Nobody could write it better than Joe Hirsch covering the beat at Monmouth Park for the Daily Racing Form in 1972.
Johnny Mallano had this buddy who made good money walking hots at Aqueduct for Gene Jacobs. The money was the lure for a 16-year-old boy from The Bronx, and so one fall morning two years ago, Mallano accompanied his friend to the Big A and found a career.
That career comes to a closewhen John Mallano, the longest tenured valet in the room, retires. Shaved head, a stud in his left ear, looking as fit as when Hirsch was writing about him in the 1970s, Mallano told me he was retiring a few days ago, my next question came out so wrong.
"How long you been in?"
Like he had been in prison, Mallano laughed when he heard the question, actually we laughed together, two racetrackers laughing at the lunacy of our chosen professions.
"I was 15 1/2 years old, a friend of mine said 'you're kind of small, come to the track with me.' I'm from The Bronx, it took us 4 1/2 hours on the train," Mallano said, outside the jocks' room Wednesday morning. "Lefty didn't need anybody so a man named Eugene Jacobs put me to work. It was November, there wasn't any winter racing, I had to get permission to go to Hialeah with them for the winter. I dropped out of school, my mother signed the papers."
Mallano didn't walk horses for long, graduating to the stable pony and then Thoroughbreds, but Jacobs' main owner, Wall Street financier Herbert Allen didn't like apprentices so Mallano signed a contract with Caesar Kimmel (trainer John Kimmel's father) and trainer Tommy Heard. Mallano won 103 races as an apprentice, topping the earnings list while Larry Melancon led all apprentices in wins. Then the struggle began.
Still on the New York circuit, Mallano galloped horses in the morning but had lost his business while battling his weight. He hadn't ridden a race for about a year when John Tammaro threw him a raft.
"What are you doing?" Tammaro asked.
"Nothing," Mallano said.
"Do you want to get back to riding?" Tammaro asked.
"I'm a little heavy," Mallano said.
"Do you want to go to Maryland?" Tammaro asked. "Let me know when you get your weight down and I'll put you on a few horses and we'll get you started."
Mallano relocated to Maryland, got his weight under control and began to win races again.
"I did very good in Maryland," Mallano said, paging through win pictures for trainers named Small, Tammaro, Blusiewicz, Forbes, Dutrow...from Bowie, Timonium and all the Maryland tracks.
In 1975, over a 41-day meet at Timonium, Mallano won 61 races, lapping the likes of Bill Passmore, David Dennis, Ben Feliciano, Bobby Fitzgerald and Danny Wright.
But weight always wins.
"I rode for a few more months but my weight was bad, I said I can't handle the reducing anymore," Mallano said. "I went home, galloped horses for a few years, then a job opened here in 1979."
Mallano has worn the NYRA valet shirt ever since, securing some of the best and classiest jockeys to grace Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct. Matthew Vigliotti was his first jockey, then Alex Solis when he had the bug, riding for Pancho Martin. Eddie Maple, Robbie Davis, Craig Perret, Richard Migliore, Ramon Dominguez and Javier Castellano followed, a long list of hard-working, talented gentlemen.
Jockeys and valets are business partners, confidants, friends, brothers in arms - probably not in that order. The valet knows when the jockey's hurting, he knows when his weight is winning, he knows when he's pressing, he knows when home life is off kilter.
At Saratoga, jockeys and valets spend eight hours a day, six days a week together. The jocks' room is a light-hearted, upbeat place until it isn't, every jockey gets hurt, every valet retrieves the remnants of a fall, grass-stained britches, cracked helmet, saddles with broken trees. It's a delicate place.
Mallano was there the day Mike Venezia was killed. He was there the day Ramon Dominguez went down and never rode again. He was there for Migliore's checkered career of falls, comebacks, falls, comebacks and ultimate fall.
"I worked for Richie for 25 years, I'm the godfather to his daughter, I've worked for great riders, great people," Mallano said, rattling off a list of valets and jockeys, photographs and memories. "Snooks was my valet. Billy Gilbert, he played the guitar. Timmy. Blackie. Mr. Murphy. Bollicky, they just spread his ashes. Joe Rienzi. A lot of good guys. When I first came around, I sat on the bench with Jorge Velasquez, Pincay, Bob Ussery, Jean Cruguet, Ron Turcotte, Braulio Baeza, Jacinto, I could go down the line, it's incredible the guys."
After 37 years in the room, with three grown children and 42 years of marriage to Josephine (they met on the racetrack), it's time for Mallano to walk away.
"I've thought about it for a while, I made up my mind about two years ago, so that's what I'm going to do," Mallano said. "It was a great job, a great life on the racetrack, but it's time."