Jockey Jacinto Chavez, 53, tan face etched with racetrack lore, pedals a mountain bike between the muddy stable area and the jockey room at the Solano County Fairgrounds. He’s trying to drum up some business.
The backstretch crackles with energy at seven-thirty in the morning. Chavez stops at the jockey-room bulletin board to see how many horses he’s riding that day. He reads the entries and then stares at the ceiling, summoning an explanation. He saunters back into daylight and returns to his bike.
Two races. Only two opportunities for Chavez to make good money — roughly seven hundred dollars if he can win both. And, by his own admission, he has only one real chance, on Burning Shore, a mild longshot in the day’s last race. “That’s the fairs,” he says with a sigh. “Everything’s temporary. It’s very hard to get going when there’s so many riders and short fields, and you know you’re moving on soon.”
While the major Bay Area racetracks – Golden Gate Fields in Albany and Bay Meadows in San Mateo – stand silently for most of the summer, the folks in Stockton, Pleasanton, Vallejo, Santa Rosa, Ferndale, San Mateo and Sacramento are treated to a little down-home country flavor for a few weeks. It comes complete with cotton candy, carnival games, beer and horse racing.
But for the riders, it can mean a lot more than fun in the sun. The fair circuit can be a place to start a comeback before trying a major circuit in the fall. It can be a place to grow old with the sport they love. Different stories for different riders.
Many top jockeys skip all or part of the fair circuit. That’s quite all right with the fair jocks.
Chavez rides at the fairs to pick up a few bucks here and there, admitting his chance at stardom is long gone. “Business really starts getting slower when you get older,” he says.
Chavez, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, has had a modest career, with only a few minor stakes wins.
“These days, the trainers want young riders because they think they’re stronger and more athletic,” he says. “And that might be true. But they don’t think enough about how discipline and experience plays into it. It’s frustrating.”
Chavez rides at the fairs every summer, leaving his wife, Betty, at their home in Los Angeles. He’ll return to Southern California for a brief stint at the rich Fairplex meet in Pomona in the fall. There, he can make enough money to keep him happy the rest of the year, if everything goes right.
Betty will meet Jacinto in Santa Rosa, but for now, he’s spending nights in his Toyota van. It is parked in the horseman’s lot a few hundred yards from where he stands.
“It’s not that I can’t afford to stay in motels,” he explains. “I just think it’s safer for me to actually be inside the fair grounds at night.”
Chavez has ridden in Hong Kong and Malaysia (“I stayed there for five and a half months and won twenty-seven races,” he says) and fully realizes the dangers of race-riding. He was in traction once for six months after a Fresno spill that broke his collarbone and shoulder. But, like all jockeys say, it’s not something he thinks about when the starting gate opens.
“I do it because I still love to ride,” he says with a smile. “I don’t do it for the money.”
Randy Addington enters the frame. Addington, 43, is the resident friend of the riders and racetrack employees, always finding time for a cigarette and a conversation.
A self-proclaimed “one-time party animal,” Addington is known to enjoy snoozing while other jockeys gallop in the morning workouts. The years and races have weathered his face like wind, surf and war scar a battleship.
Addington grew up in Toronto, learned how to ride after a trip to Florida, and became one of the premier apprentice jockeys in the country when he first started in the early 1970s. His best run of success came at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, where he still winters. He says he loves to ride at the fairs.
“I like moving around,” he says. “I know everybody in all these towns. We go fishing, we stay in cabins, different motels. It’s fun. A great life. The summer just flies right by.”
Addington figures he can make about three thousand dollars in the 12-day Vallejo stint. “And that’ll be fine with me,” he says.
On this particular day, Addington has been signed up for only one mount, but he’s smiling and bouncing around the grounds as usual.
Katie Summers, 30, runs through the men’s jockey room to check on her rides and to get a little of the camaraderie absent from her cubby area in the women’s room.
This year’s Solano meet has very few female jockeys, but it doesn’t bother Summers. “It’s a man’s world, and I knew it going in,” she says. “But I don’t let it get to me. I just do what I can do.”
