Heads bowed. Hands clasped in prayer. Assembled in a tight semi-circle, jockeys wearing nothing but their socks and a towel sit together with their valets on any available bench or table. Twenty minutes before post time for the first race and in the cramped quarters of the jockey room at Delta Downs it’s so quiet that you can hear a pin drop. Space is at a premium. The track chaplain is reading tonight’s Bible message. Psalm 111, verses 1-10.
When the chaplain finishes, there is a moment of silence followed by an “open mike” session where anyone in the room can speak his mind. A valet named Doug Gilbert offers his own prayer for the strength and safety of everyone in the room and for the recovery of injured jockeys who are not present. After a group “Amen,” they return to their work stations. The first race is now 15 minutes away and all hell is about to break loose.
At his work table, Gilbert (a valet for seven jockeys) goes into perpetual motion, cleaning and lining up sets of plastic goggles.
“Once the races start everything comes at you all at once,” Gilbert said. “The job is non-stop and fast-paced. Everybody is trying to get to where they have to be for the next race. You can’t be half-stepping. Most important of all is to be organized. You have to stay calm and keep a cool head. Otherwise, you will stress out.”
In terms of design, there is not much to take away from the jock’s room at Delta Downs near Vinton, La. Seating space is shoulder-to-shoulder. Each jockey has a personal locker and a low bench that (in valet language) is called “the box.” All of a valet’s jockeys are grouped together, which creates territorial cliques. Despite the occasional tensions there is a sense of family in the room.
“These guys are out there on the track competing against each other and doing everything they can to win, but inside the room we all have to make things work together,” Gilbert said. “Naturally, you are pulling for your own group, but at the end of the night there is enough to go around and we can all make a living.”
Gilbert is methodical about his preparation. The first thing he does is ice down the different drinks (Sprite, Coke, iced tea, Gatorade, water) that his jockeys like to drink. A special sliding container is replenished with candy bars, chips, cookies, and assorted snacks. Gilbert’s “grocery” bill for treats and supplies ranges from $50 to $100 a week, which he pays out of his own pocket.
“Most of the time I shop at Wal-Mart and Dollar Store to save money,” Gilbert said, “but the Mexican riders like Chico Rose. It’s a cookie from their country, and they are harder to find.”
After the Snickers, Milky Ways, and Skittles are set aside, the next task is checking helmets and laying out helmet covers that match saddle cloths. Saddle girths and whips are checked for condition. Goggles by the dozens have to be cleaned. Depending on the distance of a race, jockeys will wear three to four sets of goggles. A trip to the laundry room is followed by laying out all the pants, socks, and underwear that have been washed and dried from the night before. Gilbert has 40 towels in his stockpile, and by the end of the night they will all be soiled. Each of his riders has two to three pairs of boots. Elbows flying, he has to have the boots shined and laid out before the first jockeys arrive in the room.
The working inventory of a valet resembles supplies for a camping trip: rubber bands, safety pins, fingernail clippers, lip balm, iodine, combs, towels, buckets, brooms, pillows, shampoo, body wash, aspirin, baby oil, baby powder, Q-tips, shower sandals, tape, throw rugs, Band-Aids, toothpaste, wrist bands, mirrors, tooth brushes, and a deck of playing cards.
“It costs a lot for a valet to get started, but after that it’s just weekly maintenance,” Gilbert explained.
The track chaplain has his Bible, but the scriptures for a valet are printed in the daily racing program. Valets call it “the book.” As the key tool to planning the night, Gilbert goes through the program, highlighting his jockeys with an orange Marks-A-Lot. A valet must know the assigned weight his jockey will carry in each race and adjust the lead pads that may need to go in with the saddle.
“That’s the critical business end of this job,” Gilbert explained. “Your jockey has to step on the scale carrying the correct weight. If you lose your book, you lose your mind.”
Born and raised in Vinton, La. Gilbert is a man comfortable with country life (he raises prize hogs for livestock shows) and is familiar with the tendencies of horses. His father was a match-race jockey who rode at Delta Downs on its opening night in 1973. His mother was the first female jockey agent at Delta Downs. Gilbert gave up riding horses in 1992, then went to work on the starting gate at tracks in Texas and Louisiana before becoming a jockey valet in 2000.
“I missed the riding. I missed being in the room,” Gilbert said. “In here we are just one big family. It’s my way of staying in the game that I love.”
Displaying an infectious smile, Vincent Cline is another valet who was a jockey at one time. He points with pride to his tiny refrigerator and the fact that he does not have to ice down drinks. Cline works for six jockeys and they are all from Mexico. The demographics were not by design.
“It just worked out that way,” Cline explained. “Sometimes complete strangers walk in the room. They got a license. Maybe they went to riding school in Puerto Rico. You don’t know if they are going to be the next Steve Cauthen, a Willie Shoemaker, or just a guy that can’t make a nickel. If you have room or an extra box, you just have to take a chance.”
