Off the Pace: Catching up with Eric Pignataro
When I attended high school, the teachers would give us a career aptitude test yearly to guide us towards selecting the most appropriate job based on our personality and intellect. The answers would suggest that there were various occupations best suited for us: banker, fireman, plumber, nurse, standard jobs that regular people do.
And then there’s Eric Pignataro.
Pignataro, 33, is a former jai alai player who is in his second year of being a jockeys’ agent. Appropriately enough, the young agent is representing two young jockeys riding at Delaware Park this year, Joseph Trejos and Skyler Spanabel.
Jai alai is “a sport involving a ball bounced off a walled space by accelerating it to high speeds with a hand-held device” called a cesta, according to Wikipedia, and Eric spent much of his life in a racetrack town that used to be a jai alai town, Tampa, FL. While Damon Runyon characters are more common at the track than elsewhere, I have to say that a jai alai player-turned-jockey agent is a combination I had 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 at a track and a random stranger saw my interest and gave me a cesta that he had in his car,” Pignataro remembered. “I bought a ball, went to a racquetball court, and I was hooked. I played off and on for five years and loved it.”
That sport, once popular all over Florida and in the Northeast, has been dying a slow death in the United States, beset by many of the same challenges that racing has. The lack of economic opportunity in jai alai because of declining gambling on it put an end to Pignataro’s jai alai career.
He always dreamed of getting a job in racing, though, 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 a condition book and their phones to pick out and hook their clients up with mounts. He saw how to sell a rider on a new jockey.
He still is in the learning stage, he said. And given his experience in jai alai, it’s no surprise that one of the questions he asks himself is: “Can I make a living in this business, particularly since it requires moving a few times a year?”
That’s made even more challenging in the post-Covid, but not really, environment.
“The biggest challenge for me has been to progress 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. “I feel the two biggest skill sets to be a successful agent are knowing the condition book and being able to sell your clients to trainers and owners.”
It certainly isn’t the glamor that keeps Pignataro around. Like most racetrack jobs, being an agent involves early mornings, long days, and not much down time.
“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 out-of-town rides. It gives them a chance to rest and gives me additional passages of time to build a spirit of friendship with my clients.”
Like him, his clients are trying to work their way up the rankings. Spanabel arrived in Delaware after a productive Tampa Bay Downs meet, in which she won 22 races, while Trejos is hoping to recapture his 2020 form, when, as an apprentice, 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 believes each offers trainers significant strengths.
“Skyler is a great gate rider and particularly adept at getting her horses to relax,” he explained. “Joe is an extremely hard worker and a good finisher with horses down the stretch.”
Pignataro is aware that the same economic factors that ended his career in jai alai – which, like racing, is a form of parimutuel gambling — may ultimately come into play with his foray into the jockey agent world.
Although 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 will have a condition book on his hip.