The Interviews: Top Rider Turned Broadcaster, Richard Migliore
TBP: Where were you born and raised and how did you become interested in horses and racing?
RM: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, near Coney Island. When I was a kid I used to go out to Long Island to ride ponies, and after a while I started riding in pony races. I pretty much decided I wanted to be a jockey one Saturday afternoon after I saw the great gelding Forego catch and beat Honest Pleasure with a furious late rally in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont. That morning I had won a pony race in similar fashion. Marlboro Cup day, 1976 was the day I knew I was going to be a jockey.
TBP: How did you get started out riding?
RM: I got a job at a place called Hunting Hollow farm on Long Island cleaning stalls. I had my choice of getting paid a dollar a stall or applying that money to riding lessons, so I applied it mostly to lessons. I went on to work at another farm owned by a veterinarian who worked at Belmont and Aqueduct, and one day a week I got to go to the racetrack to work with him. I had started galloping thoroughbred and quarter horses on his farm and when I was 14 I got to gallop my first horse at Belmont Park for a trainer called Roger Laurin. I was too young to work at the track legally so Roger offered me a job galloping at his farm in South Carolina, but I wanted to stay at Belmont, and when I was 15 trainer Steve Di Mauro put me on a horse and ultimately put me under contract.
TBP: Did you follow or look up to any particular jockeys when you started?
RM: Braulio Baeza was someone I idealized a great deal. He was taller and leaner than most riders, like I was, but he had such a great seat and was so statuesque on a horse, he was the rider I first tried to emulate. I was also very fortunate that I was surrounded by so many amazing riders in New York at the time, I learnt so much from them, I was surrounded by one Hall of Famer after another.
TBP: How did things go for you in your first year of two race riding?
RM: Things went amazingly well, I actually became champion apprentice in my second year riding. I had started riding in September 1980, but my first full year was 1981. I also topped the rider standings in New York that year as an apprentice. I was riding with all these great riders I had looked up to growing up, it was really quite overwhelming. Fortunately I had good people around me, like my trainer Steve Di Mauro who kept me grounded and also impressed upon me the importance of horsemanship.
TBP: How many riders these days are jockeys more than horsemen?
RM: I’d say these days around 60% of riders are jockeys first and horsemen second, and I think we are going in the wrong direction with that. A lot of riders today don’t have the grounding that riders used to get and they don’t seem to have the same appreciation for the horses, and what the people around them do to get them to the races.
TBP: What differentiates good riders from great riders?
RM: I think to be a great rider you really have to be a chameleon, and have the ability to ride any kind of horse or race. You hear a lot about horses suiting the rider’s style, it’s important for great riders for the rider to fit and adapt to the horse’s style. Also all great riders are great horse listeners, they are very good at picking up on what the horse is telling them.
TBP: When you were race riding, which riders did least like to see coming upsides you in a tight finish?
RM: Definitely Angel Cordero. Also George Velasquez, he always saves horse and has plenty of horse left. A less well known rider who was underrated by many was Ruben Hernandez, who won the Belmont Stakes on Coastal. He was so strong and impressive in a finish. If you got by him a neck and didn’t open up, he was going to come back and beat you. He was probably one of the most underrated riders I ever rode with.
TBP: Are riders creatures of habit when it comes race riding?
RM: Many are yes, many riders have habits and tendencies that some of us are not even that aware of. If you study and pay attention you get to know which riders have which tendencies. For example, you learn which riders if they are in front are going to go to meet a challenge if someone moves up to them. If someone goes up outside them they are habitually going to go to the outside to them and they will consequently open up the rail. Likewise you get to know which riders are really going to guard the rail if they are on it, who are going to be difficult if you try to get up inside them, things like that. The combination of knowing the horses and the riders and what both of their tendencies and habits are is all part of the puzzle and the fun of race riding.
TBP: Tell us about some of your personal favorite horses over the years.
