Racing & Wagering

Barn Notes: Saturday, July 21, 2012

| Churchill Downs Communications | 08/06/2012 #
  • Family and friends join Jerry LaSala in the winner's circle following his final ride. Photo by Four Footed Fotos

LaSala's Last Career Mount Million Preview Day? – Maybe Not
Ceremonies ensued immediately after veteran Chicago-based jockey Jerry LaSala rode Arapaho Royal's Royal Alluvial in the seventh race on Arlington's Million Preview Day July 14. Why? The popular homegrown rider – born, raised and always a resident of the Windy City – had announced just days earlier that he was retiring from the saddle effective as soon as he jumped off that mount.

As it turned out, LaSala was fortunate to jump off that mount, because in the middle of the stretch run the 52-year-old athlete looked like he was going to be forced over the rail as the human victim of an extremely rough run race. Royal Alluvial, LaSala's equine partner, also emerged unscathed from that unfortunate fracas, but without question, the race was hardly the ideal swansong for one of the nation's most revered riders.

Why is he as popular as he is? Because LaSala's main focus throughout his career has been to look out for his peers. They all were and still are aware of that, because for a little more than five years he was the national treasurer of the Jockeys' Guild.

"When I started out riding (in 1981) I was very young," LaSala said, who retired with 1,248 wins from 10,913 mounts. "Maybe I was a little too young. I was probably pushed a little too early. Maybe that's why I started paying attention to the concerns of other riders as soon as I did. I always wanted to see that that everybody was getting a fair shake. A lot of these kids coming into the game right now are very young and a lot of them are uneducated. They don't know too much about how to handle themselves or how to handle the money they are making.

"These are the guys we have to look out for," said LaSala. "When I started riding here at Arlington the veterans in the jockeys' room were guys like Mike Smith, Jerry Bailey, Earlie Fires and Pat Day and Randy Meier. If they saw you make a mistake in a race they would grab you and put you in a corner of the room and explain to you privately what you did wrong. They were always trying to help you and I learned everything I know from them. Arlington was a tough place to win because of guys like that, but they were all very good teachers. I want to pass along those things I learned from them along to these kids that are coming along now.

"I consider it an honor for me to serve on the board of the Jockeys' Guild with guys like Johnny Velazquez," LaSala said of the Guild's current chairman. "I'm in touch with guys like that practically every day.

"I know I'm going to miss riding," said LaSala. "I'm going to miss playing cards in the room with the guys, and I'm also going to miss mingling with the trainers in the morning, guys like Wayne (Catalano), Larry (Rivelli) and Mike (Reavis). When you ride for guys like that you know you've got a good chance to win because they know how to put their horses in the right spot. They are all very smart horsemen.

"I remember my first winner very well," said LaSala when asked to reflect on his career. "It was at Hawthorne aboard a horse named Not Noble Enough and I beat 'Cat' (Wayne Catalano) who was riding a horse named Black Cannon in the race. I still like to kid him all the time about that."

Catalano and LaSala have been best friends since those days, and it was Catalano who put LaSala up on Royal Alluvial for what was supposed to be his last ride. But can we be sure of that?

Arlington will once again host a "retired riders versus active jockeys" race on the day before the 30th running of the Arlington Million Aug. 18.

At this time, it is still entirely possible that Catalano will be one of the retired riders in that race, and not out of the question that LaSala might end up joining him as an alternate member of that group.

"I really don't think I want to ride in that race," said LaSala. "One of the reasons I decided to retire is because it's tough to compete when you ride as little as I did and you're going against younger guys who are riding six or seven races a day. But my wife Nancy has been putting a lot of pressure on me."

Nancy LaSala, it should be noted, is known as something of a "make-it-happen" kind of individual. She has served as president of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF) since it was incorporated in 2006, writes all of its checks and does its payroll in a seven-days-a-week kind of commitment to the cause.

"Let's put it this way," Nancy LaSala said when speaking of her husband's possible participation in that race (as well as the chance for a paycheck) that would be donated to the PDJF. "If they need to fill a saddle that day, he's not going to have much choice."