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Jockey Jose Amy Seeks Reinstatement


January 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

The 23 years of banishment are etched across Jose Amy's face as he sits in a Belmont Park kitchen arguing his case. They have taken his youth away, his cockiness, deprived him of millions in earnings. What's left is a graying exercise rider with a few creases pecking away at his features, a polite smile and an unmistakable need for redemption. He doesn't just ask for it; he pleads for it.

"I am asking for some mercy and a second chance, and that is all," he says.

The New York State Racing and Wagering Board will decide Sunday if Jose Amy, 49, former jockey and admitted race-fixer, is deserving of such a chance. It will either accept or deny his application for the jockey's license that was taken away from him in 1980 after he admitted he accepted bribes in the mid-1970's and restrained seven horses so that other people could cash bets on the fixed races.

Does the punishment – nearly 23 years and counting – no longer fit the crime? Amy's fundamental argument is that it doesn't, and he has found several influential members of the racing community who agree. He has the backing of at least 40 trainers, including the Hall of Famers Phil Johnson and Allen Jerkens, and the New York Racing Association's chairman, Barry Schwartz, whose clout and support will be hard to ignore. Amy's long-running dream of reinstatement, which got a lift when he was granted a license in New York to exercise horses on the racetrack two years ago, has never been closer to reality.

"They will never regret giving me that second chance," Amy said. "I will never let them down, but the only way I can prove that is with my actions. So, the only way I can prove myself is to ride again."

After riding briefly in his native Puerto Rico, Amy came to the United States in 1973 at age 18, settling in at the New York tracks. He was not among the elite riders in New York, but he rode enough favorites that he was singled out by a fellow jockey, Con Errico, who was working for gamblers who were fixing races. The gamblers knew that if they could bribe the riders of the favorites not to finish in the money in races that offered a bet that requires someone to correctly pick the first three finishers in exact order, they could make huge profits playing such triple bets using only the horses who were not being restrained.

Amy says he initially resisted Errico's advances but eventually succumbed. He admits he held back seven horses in 1974 and 1975. For ensuring that a horse did not finish in the money, he received $1,500. Amy will not come forth with precise details, but says he worried that he would be harmed if he didn't do business with Errico.

"I accept that I made mistakes," he said. "I was under a lot of pressure and I regret every part of what I did. Once the pressure started, there were threats if you didn't do it. So I fell into it, fell in with the wrong crowd. I was never comfortable with it. Remember, when you are young there are a lot of things you aren't ready to deal with. The maturity is not there to deal with the pressures."

The race-fixing did not come to light until several years later. In the meantime, Amy was making headway in the New York riding colony. In 1978, he won two races on the up-and-coming star John Henry, who would go on to establish a record for career earnings ($6,597,947), and in 1979 he had the best year of his career, winning 150 races aboard mounts that earned $2.6 million. He seemed destined to become a steady winner on the tough, lucrative New York circuit.

But his career imploded when the string of fixed races came to light. Amy was given criminal immunity to testify against Errico, who was given a 10-year prison sentence and fined $25,000. At trial, Amy implicated 11 other jockeys, including the future Hall of Famers Angel Cordero Jr., Jorge Velasquez and Jacinto Vasquez, all of whom denied any wrongdoing and were never charged with any crimes. Vasquez was subsequently suspended one year for offering his fellow rider Eddie Maple money to restrain a horse.

While Amy stayed out of prison, he was not able to salvage his riding career in New York. In May 1980, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board issued an indefinite suspension and took away his license.

"I went through some hard times for a long time," he said. "Sometimes I asked, `Why me?' I think it was because God had given me the strength to overcome everything that happened and still be around after all this time asking for a second chance. But I wouldn't wish for even a dog to have go through what I went through."

With Amy's ban in effect throughout the United States, he eventually returned to Puerto Rico and was allowed to ride there in 1984. Amy stayed out of trouble while riding successfully at El Commandante through the 1994 season. It provided him with a living, but the purses are small in Puerto Rico and Amy could never get over the feeling he had been banished to some racing outpost. He accepted only a few mounts over the next several years but still said he could compete with the very best among his profession.

"I am secure in my ability to perform and I know that I belong in New York," he said. "If you have a chance to be in the big leagues, why would you stay in the small league? I consider myself a top rider, so why would I choose to ride anywhere else but New York?"

He applied for a New York jockey's license four times with no success. In 2001, the racing board budged for the first time. Amy was told to withdraw his jockey's license application so that he could successfully apply for a license to be an exercise rider, someone who gallops or works out horses in the morning hours for trainers. On Feb. 2, 2001, for the first time in 21 years, he was allowed to set foot on the backstretch at Belmont, where he soon would find a job with Jimmy Jerkens, a trainer who is Allen Jerkens's son.

Amy was never given any assurances that it was a first step toward getting his jockey's license or that he was to serve a probationary period, but he knew that if he worked hard and stayed out of trouble he would strengthen his case. (Michael J. Hoblock Jr., chairman of the Racing and Wagering Board, declined to be interviewed for this article.) Amy chose to seek a hearing Sunday because it will be two years that he has been an exercise rider. He has deftly campaigned this time and brandishes a petition signed by 40 trainers who support his request for a jockey's license.

"I see him out here working every morning at 5:30 and see him trying to do the right thing," said Phil Johnson, the trainer of Volponi, last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner. "I think he'll have a problem competing against all the good young riders here at his age, but he deserves the chance to try. At first I thought he didn't deserve this, but I reconsidered. He wasn't the only one involved and I'm sure he was heavily influenced by some other riders who walked away free."

If it's nice to have allies like Johnson, it's nicer still to have ones like Schwartz, the chairman of the racing association, which operates Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga.

"He doesn't pose a threat to anyone," Schwartz said. "He deserves a break. He's learned his lessons and he rode all those years in Puerto Rico with no problems. He was very young when this happened and I guess he was scared. He's tried to do the right thing ever since and it just hasn't worked out for him."

Even an old nemesis doesn't seem prepared to stand in his way. John Van Lindt was chairman of the Racing and Wagering Board in 1980 and was an outspoken critic of Amy's. Now a lawyer in Westchester County, he asks only that the current members of the racing board use good judgment.

"A lot of time has gone by and you have to take into consideration all the factors, good and bad, and then make a decision," he said. "My knowledge of the matter is limited to what happened at that time. The people involved now have a much clearer appreciation of the entire situation. When I and the two other members of the Racing and Wagering Board gave out his suspension, it was not with any fixed time for it to expire. When you look at the circumstances, if they want to take a look at his current situation, I have no problem with that."

Amy says he feels great and is fit enough to ride today, but even he acknowledges that he has only a handful of years left before he will be too old to compete at this level. He created his own problems and is saddened to know he has wasted so many years.

"I feel like a jockey," he says proudly displaying a 115-pound frame.

But he is not, not without that license. It is nothing but a small laminated card; it is everything to Jose Amy.

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