Eddie Maribona (to the left of Silks Person Linda Scocca) and the crew of valets
When Eddie Maribona was released after three days in St. Joseph’s Hospital to treat a bleeding ulcer in February, his doctor recommended he take at least a month off from his job as a valet in the jockeys’ room at Tampa Bay Downs.
But the 81-year-old former race rider convinced his physician the surest path to recovery was to return to the environment he has known his entire adult life.
“I love my job. I love the people I work with,” explained Maribona, who was back in less than three weeks – enabling him to savor the Grade III Florida Oaks victory on Quality Rocks by jockey Jose Lezcano, whom Maribona took under his wing when Lezcano arrived in Oldsmar from his native Panama as a teenager 10 years ago.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ I never missed a day until this year,” Maribona said. “I get to talk to my friends, the jockeys, the other valets. They all like me.
“What do I want to do, stay in the house all day? I can’t sit and do nothing. I’d go crazy.”
The Cuba native’s insistence on returning to work as quickly as possible came as no surprise to family members – including his second wife, Miriam, and his son, Ediberto “Sonny” Jr. – and his fellow valets.
“My dad has given his entire life to the racing industry, and he feels very positive about his job,” Sonny Maribona said. “He cares a lot about the sport and about the jockeys, because he knows what they go through just to have the chance to win races.
“He is still in the room every morning at 7:30, laying out their equipment and clothes and supplies, getting ready for the races. I got my work ethic from him,” said Sonny, a supervisor for a heavy construction company. “A lot of the other valets work galloping horses or on the gate crew in the morning, so he gets here early to help everybody out.”
Valets, as a rule, are a hard-boiled bunch. While jockeys place their physical well-being on the line whenever they climb aboard a horse, valets face their fair share of danger saddling horses for a race and assisting with fractious Thoroughbreds in the starting gate.
Accepting those risks is a valet’s tradeoff for being part of the show, as well as the potential monetary rewards – often in the form of a hefty bonus – when one of their riders wins a big race.
And on most days, those possibilities cause the jockeys’ room to come alive an hour before the first race, vibrating with the hum of high expectations.
But the room at Tampa Bay Downs was a much quieter place earlier this meeting, when Eddie Maribona was missing from action.
“We missed him a lot,” said Alberto Paico, who like most of the room’s occupants is not given to expressions of affection. “We really appreciate Eddie being around. He is an inspiration for all of us.
“He is normally the first person I see when I get here, working and setting up his riders’ equipment. This job is his life, and we know the older he gets the more time he wants to spend at work, because that is what keeps him motivated to keep going,” Paico said.
To a man, the 10 other valets watch out for Maribona. Since his hospital stay, he is exempt from saddling duties unless a race has a field of more than 10 entrants (rest assured, though, no one has told Eddie he can’t saddle a horse).
His colleagues marvel at his ability to keep up with the demands of the job and a sixth sense that enables him to know what’s going on elsewhere in the room. All of them say they hope they’re still capable of doing the job at his age, even though they privately realize it’s a virtual impossibility.
“A lot of people worry about him because he is older, but Eddie is not afraid to go out there and do the job,” said valet Chris Belleville. “He is a valued member of the room. He is one of us.”
“I’ve got Eddie’s back,” said valet Tim O’Connor, “and I know he’s got mine.”
Maribona – who rode for six months in his native country before the Cuban Revolution forced him to move to the United States – remains a stabilizing force for the jockeys he works for, as well as those he has known for decades.
“He’ll do anything for his riders,” said one of Maribona’s jockeys, Dean Butler. “We’ll sit and talk, and he always asks me about my two girls, whose pictures are in my cubicle, and say how beautiful they are. He really is one of a kind.”
“Eddie has never been my valet, but he would always come over to my corner and talk to me when I was younger,” said four-time leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr. “He always encouraged me – ‘keep doing what you’re doing, keep trying hard.’ ”
Over the years, whenever a promising teenage jockey such as Lezcano arrived at Tampa Bay Downs with a limited command of English while eager to prove himself as the next Angel Cordero, Jr., he was assigned to Maribona – who never forgot how being on top of a horse made him feel like he was on top of the world.
And if the new kid possessed the talent and drive to make it, the partnership between him and the old rider-turned-valet was one made in Thoroughbred racing heaven.