Summers grew up in the Green Mountains of Vermont and has ridden in West Virginia and Ohio. She says finding profitable riding connections is the most difficult part of being a jockey. “It’s tough to get started, but it’s a good living,” she says. “I just haven’t gotten in with the big trainers yet.
“The fairs give me a chance to get rolling, to work my way up. I have a lot of doors to open. I’d still like to think I’ll be the first girl jock to win the Kentucky Derby.”
Seth Velarde emerges from the steam room, or “hot box,” as the riders call it.
Velarde, 39, sports a cherub face and a fit physique, but it wasn’t always that way. He won horse racing’s top award, the Eclipse, for being the best apprentice rider in the country in 1973, just one year after he started riding. He was recognized as a natural, born with the kind of unwritten knowledge of pace, inertia and momentum that separates the good from the average.
But booze trashed his work habits, and, even more important, his weight. Throughout the past twenty years, he’s been riding on and off with gaps of up to four years on the sidelines losing weight. In September 1993, Velarde, who’s 5-foot-4, saw his weight balloon up to 205 pounds. He quickly made up his mind.
“It was time to stop drinking and get my act together,” he says. Velarde starting eating right, hit the weight room and the hot box and is now riding comfortably, alcohol-free and svelte, at 112. “It’s good to be back,” he says.
The trainers agree. Top thoroughbred conditioner Gil Glover is using Velarde, as is one of the fair circuit’s “emerging breed” (Arabian, quarter horse and appaloosa) kingpins, Dick Carter.
“He’s one hell of a rider and he’s made one hell of a comeback,” trainer Joe Jacobson says. “He can really ride.”
Velarde resurfaced from his dietary hiatus in time to lead the short Ferndale meet in wins last year but was too tired to continue after the fairs. This year, he says, it’s different.
“I feel as good as I have in years,” he says with a smile. “I’m definitely going to give it a go full-time sometime after the fairs. I just don’t know where yet.”
Away from the hubbub, grilling burgers on a barbecue by the masseuse’s trailer, sits Billy Lang, shirtless. He’s the rebel of the gang with earrings, a tattoo and shades.
Lang, 32, reappeared at Stockton, the beginning of the fair circuit, after a six-month stay at a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation clinic and will ride on through the fairs. He’s clean, he says, and ready to start making enough money to get his life back in working order quickly.
Lang was a promising young rider on the Southern California circuit a few years ago, with an aggressive style in the saddle, but for the last few years, that aggression was channeled in the wrong ways.
“I just love the adrenaline rush of riding,” he says. “I love to scare myself. And I think that’s what I was doing with drugs. Every time I was depressed or angry, it was just fear, and when something hurt, I could block it with drugs or alcohol.”
Lang shakes his head. “I did so many things. But what can I do now? I can try to make myself better, to get myself out of this hole.”
On his chest, Lang sports a tattoo of a half-heart and the name, “COREY.”
“That’s my son,” he explains. “His mom had some real problems with drinking when I was in treatment, and he’s been in foster care. He’s almost three years old, and I haven’t seen him in two years. When I start winning again, I’m gonna make sure everything’s right with my son.”
Lang has jumped right back into the grace of some top trainers and is winning races again. He won three of his first nine races at Vallejo and smiles a lot, as if he knows something you don’t.
“I have to live for today,” he says. “The fair is an opportunity to prove to these guys that I can still ride and that I’m in control again. I’m ready to give it everything I have.”
Later, in front of a summer crowd, Addington wins on his only ride of the day, Smooth Wells, in the third race. His backers receive $10.20 for each $2 win bet.
Lang wins the fourth race on the favorite.
Velarde takes the fifth and sixth — the sixth on a 20-1 longshot trained by Jacobson.
Summers rides in four races and can’t do better than sixth place.
And in the twelfth and final race, Chavez, whip flaring and silks beaming in the dying sun, brings home Burning Shore by a couple of lengths for a sweet payoff of close to 17-1. He dismounts joyously and heads to the winner’s circle.
The rest of the jocks race to the showers and then the freeways. They’ll all be back, first thing in the morning.