Anthony Esposito, agent to jockey Luis Contreras, is on a mission to improve on his client’s banner 2011 campaign at Woodbine that saw his jock steer home 211 winners while collecting purse earnings of $11.6 million dollars, the most of any rider in track history.
Can Contreras improve on his breakout 2011 campaign?
Contreras, quiet and competitive, is looking forward to opening day, April 6, at Woodbine and anxious to pick up where he left off - - attempting to break Mickey Walls’ record of 221 wins in a season, established in 1991.
“I can't wait to get home,” says Contreras, who recently purchased a home in Bolton just north of Woodbine. “I would like to be leading rider again. I hope the owners and trainers give me all the chances they did last year.”
Esposito and Katerina Vassilieva in the Saratoga winner's circle
Although it’s not recorded in any official record book, Esposito is keen to build on his own record-breaking campaign.
“The record for agents, which we accomplished, is money earned,” laughs the affable agent over the phone from Gulfstream Park in Florida. “For riders, it’s wins. I’ll take beating the same record again, but I know Luis would give up a lot of money to get the win record.”
The dynamic duo have continued their winning exploits south of the border during Woodbine’s dark winter months, winning 13 races in 146 starts, and bursting onto the Kentucky Derby trail by taking the Pasco Stakes and Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby with Prospective for trainer Mark Casse and owner John C. Oxley.
“It's every jockey’s dream to ride in the Derby,” says Contreras. “This is great. I'm very excited and grateful to Mark Casse and Mr. Oxley.”
Contreras could find himself with a second Kentucky Derby horse if he can steer Isn’t He Clever, a gelded son of Smarty Jones-Sharp Minister, to victory in Sunday’s Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby.
Esposito has coordinated a number of rides on the stakes-soaked card, seven added-money features all told, for his rider, including the call on Twelve Twenty Two in the Harry Henson Handicap.
Contreras and Signature Red on a moody fall afternoon at Woodbine
Contreras, who won the riding title at Sunland Park in 2009 with 51 wins, has a live longshot with Isn’t He Clever who is undefeated in two trips over the Sunland Park surface, having captured the Riley Alliston Futurity and Borderland Derby.
Esposito, having guided his client to a remarkable 2011 campaign that included sweeping the Canadian Triple Crown, taking the Queen’s Plate with Inglorious and the Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes with Pender Harbour, is hopeful that Contreras will be one of 20 jockeys leaving the gate with a chance at Kentucky Derby glory come the First Saturday in May.
“It would be the thrill of a lifetime,” says Esposito. “We accomplished a lot last year. We won the Triple Crown, got to the Breeders’ Cup (with Prospective and Northern Passion), and we came to Florida and won the Tampa Bay Derby which was Mark Casse’s, and Luis’, first-ever Derby prep win.”
Prospective wins the Tampa Bay Derby
Although Esposito is happy to work quietly on the sidelines for his photogenic client, the agent’s exploits pounding the backstretch and handicapping races are certainly noteworthy.
It’s not easy finding quality mounts at Gulfstream Park where a stacked jockey room includes notable riders such as Javier Castellano, John Velazquez and Julien Leparoux.
“When I first got here, trainers tried to give him horses I really didn’t want to ride,” admits Esposito. “We’re not here to practice, we finished sixth in North America!
“The first time I met Dale Romans, I introduced myself as the agent for Luis Contreras, the leading rider in Canada, and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Son, the leading rider from every racetrack is here.’”
Contreras won 30 races for Bob Tiller in 2011
But Esposito knew what he was getting himself, and his client, into.
“When I read Calvin Borel was leaving Gulfstream - - he won two Derbys in the past five years - - and they weren’t riding him,” starts Esposito. “Well, it makes you wonder. It’s tough. There are literally 105 riders in that room. I’ve never seen a jock’s room that big with that many quality riders.”
Fortunately, Esposito has a few Canadian-based compatriots who have helped Contreras make a name for himself in Florida including Casse, Brian Lynch and another familiar face, girlfriend, Katerina Vassilieva.
