All the Clockers' Corner regulars know Vince DeGregory, and most stop by his table to say hello on a busy, frigid morning at Santa Anita just before the Breeders' Cup. The 87-year-old jockey agent takes the time to greet each one by name and shake their hand, but he never loses the rhythm of his story.
One tale flows into another with ease on this particular morning, making it feel like a conversation with an old friend. The stories all weave together against the backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains, bringing to life the colorful history of some of the greatest jockeys in the history of the sport.
DeGregory's 50 years as an agent saw him help launch the careers of no fewer than eight Hall of Fame riders: Laffit Pincay Jr., Angel Cordero Jr., Chris McCarron, Bill Shoemaker, Alex Solis, Jacinto Vasquez, Jorge Velasquez and Victor Espinoza.
He believes there's a good chance to add another name to that list before all's said and done: his former employer Joel Rosario.
“There's one thing I'll never forget about Joel,” DeGregory said. “I remember him when he lived with me, he was conscientious not to forget where he came from. I would take him to the Western Union, and he would send two or three-hundred dollars home to his nine brothers and sisters in Santo Domingo. The success never went to his head, and he's got a good chance to be there one day.
“Joel said to me, 'Brother, if I ever get inducted (into the Hall of Fame), you gotta be there,'” DeGregory added. “I said, 'Joel, I'm 87. I'm not sure when you're going to be inducted, but I don't count two years from now.'”
Despite his jokes about his age, DeGregory's mind is very sharp. There is little that shows his age beyond the tufts of gray hair peeking out underneath a tan baseball cap: DeGregory has no trouble recalling names of people or horses, and the dates of all his major accomplishments come to him easily. He operates his smart phone like it's second nature, pulling up past performances and easily handling business via text for his current rider, Eswan Flores, over the course of the morning.
Born in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., DeGregory didn't start out with a career on the racetrack. He was “a ballplayer,” baseball and basketball, and even got into college at the University of Vermont on a sports scholarship.
DeGregory also served in the Army at Ft. Belvoir, Va., with future Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Dick Groat, who was named the National League's MVP in 1960.
It was later, during his tenure as a professional boxer, that DeGregory had a major “wake-up call.” A rival hit him in the bottom of his neck and severely damaged his voice box; DeGregory couldn't speak at all for months. By the time he healed, he had to decide whether it was worth risking his health and continuing to box, or if perhaps it was time to find a new career.
He started hanging around the racetracks in New York, and officially got his agent's license in 1959. It was a struggle in the early days, DeGregory said, and there were nights he'd have nothing to eat but saltines and water in a dingy hotel room.
On nights that he had a couple of quarters to rub together, DeGregory would go over to a local pool hall and play, usually winning enough to eat a full meal at White Castle, which sold its bite-sized burgers for 23 cents apiece in those days.
His first big break came courtesy of his association with a very young Angel Cordero Jr., whose name wasn't at all known in New York at the time.
When DeGregory was younger, jockey Eddie Arcaro used to rent a house from his father during the summer meets at Saratoga. DeGregory ran into Arcaro and Bill Shoemaker after closing time at his family's Saratoga bar one evening, and overheard their conversation about a new young rider.
“It's like it was yesterday,” DeGregory recalled. “Arcaro said, 'Shoe, there's some kid here who just showed up. I don't know where the hell he come from, but boy I watched him do everything and he looks really good on a horse.' Shoe knew who he was right away, and said, 'His name is Angel Cordero. That kid's got the talent, all he needs is an opportunity.'”
Several months later, DeGregory was able to convince Cordero to let him take his book, though he didn't have any calls in the condition book at the time.
The next morning, DeGregory ran into his old fraternity brother John Jacobs at Belmont. Jacobs introduced DeGregory to his father, Hall of Fame trainer Hirsch Jacobs, and DeGregory relayed the story of Arcaro and Shoemaker's conversation about Cordero.
After some consideration, the elder Jacobs gave Cordero five calls, including one on a horse named Understanding in a $50,000 stakes race. Cordero won the stakes, and his picture was splashed across the back page of the local newspaper the next day.
“That was the beginning of my career, and of Angel Cordero's,” said DeGregory. “But it wasn't based on me or my knowing John. It was because Mr. Jacobs respected Arcaro and Shoe.”
Asked which of his jockeys was the best, DeGregory laughed.
“Now that's a loaded question,” he said, “but to answer your question, Laffit Pincay is the greatest jockey I ever worked for.”
Pincay was the first of DeGregory's riders to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975, but a broken collarbone just before the date of the induction prevented Pincay from making the trip to Saratoga. Instead, he sent DeGregory to accept for him.
“I said, 'What do you mean you're not coming? This is the greatest award you can get as a jockey, you gotta be kidding. Who are you going to have accept for you?'” DeGregory remembered. “He said, 'you.' Well, there's no agents in the Hall of Fame, but there's one there by mistake and it's me.
“Yeah, my picture is accidentally in the Hall of Fame!”
One thing that really helped DeGregory develop his talents as an agent was called the “Winner's Book.” Every race day, DeGregory would record in a notebook the track's winning horses and important statistics, essentially recording his own chart footnotes for each race.
That way, when it came time for a new race in the condition book, DeGregory could look through his Winner's Book and map out exactly which horses at the track would be pointing for that race.
“Then it was my job to try to get on one of the top two horses,” he said. “That really made a difference for me in those days, before you had smart phones or computers.”
Now, with the relative ease of access to past performances, the advantage goes to agents with established relationships with the trainers.
“I never spun a trainer at the draw,” DeGregory said. “My word is my bond, so when I need help, those guys remember who helped them when they needed it and then they're willing to help me get a new rider started.”
DeGregory said some of the hardest lessons in his career came while he was working for Pincay.
“Every time Laffit got suspended or got hurt, I let it eat me up inside, and patches of my hair the size of silver dollars started falling out,” the agent said. “My doctor told me, 'Everything you can't control, let it go.' It changed my life; I realized that as competitive as I am, I want my jocks always to be number one, but I can't control that situation.”
It took DeGregory a while to learn to roll with the punches, but doing so is the most important lesson he has shared with young jockey agents just starting out in the business. That, and never to spin a trainer at the last minute.
“I've learned that you can't control racing,” he said. “The thing you learn by struggling to be successful is what it's like to be that guy who's struggling. It took years for me to put everything into perspective, to be successful the way I was, but you just have to treat the other people with some class and some respect.”
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