Paulick Report is introducing a new monthly feature by Tom Pedulla, “Kirkpatrick & Co. Presents In Their Care,” a behind-the-scenes look at some of the men and women who work in anonymity on the backstretch of racetracks across the country but play an integral role in the sport.
Exercise rider Finley Bishop has no vision in his left eye, a bum right arm and a well-known gift for calming the most cantankerous of Thoroughbreds.
Bishop was growing up in Belize when he said a fly struck his left eye, leading to an infection and what he described as a botched operation. He relocated to the United States as a 10-year-old in an attempt to restore his sight, but ultimately nothing could be done. He now wears a glass eye.
The damage to his right arm occurred during a riding accident involving Dry Martini. The winner of the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap in 2009 inadvertently stepped on Bishop's right arm, displacing muscle and leaving the arm visibly damaged.
Bishop, 61, described the issue in terms that perhaps only he can fully understand.
“The shoulder is off the limb,” said Bishop during a recent interview at Gulfstream Park. “Now and then it bites you and you feel the pain. Once I'm up on a horse, I forget all about the injury.”
According to Bishop, who splits the year between Gulfstream and New Jersey's Monmouth Park, he learned to ride when he was 8 years old by catching wild horses in Belize.
“I didn't have no bridle, didn't have no saddle, didn't have no boots, no helmet, nothing,” he said. “I just took my chance and learned to ride bareback.”
Bishop developed his skills to such a great degree through the decades that he is a go-to rider for many highly respected trainers when they encounter particularly troublesome horses that refuse to train, balk at working and routinely dump those who dare to mount them.
“He's one of the best who did it, period,” said Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito.
The 5-5, 132-pound Bishop built such a reputation for his work ethic and skill that many know him by the nickname given to him by Hispanic backstretch workers – Sacalo. That roughly translates to “bring him out,” referring to the horse Bishop is assigned to ride.
The call went out to Sacalo when 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin became difficult as a 4-year-old and refused to work for Jerry Bailey, who went on to be a Hall of Fame jockey. Bishop arrived at Zito's barn with a whip in each hand and a song in his heart.
The whips showed it was time for business. Another rather unusual component was involved in appealing to Go for Gin. Bishop said he began singing reggae music to the colt once they hit the track. “When he heard my voice, he got happy,” he said.
Whatever the explanation, Go for Gin responded with exactly what his trainer wanted.
“It was a half mile in :48 and he galloped out in a minute and change,” said Zito. “It was a really great work and he ran well in the race.”
Bishop has a knack for delivering exactly the work that is needed. “He has a clock in his head with quite a bit of precision,” said trainer Steve Klesaris.
Docksider, the eventual third-place finisher in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Mile, was another project for Bishop. The horse would reach the track, wheel around, and refuse to gallop for trainer John Hills. The call went out to Sacalo.
Bishop decided that Docksider lacked focus. He asked Hills for two horses to gallop in front of them, ensuring that Docksider felt the sting from kickback, something he came to resent. Once Docksider was well underway, the two horses in front would separate to allow Bishop to split them.
Bishop became so indispensable to Docksider that he said he was paid handsomely to accompany the horse to Hong Kong for a race. No one knew how Docksider would train after such a journey, and on a track at which he would be required to run clockwise.
“When we went to Hong Kong, no problem because we went the opposite way,” Bishop said. “He was happy with that.”
Then there was Proud Man, who refused to step on a van for trainer Harry Benson after he was involved in a shipping mishap. The call went out to Sacalo.
Almost magically, Bishop gently persuaded Proud Man to board the van time and again. “The horse don't go nowhere without me,” he said proudly.
Benson, 85, will always be indebted to Bishop for that. “I've seen the greatest of the great, and Finley just stands out,” he said. “He communicates with horses. Horses that other people can't ride, he makes it look easy.”
Bishop's ability to connect with a horse is almost mystical.
“He has this voice and this excitement, and I don't know what it is, but I believe horses respond to it,” Zito said.
According to Bishop, his listening skills became particularly keen due to the loss of an eye at such a young age. “When I ride a horse, I'm listening with my ears to where this horse is coming from,” he said. “You've got to learn to listen.”
Bishop's voice is soft. His speech, however ungrammatical, is melodic. He swears by the value of talking to horses in gentle terms – and then breaking out in song once they hit the track. He said he alternates between reggae and country, always keeping it mellow.
He decides between the two genres “according to what the horse likes to hear.”
Bishop is known for being generous almost to a fault. His lifestyle is refreshingly simple. He enjoys handicapping and wagering in the afternoon once he hops off the last of a dozen or so mounts each morning. He rarely dines at restaurants because he is so focused on staying light. He goes to sleep at 6:30 p.m., wakes up at 2 a.m., and arrives at the track at 4 a.m. He drives his 1999 Acura from barn to barn as business dictates, typically receiving $20 per mount.
“Simple life,” he said. “I'm as happy as I can be.”
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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