While the Florida wins aren’t coming as fast and furious as his Woodbine scores, the agent believes his jockey will return to Canada a better rider for the experience.
“In war terms, they don’t give any quarter here,” explains Esposito. “You hesitate one step and you’ve given up four or five lengths.
“Riding with all these guys, as tight as they ride and aggressive as they ride here, he’s going to come back a better rider. I’ve learned a lot, too. Some of the agents here, they’re a very sharp bunch.”
Will Contreras be successful in the Oxley silks on the First Saturday in May?
All in all, Esposito is very happy with his rider’s accomplishments and believes it will propel Contreras to a flying start when the Woodbine meet starts in less than three weeks.
“Luis will be dead-fit coming into the meet and that will be a big edge that last eighth of a mile when you want your jock’s legs to be as firm as your horse’s legs,” states Esposito. “We’ve won three stakes and we’ll come home with some momentum and we’re both anxious to get started.”
In 2011, Contreras was really just getting started as a full-time rider at Woodbine. He arrived at the Rexdale track in 2009, a four-time leading rider in his native Mexico and having just conquered the Sunland meet, as the stable rider for trainer Steve Asmussen.
His inaugural Woodbine campaign was hampered by work permit restrictions which stated that Contreras could only ride for horses owned by foreign interests. Riding primarily for Asmussen and Michael Pino, Contreras steered home 67 winners in just 376 starts.
Esposito, whose partner Vassilieva was assistant trainer for Pino at the time, knew Contreras had the making of a top rider the moment he set eyes on him.
“The first time he rode here for Asmussen I said to ‘Kat’, ‘If this guy ever gets his papers we are all in trouble,’” recalls Esposito.
Esposito was agent for Gerry Olguin at the time but, thanks in part to his relationship with Vassilieva, was soon carrying the book of a potential leading rider and set about sorting out the rider’s paperwork.
It took until September of 2010 for Esposito to finalize the paperwork, but his effort was well worth it as Contreras’ numbers would nearly double winning 127 races in 675 starts.
Luis and his sons Luis Jr. and Alberto
In 2011, armed with a 'passport' to ride for any outfit on the Woodbine backstretch, Esposito and Contreras teamed up for a remarkable campaign in a season that saw the industrious jock leave the gate an incredible 1,082 times, winning 212 of those starts.
Esposito is quick to point out his appreciation for the support of Josie Carroll, conditioner of Inglorious, and Mike De Paulo, trainer of Pender Harbour, and the tremendous support of Mark Casse.
However, when you ride 1,082 times in a season, Esposito admits he worked the entire backstretch to find mounts for his talented jockey.
“We didn’t have one main barn last year,” agrees Esposito. “We rode a little bit for everybody. We spread our wins out. People would be amazed to know that we won the most races for (Bob) Tiller. Everyone’s first guess would be Josie or Casse, but I think it might have been Tiller.”
A quick review of the stats confirms the agent’s hunch as Contreras won 30 races for Tiller, 20 for Casse, 18 for Carroll, 16 for Pino and 12 for Baker. Those 96 victories make up less than half of the jock’s total haul in the breakout campaign.
“Handicapping horse races now takes up a significant amount of my time,” admits Esposito. “My job has changed so much now. I spend more time watching workers and more time managing and handicapping his career than hustling. The hard part for me is you get emotional with certain trainers and get attached to ones that were good to you. Certain situations come up where you’re choosing (which mount to take) almost every race as the handicapping is becoming more important than the personal relationships.”
A studious sort, Esposito spends his Woodbine mornings on the second floor grandstand watching the morning workouts with a keen eye.
“I sit there near Mark Casse, Reade Baker (trainer) and Jim Bannon (Woodbine racing analyst),” says Esposito. “I sit there quietly and learn a lot.”
The agent’s handicapping insights could well be worthy of consideration for local punters trying to find an edge.
“I invest a lot of money in outside data,” he says. “I use the 'Rag’ sheets. I use In-Form Handicapping. I use the Form."
Pender Harbour wins the Prince of Wales Stakes
He also suggests that aspiring handicappers should use another tool that might not be exercised enough.
