« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - Two jockeys and a football player

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) When I lived in New Hampshire, I followed thoroughbred racing in New England. It’s the minor leagues for  horses. The ones that are too slow to win the big-money at the New York tracks get sent to New Jersey. Horses that can’t win in Jersey find their way to the New England circuit, where they’d run in the winter and early spring at Suffolk Downs in Boston and at beautiful Rockingham Park in New Hampshire in the summer. Some of the animals just didn’t have the blue blood breeding to be competitive against higher-class competition. Other horses were broken down or old, but might still have enough left in the tank to win at one of the New England tracks.

Against that backdrop, New England horse racing fans still got to see two world class jockeys compete year after year.

Carl Gambardella ranked 7th in all time career wins, yet he's hardly a household name. I saw him towards the end of his career when he would judiciously pick and choose the horses he rode. He wouldn’t accept mounts in the cheaper, claiming races. Some days he’d ride only one or two horses in allowance or stakes-level races. If you were shipping a horse in from Saratoga and were spotted for action, Carl Gambardella would give you a professional ride and would often send you home with the winner’s share of the purse. But if you had a horse that was on its last legs, he’d pass and let some younger rider climb aboard.

Rudy Baez was a wild man on the racetrack. If there were ten races on a Saturday, he’d ride in all ten. $5,000 claiming races, maiden races, no matter… someone was going to win, and Rudy wanted it to be him. He was a fabulous jockey – never afraid of riding near the rail or pressing to find room between horses in the deep stretch. Bettors loved a jockey who always seemed to give maximum effort. It seemed like some of his mounts won because of his sheer will.

Rudy won more races than Carl, but Rudy rode more horses. Both were great jockeys who made a good, solid living in New England.

Carl Gambardella retired in 1994. Today he works as clerk-of-scales at Suffolk Downs. A man of few words, he occasionally offers advice to younger riders. He’s one of the all-time greats who never made it to the big time. Today he’s still one of only 15 jockeys with more than 6,000 wins, putting him in the company of Pat Day, Laffit Pincay, and Bill Shoemaker.

Rudy Baez, who occasionally missed riding time because of injuries, was paralyzed in a horrific spill in 1999 when a horse in front of him broke down. He was unable to avoid the fallen horse and was badly trampled. He’ll be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Being a jockey is dangerous. So is playing in the NFL. In today’s National Football League players are bigger and faster than ever before. There are no ‘safe’ or ‘easy’ positions where risk of injury can be minimized. Jermichael Finley plays like Rudy Baez rode. Finley plays in the slot and catches passes over the middle – the most dangerous part of the field. He has an effective yet high-risk habit of running with his head down. Now he’s suffered an apparent spinal injury after a shoulder-to-helmet hit.

Who could blame him if he makes a ‘Carl Gambardella’ decision and decides to retire? Many jockeys are told that one more spill could be catastrophic. Eventually there aren’t any more safe races. Jermichael Finley will probably get a similar message from his doctors. At some point the risk of continuing is too great. He may be at that point.

Chris Conley