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A couple of years ago, Ryan Fogelsonger was a delivery boy for a Silver Spring pizza joint who’d barely bet on a racehorse, let alone ridden one. This weekend, he’ll be in the saddle at Santa Anita for the Breeders Cup card, the biggest day in racing.
“I guess things have been happening fast for me,” says Fogelsonger.
Tough to argue with that. Santa Anita, a jewel of the moneyed and prestigious Southern California racing circuit, is now Fogelsonger’s home track. He joined the jockey colony there last month, culminating a short, strange trip from the middling Maryland tracks to the sport’s top shelf.
Fogelsonger, 22, was never into the ponies as a kid. He says his only childhood trip to the track came when he was 6, when his dad took him along to Laurel Race Course. His recollections of that excursion are limited. “Really, the only thing I remember is I asked my dad to bet on a horse because I liked the name, and he came back later and handed me a half-dollar and said I’d won,” he says by phone from Santa Anita after working out one of his Breeders Cup mounts. “But nobody in my family followed it, and I didn’t know anybody in racing, really, until I was in racing.”
The 5-foot-3, 105-pound Fogelsonger ran track at Montgomery Blair High School. He says the mile, which he could cover in 4:40, was his best event; he’s booked to travel a mile and one-sixteenth Saturday on the back of 1,200-pound 2-year-old Vino Tinto in the $1 million Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies race, which will take a little more than a minute and a half.
After graduation, Fogelsonger forsook college to keep a job delivering for Pizza Stop, a restaurant where his older brother and sister had both worked. The beginning of the end of that career came when a friend who worked as an exercise rider at Maryland tracks invited Fogelsonger to the stables, suspecting he might have the right mental and physical makeup for a jockey. As soon as Fogelsonger took his first trip in the saddle, he had found his calling.
“In this business, I hear about guys who get a taste of horses and get hooked right away,” says Kevin Witte, Fogelsonger’s former agent. “Most of them aren’t the right
size for racing. But Ryan was the right size, and he got bit by the racing bug.”
It wasn’t long before Fogelsonger told his family that he was heading off to a farm in South Carolina to learn how to become a jockey. They didn’t take the news that he was leaving the pizza-delivery business very seriously.
“I remember when Ryan called me up and told me he was going into horseracing,” says Nick Fogelsonger, his brother, who is now a manager at the Pizza Stop. “I started laughing at him’What the hell are you thinking, dude?’ Well, it looks like the laugh’s on me.”
When Fogelsonger finished his South Carolina training he took an internship at Bonita Farms, the Darlington, Md., outpost that produced (and still houses) 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony and other champions. When Fogelsonger wasn’t mucking stalls, the Boniface family let him hone his riding skills by exercising their horses. He got his riding license and waited for a trainer to give him a real ride.
The wait ended in March 2002, when Fogelsonger was handed the reins of a horse at Laurel. His first ride didn’t go as well as the bet he’d made at the same track as a child. His horse finished last. That began a losing skein that lasted almost three months.
“I remember watching Fogelsonger ride on the lead, and his horse was all over the track,” says Eliot Gunner, a regular patron of Laurel and Pimlico. “So I’m yelling, ‘That guy has no clue what he’s doing!’ And looking back, I think I was right: He didn’t know what he was doing when he started. But he learned, and then all of a sudden he was amazing.”
Witte says Fogelsonger somehow figured out how to communicate with the animals as he rode them. He finally won his first race in May, and over the rest of the year he rode 267 winners, more than any other jockey in the country. This past January, he was given the 2002 Eclipse Award as the nation’s premier apprentice rider.
Because of that honor, when Fogelsonger attended the Hollywood premiere of Seabiscuit this summer, he found himself being recruited by luminaries of Southern California racing. Among the recruiters at the movie shindig was Chris McCarron, who played Charley Kurtsinger, the jockey who rode War Admiral in the match race against the title horse, in the movie. By trade, McCarron was a jockey, not an actor. And in 1974, McCarron was in Fogelsonger’s position, having won the Eclipse Award while riding as an apprentice in Maryland. He went west and enjoyed a Hall of Fame career. McCarron, now the general manager of Santa Anita, began pushing Fogelsonger to start swimming in a bigger pond. McCarron also reminded Fogelsonger that fellow Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, who played “Iceman” George Wolff in Seabiscuit, was a member of the Southern California clique.
Michelle Barsotti, a jockey agent in Southern California, picked up on McCarron’s thread.
“I told Ryan that he can ride in Maryland on that cloud of being the prince of bug riders for only so long,” she says. “But he’s a journeyman now, and the truth is, unless a jockey goes to New York or California, nobody’s ever going to hear about them. I said, ‘I know you’ve got a good thing going where you are, but you’re not going to get a Breeders Cup ride from Maryland.’ On top of what Chris [McCarron] had said, this was a strong pitch.”
But Fogelsonger, who had only recently bought a house near Laurel, thanked Barsotti for her interest, then declined the offer. He said he intended to spend a few more years at Maryland tracks before making any decisions about moving.
A week later, he reconsidered.
“After I said no, I got home and started thinking that I’m young and don’t have too much to lose no matter what happens,” says Fogelsonger. “And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I should go west.”
He made the most of his West Coast debut last month, riding Dream Weekend, a 6-1 shot, into the winner’s circle at Del Mar, the glitzy seaside track founded by Bing Crosby. (That performance put Fogelsonger in some famous company: Seabiscuit also won his Del Mar debut, in 1938.)
Fogelsonger went with the rest of the jockey colony to Santa Anita when that track’s meet opened two weeks ago. After a brief hiatus due to an injured hand, Fogelsonger got back to his winning ways, and as of last weekend he had chalked up six victories in his first eight days of racing at Santa Anita. Asked if he misses his old haunts, Fogelsonger says he surely would if he had the time to think about it. For all the right reasons, he doesn’t have the time.
“Maryland’s always going to be home for me. That’s where I’m from, where my family and friends are,” he says. “But the way things are going, there’s really not much I can complain about out here. This is the place where jocks are made. I just keep telling myself, If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.” Dave McKenna