At time former Monmouth Park jockey Steve Sousonis feels like a hotel concierge or club manager, at others a fitness trainer and advisor/mentor and even, occasionally, like the fix-it guy.
After a 14-year riding career, Sousonis moved to the Jockeys’ Room he knew well and worked as the assistant clerk of scales for 11 seasons. In 2013, Sousonis took over the head job and, despite the occasional frat house humor and ribbing he takes from riders and valets, he keeps everyone on their toes and ready to answer the call for the next race.
The jockeys’ room is the home of Monmouth Park’s thoroughbred riders on race days and during the week when they train. It is a club with locker room, fitness equipment, a sleep room, pool and ping-pong tables, as well as a lounge with large screen TVs and a small restaurant that serves salads and other jockey-friendly meals.
For many years, Monmouth Park was one of the few tracks that had a swimming pool for riders hidden behind privacy bushes next to the jockeys’ room. The pool was filled and the land used for tents as part of entertainment space needed during the 2007 Breeders’ Cup event at the track. “I cried when I saw the bulldozer filling the pool in with dirt,” Sousonis says. “It was something special and we all miss it.”
Although Sousonis’ key job is confirming riders’ weights, he also gets the call when the AC doesn’t work, a toilet is clogged or there is a problem in the kitchen. He rolls his eyes when he says, “It’s just all part of the job.”
But the tool for his real job sits front and center in the jockey’s room. It is a large Toledo scale calibrated often to read weights correctly. The scale will record weights in excess of what is needed because for riders, if the needle passes 114, they, and Sousonis, aren’t happy.
As Clerk of Scales, Sousonis must verify riders’ weights to conform with what is allowed in a particular race and listed in the entries. Jockeys are weighed before they mount a horse in the paddock and as they leave the track after the race. “The weight a horse will carry as listed in the program,” Sousonis says, “is the combined weight of the rider, his silks and boots, saddle and cloth.”
Weights vary by type of race but usually are between 117-122 pounds so it isn’t unusual on any given morning to see one or more jockeys in the steam room (called the box,) sweating off an extra pound, two or even three. “I know what they go through,” Sousonis says,” as I did it too. It isn’t easy. The scale doesn’t lie.”
If a jockey is over weight on race day, Sousonis calls the trainer who has to OK the horse carrying the extra weight. And then the track announcer is called and he will relay the over weight or equipment changes to fans before each race.
Sousonis tries to be proactive with all riders and looks at the entries two days before each racing day to see if there might be an issue. He knows every jockey’s weight – it’s written down as well as tattooed in his brain, he smiles. “I can see,” he says, “if the allowed weight for a particular race will be tough for a rider to make and I’ll make a point to say to him, ‘Are you going to be all right?’ If he says OK,” Sousonis stresses, “it’s his responsibility to meet that weight when he gets on the scale on race day.”
Jockeys can be fined if they don’t meet their posted weights and if they are more than 5 pounds over the limit, pulled off their horse. That is an embarrassment for the rider and a hassle for trainers and agents who need to find a last-minute replacement, Sousonis explains. “Nobody wants that to happen but, unfortunately, at times, it does.”
Many times a rider will not even face the scale but hop on and wait for an OK from Sousonis that he’s fine.
On race days as the time for the first race approaches, it gets very serious and busy in the jockeys’ room. Jockeys, valets and staff are moving from scales to bathrooms to lockers in a controlled rush. Louie Perricelli, the room’s color man, has already pulled the owners colored silks for all the horses racing that day and has given them to the jockeys’ valets. Valets many former jockeys – keep jockeys on schedule and in the right colors for each race. At times, riders will have mounts in seven, eight, nine races or more in one day.
Jockeys have what is called “room time,” Sousonis explains, meaning they have to check in with the Clerk of Scales or his assistant Marland Suckie two hours before their scheduled race. “I need to know they are onsite,” he says, “but that’s not to say, I don’t get calls from riders on their way from out-of-state who get caught in beach traffic on Route 36 and are struggling to get here.”
With only 20 minutes give or take between races, the pace can be hectic to say the least. The side door to the jockeys’ room opens onto the saddling area of the paddock when jockeys meet trainers and talk about strategy as they move to the walking ring a few yards away. There, jockeys get a leg up as they mount their ride and exit out the tunnel to the main track.
By the end of race day, there are piles of towels and laundry that need washing, silks to be re-hung, shoulder ID number re-hung and everything put back in place for another day. It’s what you’d expect in any pro sports locker room.
“I really enjoy coming to work,” Sousonis says, “it keeps me close to the sport I love now that my riding days are over. I wouldn’t trade it for a job on Wall Street.”
WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN JOCKEYS?
Since Kathy Kusner received her jockey’s license in 1968 in Maryland, there have been a growing number of successful female riders on the thoroughbred circuit including Julie Krone (the first woman to win a Triple Crown race) who raced frequently at Monmouth Park. Recently Rosie Napranvik has been the face of women riders as she is the ladies leader in wins and earnings.
At Monmouth, at the end of the paddock saddling area is a small room with a bath and a shower that was built exclusively for Krone when she raced at Monmouth and needed a place to dress.
Thoroughbred tracks have had to adjust to accommodate the influx of female jockeys. At Monmouth Park, there is a separate dressing room for female riders equipped with lockers, showers, and a steam room. The women exit the facility through the door in the jockeys lounge and are weighed by Sousonis on a scale in Julie Krone’s former dressing room which now serves as the office for the Paddock Judge Cookie Jones.
If you liked this story, you’ll love our newspaper. Click here to subscribe
You may also like
By Chris Rotolo | OCEANPORT – Not even Triple Cr...
By Jay Cook | OCEANPORT – Gov. Phil Murphy place...