“Common sense,”’ he jokes. “Look at a guy in the leagues of Patrick (Husbands) and Luis and consider the options for the jockey. In 90 per cent of situations, the top two or three jockeys will be given the opportunity to ride the top two or three horses in every race. If you can get into a rhythm of the jockey and who he is riding a horse for, and why, or see what the agents doing, sometimes there’s a thought process that you can just throw away the information and handicap the agents and do okay.”
Esposito offers the following real-life example where handicapping the agent paid dividends.
“If you see me switch from a big barn to a smaller barn, then I really have to think that horse has a chance,” says Esposito. “For example, the first time I rode Brandon Greer’s horse (Forestador), I could have rode five horses in that race.”
Forestador, a first-time starter, was sent to post as the 7-2 lukewarm favourite in a maiden special weight sprint on November 7, 2010.
Contreras had the call, last time out, on second-choice Man o’Mettle and could realistically have had his choice of a number of horses in the race for regular clients, but Esposito settled on Forestador.
The ‘Esposito On’ angle did not disappoint, as the Old Forester chestnut shook clear at the top of the stretch to power home a half-length winner in :58.24. He paid $8.70 to win.
“I took off a lot of horses for top barns to ride that horse and he didn’t make me look bad,” says Esposito. “It’s not just me. You can watch for that with a lot of agents, too.”
Contreras is more than happy to let his agent do the paperwork.
“Tony always tells me, ‘You just worry about riding. I will take care of the rest,’” jokes Contreras. “He has a hard job, a lot of big decisions to make. He is a really good handicapper and good with people. I think he tries to be fair also. We're a good team.”
Esposito, who launched his career as an agent in 1990, had a number of clients before landing Contreras.
“I started with Gary Ambrosino and a guy from Denmark named Mark Larsen,” recalls Esposito, before launching into a veritable who’s who of 1990s journeymen. “I’ve had everyone from James McKnight to Julia Brimo to Ray Sabourin to Gerry Olguin. There was Rui Pimentel, Jerry Baird and I’m sure I’m missing some. Betty Jo Williams, Lisa Platts, there are so many in there. I had Stanley Bethley for a while too. Did I say Garry Cruise?”
He speaks quickly and quietly, sometimes mumbling his words in a way that would be fitting for the grumbling group of marble-mouths that make up the cast of the HBO series Luck.
Esposito perks up when asked if he’s a fan of the ill-fated TV series and if he sees any similarities between himself and Joey Rathburn, the jockey agent played to stuttering imperfection by Richard Kind.
“I’ve seen every episode,” blurts Esposito. “That’s not me! They say it’s me (of the comparison to Joey), but I don’t see it. I don’t stutter. I’m kind of neurotic like him. The only similarity I see is basically that’s all he does…and this is all I do. I don’t have a social life, I’m just an agent. I don’t think I’m as neurotic as that guy.”
And then following a brief pause adds, “I think it might be a cross between me and (long-time Woodbine agent) Lorne Spearman.”
The stress of the agent’s job, which pushed poor Joey to the brink in Luck’s sixth episode, is recognized by Esposito.
“I find it really realistic,” says Esposito. “I see the stress that agent is under. Things weigh on you when you’re an agent. If you can’t take the pressure, you won’t be around long.”
The pressure will definitely be on Contreras to continue his winning ways at Woodbine come April. It’s a challenge the agent welcomes, with a nod to the strong competition they will face.
“Emma (Wilson) finished off strong last year,” says Esposito. “Patrick’s always in the mix, Eurico (Rosa da Silva) is back. Justin Stein finished really good last year too and he’s due to make a move up the ladder.”
Luis and Raging Star
But Esposito, who still exudes plenty of the hustle that got him started in the game some 20 years ago, wants everyone to know that his jock is already waiting for the call to ride on opening day at Woodbine.
“I know a lot of owners say, ‘I can never get your jock’,” says Esposito. “It’s a big myth that I’m gone in every race, but there’s a lot of times I don’t have a mount until an hour before the draw.”
And with a tempered pause completes his hook, “I’m accessible, by phone or email.”