure and grooming horses to learn about racing.
Patton holds a marketing degree. He tried an office job for six months before coming back to the backstretch.
In the end, the agent, like the jockeys, trainers, grooms and fans, always come back. The track seduces them like a sunny day does a truant.
Bob Tiller may get his rider but he will never get his wish. Lorne Spearman, and those like him, are already married to the sport. To him, babies are about broodmares and bloodlines.
"(Queen's Plate winner) Wando had a licence by pedigree to be a Queen's Plate prospect," Spearman said.
"On the other hand, Joe Louis had a sister who couldn't box."