RM: The first horse I would like to mention was a horse called Creme De La Fete. He was just a claimer, but he showed up and ran his race every single time. I won fifteen races as a kid on him. I rode him for four or five years, from 1981 to 1985, from when I was an apprentice to when I was a full jockey, he was a remarkably honest and hard trying horse. I believe he won 40 races in all. (Creme De La Fete ran 151 times from age 2 to 9 and won 40 races for earnings of $460,350 - Ed.)
Another favourite was a mare called Hidden Lake. She was very high class and was Champion older mare in 1997. She was a jockey’s dream to ride and was very tactical and versatile, you never had to worry about having a bad trip with her. If they went slow she could make the pace, if they went fast she could come from dead last. If there was a little hole on the rail she was brave, she would go right through it, if she was caught wide she would go round the outside. A lot of even the good horses need a particular kind of trip, she didn’t, nothing bothered her and you could put her anywhere in a race.
I rode the last Grade 1 winner of my career on a mare called Flashing owned by Godolphin. She had been very difficult in the mornings and she had actually run off and bolted with Javier Castellano in a race. She was a bit of a project, they asked me to get on her in the mornings and I got along with her really well, so then they asked me to ride her in the afternoon. The whole development and management of her culminating in those two Grade 1 wins, the Test, and the Gazelle at Belmont over 9 furlongs, was very satisfying.
TBP: Tell us about Artie Schiller.
RM: Ah I loved Artie Schiller.... I first started getting on him as a two year old forJimmy Jerkens. We knew he was special early on. First time out we ran him over 6 furlongs which we thought would be too short, but he got up and won with me that day from a very bad position and that confirmed that he was a runner as he really had no right to win from where he had been in the race. We went on to win four or five stakes with him as a three year old.
Then the heartbreak period with him began, for me on a personal level. I had been injured in New York on the day before the Breeder’s Cup was to be run in Texas. Artie Schiller was running in the Breeders Cup Mile and I decided that I was okay to ride him, which was pretty much the biggest professional mistake of my life. My desire got the better of my common sense and I was hurt worse than I knew, or admitted to. I wasn’t at my best and we had a horrible trip in the race. I shouldn’t have ridden him, and consequently I lost the ride to Edgar Prado.
The thing about Artie was that he had one really explosive run, but it was quite a short one and if you rode him safely and kept him outside, his run would come to an end and he would hang a little. After I lost the ride this happened with other riders a couple of times, and very fortunately they gave me the ride back and I won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga on him.
I worked him a few days before the Breeders Cup Mile and he was absolutely phenomenal. I was confident that it was going to be full redemption for me, I remember telling my wife that morning we were going to get our first Breeders Cup win. Then I went out and rode that afternoon and broke my leg in a fall, and had to miss the ride on Artie. Artie won the Breeders Cup Mile and got a great ride from Garrett Gomez. I was happy for Jimmy Jerkens as it really put Jimmy on the map and showed people what a great horsemen he is.
TBP: How about the prolific sprinter Affirmed Success?
RM: I got on Affirmed Success later in his career, he was an eight year old when I won the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct over 7 furlongs on him in 1:21 and change. He was as tough and hickory as a horse could be, he would run on dirt or turf and could win on the lead or from off the pace. He got a little lazy when he got older and you had to push and get after him throughout a race, but he would keep running and coming if you kept asking him. I don’t think he liked me very much as he would pin his ears and try and bite me when I saw him in the barn on the backstretch, but then I saw him in his retirement at Old Friends in Kentucky and he was very nice and laid back and kind to me.
TBP: Then there was Richter Scale.
RM: Richter Scale was pretty much a one dimensional speedball, a really fast horse, probably the most natural sprinter I ever rode. He would just break from the gate and you just had to sit as quiet as could be, if you moved a finger you would set him off and you’d be flat out. You could get him to relax for a furlong or so, as long as you didn’t move. He was coming out of two seven furlong races when he ran in the Laurel Dash. That day was the only time I let him run straight from the gate and I believe he ran six furlongs in 1.07 and ⅘ that day. He was extremely talented but he just wanted to be in front all the time.