Gliding around the room like a water bug, Cline described his transition from rider to valet.
“There is no formal training program for valets. It’s pretty much learning as you go,” the 45-year-old said. “As an ex-rider, I knew the drill. I just had to pick up on the organizing part, get my timing down, and work out my own system.”
Clear and sunny skies are the best friends a valet can have. Rain is the natural enemy and makes for the most difficult working conditions.
“Mud is pure aggravation,” Gilbert said with a grimace. “You only have a certain amount of time between races to clean equipment and the mud and grit slows everything down. The jocks carry it in on their boots, pants, and silks. I promise you that on a rainy night it looks like a war zone in here. Lousy weather will add an extra hour of sweeping and cleaning up. I won’t get home until after midnight.”
Even a fast, dry racing surface can create havoc for a valet. It happens when back-to-back races have horses owned by the same person or stable. There are 979 sets of silks in the Delta Downs silks room, but unless that particular owner has a duplicate set it means those silks have to be laundered in record time.
“I got 22 minutes between the time one jockey takes the silks off and I have to supply them to the next jock. It looks like re-fried confusion in here,” Kline said, sorting through a pile of saddle pads.
Order, efficiency, and logical sequence of actions are characteristics of the jock’s room, but random superstitions can emerge. Gilbert has one jockey who wants to see a certain colored clothes hanger in his box or he feels doomed for the night. After winning a race, some jockeys cling to the belief that there is magic to a particular whip. For at least one jockey, new tack is a black cloud.
“He wants me to throw any new pants on the ground and stomp on them,” Gilbert offered with raised eyebrows. “I guess he thinks it’s better that they hit the dirt before he does.”
Being a valet is not just about folding towels and shining boots. A jockey’s personal problems can show up in his riding performance. When things fall apart, the valet can substitute for adviser, counselor, and informal therapist.
“All we see of each other is a shadow,” Gilbert said. “You don’t know what is going on in a rider’s life. Some of these guys have ridden on major circuits and now their career is reaching an end. Sometimes you just have to keep patting them on the back and tell them to keep their chin up. The relationship between a valet and his rider is a business deal, but you can still treat them like a friend. Hell, you might be the only person in the world that is giving them encouragement.”
Valets at Delta Downs punch a time clock and get paid an hourly rate from the track. Personal arrangements, handshakes, and agreements with jockeys can last for years and be at various percentages. The number can be anything from 10% to 5% of the purse earnings of the jockey. Word-of-mouth networks among valets at different tracks result in jockeys shipping in for stakes races and going to a particular valet.
The reason there is no break room or coffee lounge for valets is that they have no idle time. Between saddling horses, unsaddling horses, and getting silks and tack ready for the next race, valets are lucky if they have time to watch a race on television.
“Things pile up quick if you slow down or get distracted,” Gilbert noted.
The interior of the jock’s room at Delta is crowded and compact like the inside of a submarine. But it is safe. It is when the valets go outside to the paddock to saddle horses that they can get seriously hurt.
“When you are around the horse is when things get dangerous,” Gilbert said. “Saddling or un-saddling after the race you have to pay attention to everything around you. You have to be able to read the body language of a horse. Some horses will wait for a chance to kick or bite you. I’ve been stepped on and head-butted more times than I can count. I got kicked so hard one time in my right shin that my shoe flew off.”
There are times when the valet is the most experienced person on the scene. A paddock walker is a skittish horse that has to be saddled outside the stall. In the sixth race on this night, a gelding named Ollie Baby is on the move. As the horse is being led around by a timid groom, Gilbert on one side and an assistant trainer on the other side are struggling to position the saddle and tighten the girths. Thinking that it will help, the groom brings the horse to a standstill. Irritated, Ollie Baby rears, lunges, and crashes into the paddock railing. When Gilbert takes charge and issues commands for everyone to keep moving, the horse is eventually saddled.
Gerard Melancon is the second-leading rider at Delta Downs. He explained what the role of a valet means to his profession.
“They take care of everything that a busy rider doesn’t have time to deal with,” Melancon said. “Our job is stressful enough, and a good valet takes some of that pressure off.”
Sensitivity and compassion are the last things you would expect from a man that turns hogs into sausage, but Gilbert is a limited edition. At the end of a long night, sweeping a pile of sand away from his work table, Gilbert reflects on what makes him happy about being a valet.
“The most fulfilling part of this job is to witness how a rider’s character can lead to success,” he said. “I have had riders that couldn’t pick up mounts and were literally starving, but they didn’t give up. A top rider can mean $200 to $300 a week for me, but I’m happy when they go on to bigger things. When a struggling rider starts doing better with his career, it encourages me to do better.”