The Inside Rail

Guy Raz asks the same question on every edition of my favorite podcast, “How I Built This.” 

“How much of your success is because of luck and how much of it is because of hard work and talent?”

It’s a simple but brilliant question, asked to entrepreneurs who have made it big. I’ve listened to all of them, from Ben Chestnut of Mailchimp to Carla Bartolucci of Jovial Foods to Steve Ells of Chipotle to Herb Kelleher of Southwest. 

Each business mogul answers the question slightly different but ultimately the same, always near the end of the show that has included the highs and lows of starting a business. 

Hard work and talent are important, necessary, but you need luck. But not just random luck, it’s more like luck somehow presents an opportunity, an opening, a moment and then it’s up to you to seize it. If you had to order them, luck comes first and then you need hard work/talent to capitalize on the luck. 

I asked Hall of Fame jockey Ramon Dominguez the same question on “In the Room” for HRRN’s Equine Forum this winter. I liked his answer.  

“I was extremely fortunate, you can say, ‘Gosh, you were so lucky,’ to have the agent I had for the last 13 years, without question, he was a key component to our success,” Dominguez said of Steve Rushing, who now books rides for Irad Ortiz Jr. and Javier Castellano. “You can say, you were lucky, but if you peel the onion so to speak, on how I got to connect with him, he didn’t choose me for something in particular, like I looked good on a horse. He actually did his work and realized that maybe I had what he was looking for, let’s put aside the needed physical abilities but of equal importance was character, how you conduct yourself, you are someone who is dedicated, you are someone who is responsible. I know I had that…if you look at it from that view, the so-called luck doesn’t seem to be so much about luck. But the fact that I put the work in, that I did things correctly.” 

And then he paused and thought about the question like only Ramon Dominguez can do and started again. Back to when he was a kid in Venezuela, a fledgling show jump rider without a lot of talent (his words) and without a lot of direction. 

“There was a key and pivotal moment when I was taking a bus from the show jumping school to my house. A kid in the back of the bus asked me if I was a jockey because I had my helmet and my whip,” Dominguez said. “He said he was riding horses at a nearby training center. He told me where it was and the next day, I ended up going there and getting on my first racehorse. And it wasn’t until recently, a few months ago, because we’ve stayed in contact, he’s actually galloping horses in Japan, he said to me, ‘Ramon, I don’t think I ever told you why I was on that bus. I was talking too much in class and the teacher told me to go home.’ ”

It was the first and only time he was on that bus at that time, the bus that Dominguez was on every day. Now, that’s luck. 

I was thinking about that conversation earlier in the meet when Dominguez and I stood along the outside rail of the main track, horses and riders whizzing past after the break. Two retired jockeys, content with being retired, delving deep into the art of riding races, about the center of balance, about keeping a horse light on his feet, about riding on heels and waiting for that opening. Dominguez was an artist, a masterpiece of hard work, talent and, I guess, luck. 

As I’ve talked to owners, trainers and jockeys who have enjoyed success in the early days of the meet, each one has talked, directly or indirectly, about hard work, talent and luck. I have not asked Guy Raz’s question but it’s always there. 

I had just finished interviewing Eddie Barker about his debut winner on opening weekend at Saratoga, he had talked about luck, about hard work, but a lot about luck. He trained for Seymour Smith, his only owner for most of 10 years, before he died, he suggested to his daughter-in-law, Iris Smith, to get Barker to buy a few horses for her. He did and they had an impressive 2-year-old winner at Saratoga. He’s turned luck into opportunity. 

Steeplechase jockey Tom Garner works hard but he also got lucky in the A.P. Smithwick Thursday. He was meant to ride Winston C. The two-time Grade 1 winner got hurt two weeks ago. Garner had taken off Redicean and couldn’t get back on him. He wound up on Baltimore Bucko and won the race. You need hard work and talent to be a jump jockey, luck doesn’t hurt. 

Around this office, we’ve balanced hard work, talent and luck through 21 years of The Special. I got lucky to have an older brother, who could write, knew horses and who kept me on the tracks. Joe got lucky to have a younger brother who didn’t know what he didn’t know. Tom, got lucky when he jumped from the bankrupt Thoroughbred Times to the burgeoning Special in 2013. Come to think of it, we all got lucky there.

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