Another I will always remember would be a filly called Tactile - she was a sweetheart. Richard Small trained her, she won the Gazelle Stakes at Belmont by a nose and then stepped up against older horses in the Beldame to win by a neck, she was very game and genuine.
TBP: How about the Kentucky Derby contender you won a Wood Memorial on, Eternal Prince.
RM: Eternal Prince was a really talented three year old. He ran in the Bayshore at Aqueduct where I tried to rate him, he didn’t respond well to the rating tactics and stopped. Then I rode him in the Gotham Stakes and let him roll and he went wire to wire, I think we ran the half mile in 44 and change.
After that we went for the Wood Memorial at a mile and a furlong, when he made the lead he rated himself nicely and we went wire to wire again, beating a horse called Proud Truth who went on to win the Breeders Cup Classic. It was quite an emotional win for me because I was still only 21, and as I stood in the winner’s circle on Eternal Prince I remembered when I was a New York kid seeing the display of the pictures of all the Wood Memorial winners, with all those legendary horses and jockeys up on the wall at Aqueduct.
Then we went to Churchill Downs for the Derby with him. I worked him the Monday before the race, he was usually a horse that you had to talk out of doing too much, but that day he worked horribly. I think he had had a lot of racing already in the previous few months and it caught up with him. In the Kentucky Derby he didn’t break well and Spend a Buck went wire to wire to win. I took a lot of unwarranted criticism that I had got left on him at the start, but the fact of the matter was that he was never going to win that day and was already a spent horse. It’s true that you often get too much of the credit when you win and too much of the blame when you don’t.
TBP: You did ride a Kentucky Derby winner, but not until later on in his career, like you he was a New Yorker and his name was Funny Cide - what was he like?
RM: Funny Cide was difficult, a very tough horse. He was so strong, he had such a tough mouth and when horses got next to him he would get mad. The day he won the Dominion Stakes with me up in Canada he actually threw me over the rail in the paddock into the crowd before the race. In the race we went wire to wire and I couldn’t pull him up. Even when the outrider caught us it took another five furlongs to stop him.
TBP: It’s always a subjective and tricky question, but who do you think might have been the best horse you ever rode?
RM: Yes that’s a good question, and the answer is probably a horse that most people have never heard of. When I was an apprentice I got to ride a horse who Mack Miller trained for Rokeby Stable, called Highjinks. He was by Tom Rolfe, and he just might have been the most talented horse I ever sat on.
Mack Miller didn’t usually use jockeys to work his horses in the mornings, but at the time he had a very talented horse in his barn called Winter’s Tale, who won multiple graded stakes and three or four Grade 1s. Winter’s Tale needed a work mate, so Mack asked me to breeze Highjinks with him. The plan was for me to jump off in front and then Winter’s Tale would join and go by us at the eighth pole. When Winter’s Tale got to us Highjinks just ran away from him easily, so we knew he was special.
Unfortunately Highjinks only ever had one start before he got injured, but I rode him at Belmont that day when he broke his maiden and beat a future Grade 1 winner called Akeroid. We won by open lengths and Highjinks just laughed at Akeroid that day, but he never raced again. After he got hurt I believe he wound up going back to Rokeby farm to become Mr Mellon’s riding horse.
TBP: Unfortunately you experienced a forced retirement following a fall in a race in January 2010. Can you tell us what happened?
RM: I remember everything very clearly. I made a move turning for home on a horse called Honest Wildcat at Aqueduct in a claiming race. He unfortunately broke down and we both hit the ground head first and were knocked out. When I came to I couldn’t see, everything was black. Then when I tried to get up I couldn’t because my legs wouldn’t work. They took me to the hospital and I got my mobility back. They said I have been badly concussed but they couldn’t find any fractures in my neck or back. So I took a few weeks off and then started riding again.
