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A jockey's life, stage 1

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William Antongeorgi, about to take first place atop Princess Integrity in February, is now on an even playing field with journeymen jockeys. (Benoit Photography)

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William Antongeorgi, 19, lost his apprentice status, or "bug," in mid-February. (Benoit Photography)

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Richard Migliore, 42, atop winner Kip Deville in December, remembers what it was like to be an apprentice in 1981, when he was the leading apprentice jockey in the country. (Benoit Photography)

A few months ago, William Antongeorgi, a 19-year-old apprentice jockey from Long Island, N.Y., was earning $6,000 to $10,000 a week. Taking advantage of his 5-foot-3-inch, 109-pound frame, he had an advantage over journeymen jockeys, because trainees are allowed to carry 5 pounds less than veteran riders.

As a result, some horse trainers gave him a chance to ride. “If you can get five to seven pounds off,” said Bill Mott, a trainer in Florida and New York, “it could mean a length or two at the end of a race.”

Off the track, though, staying light wasn’t much fun for Antongeorgi. "I couldn't go and pig out like all my other friends," he said.

In mid-February Antongeorgi completed his year as an apprentice, or "bug boy," and lost his five-pound weight allowance, as well the asterisk--or “bug”--that had been next to his name in the racing forms to indicate his apprentice status. He has gained a few pounds and lost 30 percent to 40 percent of the mounts he had as an apprentice.

“It’s inevitable when you lose your bug that you’re going to lose some business,” said Antongeorgi, who is racing at Santa Anita Park in California.

When Richard Migliore, the leading apprentice rider of 1981, lost his bug, he also lost business, and he slumped badly. After winning more than 300 races as an apprentice, he won only 87 the following year. “That [was] kind of a shock,” said Migliore, now 42 and a well-established jockey. “You have to be tough enough to overcome the constant rejections and disappointments.”

Those trials are what led Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron to found the North American Racing Academy in Versailles, Ky., last fall. The school is part of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and offers, among other programs, a two-year associate’s degree for aspiring jockeys. It’s the first school in the United States to offer such a specialized curriculum.

McCarron hopes to help riders reach their potential at an earlier age. “Other professional athletes have someone mentoring, teaching and helping them along the way,” McCarron said. “Young jockeys have to rely on their competition. Veterans will help to a certain degree, but once you start winning, you’re taking bread off their table and the advice doesn’t come as often.”

Apprentice jockeys have been known as "bug boys” because when thoroughbred racing took off in the United States after the Civil War, the jockeys really were young boys. In researching three books on jockeys, Ed Hotaling found evidence of 9-year-olds riding in competition. “Back in the 19th century,” Hotaling said, “you threw as small a kid as you could on a horse.”

It wasn’t until 1894, when the Jockey Club was formed, that American thoroughbred racing had a governing body. As early as 1897, there is mention of the apprentice jockey system, which mirrored the system in England. In the 1920s, the weight-allowance system became more organized and nuanced, and racetracks began to implement age regulations. Now, jockeys must be at least 16 before they can receive a jockey’s license or begin an apprenticeship.

Decades ago, apprentice jockeys would be under contract to a specific trainer or owner, a practice that ended in the early 1980s. Now, Antongeorgi has to prove to owners and trainers that he can be successful when carrying the same weight as veteran jockeys.

“Building relationships is the most important thing I’ve learned,” Antongeorgi said. “I show up every morning at the barns.” He’ll exercise horses for trainers to let them know he’s serious about continuing his riding career.

Tim Malgarini, 43, rode for 14 years after becoming a jockey at age 17 and is now Antongeorgi’s agent. “All good riders have to have a good personality, a good work ethic and talent,” he said. “They have to sell themselves. Barry Bonds doesn’t have to sell himself everyday. He has a contract.”

The regulations vary from state to state, but most jockeys are allowed a 10-pound weight allowance until they win their fifth race, a 7-pound weight allowance thereafter until they win their 40th race, and a 5-pound allowance until the one-year anniversary of their fifth victory. If that 40th win doesn't come within a year of the fifth victory, the jockey can maintain the 5-pound allowance for another year.

A successful jockey can win more than $5 million in purses in an apprentice year, and keep around 10 percent, or $500,000. As a bug rider, Joe Talamo, 17, has won nearly $3 million in purses--and he won’t lose his bug until July. He is currently the leading rider at the Fair Grounds Race Course in Louisiana.

Even an average rider usually wins $1 million to $2 million in purses during an apprenticeship if he or she is riding at the racetracks with the biggest purses, like those in Southern California, Kentucky or New York.

After a slow start, Antongeorgi won $1.2 million in purses in his 565 starts as an apprentice. Now, he’ll keep hanging around barns, staying in shape and hoping he can continue to win without the bug.

E-mail: enm2107@columbia.edu