John Rigattieri’s foundation in Thoroughbred racing was formed in the mid-1960s, when Saturday cards in New York routinely drew 40-50,000 fans and racing took a back seat only to baseball and maybe the NFL.
“My father, who was a mailman, knew a guy who was the son of Lucien Laurin’s assistant trainer. He helped me get a job walking horses for Mr. Laurin. So if I didn’t do that, I would have been a mailman,” Rigattieri said with a wry smile.
Laurin – a National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame member who later achieved lasting fame as the trainer of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat and 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge – saw enough potential in his teenage protégé to bring Rigattieri to his farm in Holly Hill, S.C., where the youngster learned to gallop horses and acquired the discipline needed for long-term success.
“What did I learn from Lucien Laurin? Everything,” the Brooklyn, N.Y., native said. “The training techniques, being consistent. Not to abuse the horse. He used to say horses gave him everything, and he wouldn’t drill them too hard.
“Being consistent is the biggest thing. If you’re going on a bad streak, you can’t change.”
Rigattieri is off to a productive start in his first season at Tampa Bay Downs, with three winners from 12 starters. That includes a victory in the 10th race on Dec. 13 by 46-1 shot Crusader Kris, a 3-year-old gelding owned by the conditioner and ridden by Dyn Panell.
Normally, Rigattieri doesn’t join the winner’s-circle celebration. “It might be a superstition,” he said, shrugging.
But the Brooklyn, N.Y., native made an exception after scoring his first-ever Tampa Bay Downs victory in the third race on Nov. 29 with 4-year-old filly B L’s Wagon, owned by long-time client and breeder Frank Bertolino’s Monarch Stables, Inc.
“It was on my bucket list to win a race at Tampa,” he explained. “That might be why” (he joined the win picture).
Few can argue with Rigattieri’s methods, or his idiosyncrasies. Since taking out his trainer’s license in 1972, he has saddled 2,623 winners, including 122 or more each year from 2004-2009.
Before getting dethroned this year by Jay Bernardini, Rigattieri won 10 consecutive training titles at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts. He also finished atop the standings at Pimlico in Baltimore in 2011. He cracked the $1-million mark in purse earnings for the first time in 2004, and was among the top-100 trainers in money won each year from 2006-2008, a period when his runners earned almost $6-million.
Over the last 13 years, Rigattieri has been a fixture at Suffolk and Delaware Park in the summer and Laurel in the winter, while also racing horses at Monmouth, Aqueduct, Parx and Hollywood Casino at Charles Town. He received stalls at Tampa Bay Downs for the 2013-2014 meeting, but decided to remain in Maryland.
This season, the lure of Florida’s west coast in the winter proved too strong to overcome.
“I just thought this was the time,” said Rigattieri, who lives with partner Jeri Vieira (she is the agent for his go-to jockey, Dyn Panell) and has two grown sons and a daughter, none of whom are in racing. “I’m getting older and I wanted some good weather. Plus, I thought my horses would fit better here than anywhere else.”
Rigattieri hesitates to name a career-defining moment, or a best horse. “I am basically a claiming trainer. We do buy some 2-year-olds at the sales, mostly at Ocala in April, but we don’t spend big bucks for them,” said Rigattieri, who has about five main owners, including Bertolino and Manfred Roos. “I look for an athletic type of horse and watch them work, and I’ve been wrong a lot.
“It’s an every-day job. To be successful, you have to get the right owners. I have good owners who let me run their horses where I want.”
Jessethemarine, a 3-year-old colt he owns in partnership with Roos, won stakes at Delaware and Laurel as a 2-year-old. But the best horse he ever trained probably was Collegian, a hard-knocking, Roos-owned runner whose 12 career victories included the 1990 Hirsch Jacobs Stakes at Pimlico and the 1991 Rockingham Sprint Handicap in New Hampshire.
The laconic Rigattieri, who thanks his seven employees for enabling him to take an occasional day off – “I never used to” – is convinced bringing his 23-horse stable to Tampa Bay Downs was the right move.
“Everybody here has been extra nice. I know everybody in the Racing Office, and (Association Steward) John Morrissey is one of my favorite people. I think they have something good going here.”