The pain in my neck and back never really went away. I just thought I would get through it. I rode for about a month and the last day I rode, I rode five and won on four of them, but when I got out of the shower after racing the pain was so bad that I sat down on the bench and I couldn’t stand up. My eldest son picked me up and drove me home, and the next day we made an appointment to go into Manhattan to see a spine specialist. He took x-rays and said “Well I see what’s wrong with you - you have six broken vertebrae.” I was stunned. He said the previous doctors had missed it because I had had neck surgery previously and I already had fused bones in my neck, so the previous x-rays had been misread.
I had to have more surgery and they ended up putting two plates and eight screws in my neck and did extensive bone grafting. The specialist laid it out to me that if I carried on riding and took a hit I would be a quadroplegic, so I knew at that point that I had to turn the page.
After the surgery was done and I started to recover, it was a difficult time for me. I had been riding professionally since I was 15 and never known anything else, I’d always known who I was in that sense, and now I felt like I’d almost lost my identity.
TBP: Did you ever consider becoming a trainer?
RM: I think I will train one day, but just after I gave up riding, it wasn’t the right time. Training is a very consuming job and I had already missed too many weekend and sporting events for my kids because of my commitments as a rider, so I felt I wasn’t ready to get into training, I wanted to spend more time with my kids and family on my farm in upstate New York.
TBP: How did you become involved in broadcasting and presenting?
RM: When I was leaving the track after I had announced my retirement, completely emotionally drained, Charlie Hayward, who was president of NYRA at the time, grabbed me and said if I was interested in going to work for NYRA to give him a call. I got home and a couple of hours later Amy Zimmerman from HRTV called me and said she thought I could be good on television and offered me an opportunity to work with them. So in the September I started working for HRTV, and then I started combining it with work for NYRA too.
I also do a lot of spokesperson work for Saratoga, and I am heavily involved with the apprentice jockey program which gives me a lot of personal satisfaction. I was very fortunate that the people at HRTV really helped me get comfortable and teach me, I have had great mentors and they couldn’t have helped me more.
TBP: Tell us about your farm in upstate New York, is it a working farm?
RM: We live on a farm in Millbrook in Duchess County, it’s not a working farm but we have animals and an indoor arena. We have one off the track thoroughbred who was called Skeptical when he ran, he raced in Europe, Southern California and at Finger Lakes before we got him. He’s well bred, by Kris S. out of a Fappiano mare, he didn’t do much as a racehorse, but he’s a real pleasure to have around, a real character and a gentleman. My daughter has a pony hunter called Rosie and we have a bunch of chickens and dogs.
TBP: How can we attract more people to become racing fans?
RM: Horse racing is such a hybrid, I think we fail to present it correctly to the public and miss out on a lot of opportunities. I understand that gambling fuels the engine, but thoroughbred horse racing is not just gambling, it’s not just sport, it’s not just entertainment, it’s all of those things. I think new fans need help when they come to the track too, I think back to when I was a kid, there was just win, place and show betting, the daily double, and the ninth race triple. There were no exotics, nowadays we have trifectas, superfectas, quinellas, exactas and I think it’s quite overwhelming for new people. We need a better experience for beginners, we need rookie rooms at the tracks.
This is a customer driven experience and we need to look after our customers much better, industry wide. We have to make them welcome and give them a good experience. We have people available, like some of the exercise riders who work on the backstretch in the mornings who are knowledgeable and would love to pick up some part time work like helping out rookie racegoers in the afternoons.
TBP: What can we do to make things better for retired racehorses? Who should be responsible for this and how should a national retirement fund for horses be funded?
RM: This is something that is very important to me. I am actually on the board of the TRF (Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation). It is incumbent upon the entire racing industry and anyone who derives a living from it to ensure that these horses are taken care of when their racing days are over. That should be non-negotiable.
That said, I believe that it all starts with the breeder, because that’s where the responsibility begins. There should be an amount, for the example let’s say it’s $500, that should be paid by breeders to go with the registration fee of every horse. That $500 should immediately go into an endowment policy for that horse or/and other horses.
