Meet Eric Pignataro * The Racing Biz

Jockey agent Eric Pignataro in his native habitat: checking the state card at Delaware Park. Photo by Mike Valiant.

When I was in high school, the teachers gave us a job aptitude test every year to guide us in choosing the most suitable job based on our personality and intellect. The answers would suggest that there were various professions that suited us best: banker, firefighter, plumber, nurse, standard jobs that ordinary people do.

And then there is Eric Pignataro.

Pignataro, 33, is a former jai alai player who is in his second year as the jockeys’ agent. Fittingly, the young agent is representing two young jockeys at Delaware Park this year, Joseph Trejos and Skyler Spanabel.

Jai alai is “a sport involving a ball bouncing off an enclosed space by accelerating it to high speeds with a hand-held device” called a cesta, according to Wikipedia, and Eric has spent much of his life in a racetrack town which was once a town in jai alai, Tampa, FL. While Damon Runyon characters are more common on the track than elsewhere, I have to say that a jai alai player turned agent jockey is a combination I’ve never seen before.

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Pignataro’s entry into jai alai was pretty much by accident, he said.

“I was watching jai alai on a TV on a track and a random stranger saw my interest and gave me a cesta he had in his car,” Pignataro recalled. “I bought a ball, went to a racquetball court and was hooked. I played on and off for five years and loved it.

The sport, once popular throughout Florida and the Northeast, is slowly dying in the United States, beset by many of the same challenges as running. Lack of economic opportunity in jai alai due to decline in gambling ended Pignataro’s jai alai career.

He always dreamed of getting a job in racing, and was introduced to the idea of ​​being an agent by a friend who had been in the profession. During the 2020-2021 racing season, Eric was able to observe Steve Worsley and fellow agents John Weilbacher and Jose Garcia at Tampa Bay Downs.

He learned how they worked on a condition book and their phones to select and hook their clients with mounts. He saw how to sell a rider to a new jockey.

It is still in the learning stage, he said. And given his experience at jai alai, it is not surprising that one of the questions he asks himself is: “Can I earn a living in this job, especially since it requires moving a few times a year?

This is made even harder in the post-Covid environment, but not really.

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“The biggest challenge for me has been going from what I did as a bettor, handicapping a horse race, to now looking at a condition book and predicting which horses are going to be entered,” he said. he declares. “I think the two biggest skill sets to being a successful agent are knowing the spec and being able to sell your clients to trainers and owners.”

It’s certainly not the glamor that’s holding Pignataro back. Like most racetrack jobs, being an agent involves early mornings, long days, and little downtime.

“There are no weekends off in this job,” he said. “I visit the barns 6 or 7 days a week. I prefer to drive my jocks to their rides out of town. It gives them a chance to rest and gives me extra time to build a spirit of friendship with my clients.

Like him, his clients try to climb the ladder. Spanabel arrived in Delaware after a productive meeting at Tampa Bay Downs, in which she won 22 races, while Trejos hopes to regain his 2020 form, when as a trainee he won 59 times.

In the first two days of the Delaware meet, Trejos was 0-for-5 while Spanabel was 0-for-3. Pignataro thinks each offers trainers significant strengths.

“Skyler is an excellent rider and particularly good at relaxing her horses,” he explained. “Joe is an extremely hard worker and a good finisher with horses on the stretch.”

Pignataro is aware that the same economic factors that ended his career in jai alai – which, like racing, is a form of pari-mutuel betting – could ultimately come into play with his foray into the world of jockey agents.

While there are few sure things in this life, there is one sure bet you can make: If you see Eric Pignataro at Delaware Park this year, you can bet he’ll have a health record on his hip. .

About Marco C. Nichols

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