After that the responsibility falls on other people in the industry to contribute, anyone who benefits from racing should contribute, from racetrack employees when they get licensed for instance to the vendors who sell beer at the track. So in a foal crop of 20,000, $10 million would be raised from the breeders fee alone. Things like this would show the world that collectively as an industry we have come up with a plan to show that we are taking care of our equine athletes. Not only would it be great for the horses, it would also be a huge boost for the game from a PR standpoint.
Then we need to go to a place where land is inexpensive, where several thousand acres could be bought and a permanent thoroughbred retirement home could be established. The current smaller places that do such a great job could become satellites. Then we have the grooms who are close to retirement who just can’t do 4am, 7 day weeks anymore. Now they have a place to go, we build housing for them and they help with the operation of the facility.
Then we also send kids out who want to get into the industry to train to become grooms and exercise riders. The farm would be training horses to be ready for a second career and at the same time a steady supply of help would be being trained and prepared for the industry - qualified exercise riders, qualified grooms and apprentice riders, qualified horse shoers etc..
I’m not suggesting this would be simple and straightforward, but I see this as being feasible.
Implementing a $500 breeding fee to go to racehorse retirement initiatives would be great for the horses and would hopefully cut down on some irresponsible breeding.
TBP: Did you ride on synthetic tracks in your career and what is your opinion of the current synthetic track situation?
RM: I liked riding on synthetic tracks. I think there was an opportunity there, but there were some problems, I think we were a little quick to put them in and that it wasn’t thought through enough, and I also think we were too quick to take them out. I do think there is a place for them, and I know that a lot of horses are very comfortable on them. I hope that it is not a dead issue.
TBP: Do you think things might have been different if synthetic tracks had been presented and offered as an addition to dirt tracks, rather than as a replacement?
RM: Yes, with regard to the trainers initial resistance to the synthetic tracks replacing dirt, it’s like anything else. When you’ve done something one way your whole life and it’s then forced on you to change, you’re going to be resistant, but if it’s offered as an additional option and something to try, then it’s a whole different mindset for folks going in.
TBP: What are your thoughts on the Lasix situation?
RM: If Lasix stays I think the protocols of a horse being allowed lasix have to be changed. For example, we could say that if a horse genuinely needs lasix then they are not going to be forbidden to have it, but they have to demonstrate that they need it before they can go on it. Then they will be monitored every time they race on it. If they bleed again while they are on lasix, then they are banned from racing for a certain period of time. If they bleed on lasix again after that, then the ban is for a longer period of time, and if it continues then they will be disallowed from racing. Under those circumstances I think most trainers would think twice about putting a horse on lasix unless they felt it really necessary, as they would not want to put their horse under that kind of scrutiny unless the horse genuinely needed the medication.
TBP: How do you feel about the current state of the breeding industry?
RM: The economic ideas of breeding and the culture have changed. I think there has been a lot of irresponsible breeding and a lot of horses are bred that should not be bred at all. Many horses, that years ago would just have been gelded and carried on racing because they weren’t considered good enough to breed, now have a stallion career somewhere.
And look at the two year old in training sales. Two year olds are being asked to do something they’ll rarely be asked to do again in their life, they will never be asked to go an eighth of a mile in ten seconds again, as they just wouldn’t get home if they did that in a race. The consigner and seller don’t worry about it when it’s done, they’ve cashed in, their part is over. I think these two year old sales may be running their course, I applaud people like Seth Hancock who refuse to have their babies asked to run that hard that early, and who just have their horses gallop.
Good trainers don’t need to drill a horse to see it has ability. I admire trainers like Bill Mott, he never breezes horses fast, he doesn’t need to see it, he can tell how a horse is doing and what that horse is capable of. He can breeze a horse a half mile in 50 sec, and then he can say “yes I know he breezed in 50, but I know he’s a runner.” That’s why he’s a Hall of Fame trainer.
TBP: What are your thoughts on how racing is marketed and the casino/slots relationships that many tracks have?
RM: When our sport is marketed by people who focus on it being only a gambling medium, we are really missing the boat. Racing is a multi-faceted hybrid, it’s not just about gambling, it gives people the chance to come along to the track, have a great time, witness something great and maybe even go home with more money than they came with. To focus on the gambling aspect like it’s a slot machine itself, to market it just on “you can make a big score” or “you could hit a pick 6” is just so short sighted, it is completely missing out on the opportunity to mark to the public just how wonderful and beautiful horse racing is. We are not even coming close to maximising what we have to sell.
We need to market the horses and get people close to horses. Tracks do stuff like “family fun days.” With stuff like face painting and magic shows. That stuff just doesn’t correlate with what we have as our product, it has nothing to do with horses and racing. Why don’t we have pony rides with numbered saddle cloths and use the old silks that are no longer used from the weighing room and let the kids wear them? Then we’re doing something that is connecting the kids to the game and they can in a small way begin to relate to racing. We do a good job of keeping people in the dark about our industry and keep them on the outside, when we should be bringing them in and educating and involving them. I do a lot of commentary on the post parades for NYRA and try to give people entertaining information and education on things they might find interesting that they were unaware of before, for example like why a jockey is warming a horse up a certain way, things like that.
TBP: So should racing make it more about the horses themselves and push that side of it?
RM: Yes, I think we need to get people closer to the horses. I run a luncheon for prospective new owners for the New York Racing Association and it’s interesting, because often the husbands want to be a part of it and own a horse but their wives are sometimes skeptical. Then when we take them back to the barn area and let them get with the horses, after they get up close and personal with these amazing animals, suddenly the skepticism is gone and the wives are as into it as their husbands.
Interestingly when we did this at Saratoga last time and we went back to Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn, the horse that people got to pet and have their picture taken with was Mohaymen!
Six For Fun
TBP: What would say was your most satisfying day at the races?
RM: When I was living in New York and riding out in California it had been a very difficult time. My family had stayed here in New York and I was flying back and forth every weekend on the redeye. Then one weekend they all came out to Del Mar, and the day I won the Pacific Classic on Student Council with my family there after all the sacrifices we had made was probably my most satisfying day at the races.
TBP: What do you get up to when you are not broadcasting or racing?
RM: I love to go hiking. There are so many things I am not supposed to do too much with my back and my neck condition, but I love to hike up here in Duchess County, the scenery is really spectacular.
TBP: Favourite type of music?
RM: I like singer songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, I’m showing my age there!
TBP: Favorite food or restaurants?
RM: I’m probably around 146 pounds now, and when I was riding I could ride at 115, but at 146 right now I am not overweight. As far as restaurants go, my wife is such a great cook, if I come home to her Chicken Cacciatore I’m a very happy guy!
TBP: Favorite vacation destination?
RM: This past summer we rented a house down on the Jersey Shore at a place called Sea Isle, and I think it was the most relaxed I’ve ever been in my life.
TBP: Who would be your chosen guests at a dinner party?
RM: There is a chef I enjoy watching on TV, Jacques Papin, who I find very interesting. I think he’d be good company and if I was going to have him over I’d like to also invite Robert Mondavi the pioneering visionary winemaker. I’d invite Colonel Matt Wynn who created the Kentucky Derby because I’d love to hear his views on racing today and how to market our sport now.
Eddie Arcaro would be on my list, I did meet him once when I was young but I’d like to meet him again, now I am older. Sunny Fitzsimmons and Allen Jerkens both legendary trainers would round out the list. I knew Allen quite well, for me he was one of the best horsemen that ever lived, and he told me some great stories about Sunny Fitzsimmons, so to have them both at the table together would be quite something. Finally I would like to invite a boyhood hero of mine, Jackie Robinson. He created such change in our culture and it would be great to meet him and have him at the table.
Richard Migliore on Kip Deville