Maribona in the jockeys' room with his son, Sonny
“He’s been a father figure for me and for many other riders,” said jockey Willie Martinez, who set Tampa Bay Downs ablaze as a 20-year-old phenomenon while setting a track record with 123 victories during the 1991-1992 meeting. “I rode my first race at Tampa Bay Downs in 1989, and I thought I was invincible. But I was very green, and I went through a lot of ups and downs.
“Eddie was always there to pick me up and help get me over the rough spots,” added Martinez, whose 3,100-plus victories include the 2012 Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Trinniberg. “He taught me to have confidence in myself. He has always been a great mentor, and I don’t know what my career would have been like at the beginning if it wasn’t for him.
“He’s helped open doors for a lot of Spanish riders, and for him to still be doing his job says a lot about him.”
BALANCING FAMILY, CAREER: A LIFE-CHANGING DECISION
Maribona – who was born in the Cuban city of Camaguey, first settled in 1528, and moved to Havana when he was 8 – began his career as a jockey at Oriental Park in the Havana suburb of Marianao during the final stages of the Cuban Revolution.
But soon after the overthrow of the Batista government by Fidel Castro and his forces in 1959, Thoroughbred racing nearly vanished from the island, although there are sketchy records of racing taking place at Oriental Park as late as the mid-1960s.
Maribona came to the United States in 1961 to ride at Waterford Park (now Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort) in West Virginia, leaving behind his wife Hilda and their infant son, Ediberto, Jr. He rode in the United States for six months before his visa expired, forcing him to return to Cuba.
But there were no opportunities to make a living riding horse races anymore in Cuba, so Maribona convinced immigration authorities to allow him to return stateside. “It was hard to leave my family. But I had to make a living,” he said, sounding as if the passage of five-plus decades has lessened his burden.
Maribona after a victory at Raceway Park in Ohio
For the next three years, Maribona held his own at smaller tracks such as Waterford, ThistleDown in Cleveland, Finger Lakes in New York and Lincoln Downs in Rhode Island – making enough money to finally bring Hilda and Sonny to join him in 1964.
“I had to make two trips from Finger Lakes to Washington, D.C., to get the U.S. government to (petition the Cuban government) for Hilda and Sonny to come here,” he recalled.
Over the years, Maribona – the youngest of 10 children – also provided assistance for his late mother and several siblings to come to the United States. He has two brothers and two sisters who currently reside in Miami.
The sacrifices his father made for his family still amaze Sonny, who entered the Army at 18 at his father’s urging, serving in the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army Corps of Engineers.
“I’m real glad he made the decisions he did,” Sonny said. “I don’t remember anything about living in Cuba, but I’m grateful to be here. This is my country, and I fought for this country. The main thing I learned from my dad is to take pride in what you do and be respectful to people, and to help others whenever you can.
“Again, it goes back to his work ethic,” added Sonny, who is divorced with two adult sons. “Hard work is the basis for a lot of people. You go to work every day, you take care of your family and your business, and you mind your own business. That is basically what he taught me.”
Owner Iva Mae Parrish (far left) and Maribona team up for success at Florida Downs
In the 1960s and early ’70s, Maribona established a reputation as “King of the Fairs” on the New England fairs circuit, which was extremely popular with horsemen, jockeys and fans. In 1970, he teamed with late horsewoman Iva Mae Parrish – “Queen of the Fairs” – to win five races on a single card.
“Those were little tracks and it was not easy to win there,” said central Florida trainer Adolfo Exposito, whose uncle, jockey Frank Saumell, had helped educate Maribona in race-riding back in Cuba. “You had to ride like a kamikaze to win there, but Eddie won a lot of races.”
During the winters, Maribona competed at Tampa Bay Downs (known in the 1960s as Sunshine Park, then Florida Downs). He was a solid, if unspectacular, rider who received and gave respect in equal measure.
“We had a lot of good riders then – Mike Manganello, Terry Lipham, Tommy Sisum, Gene St. Leon had the ‘bug’ (apprentice allowance) – and Eddie fit right in,” said Dennis Petrucelli, who was also part of the Oldsmar jockey colony and is now Tampa Bay Downs Clerk of Scales.
“Eddie was a good, clean rider who knew where he was going on the track.”
“Eddie was always a gentleman. He was respectful of everybody, and everybody liked him,” said current Tampa Bay Downs Association Official Eddie Cantlon, Jr., who began riding at the Oldsmar oval in 1968. “I don’t know if he won a lot of races, but he was known for having a pretty big heart. He wasn’t afraid of being in tight places.”
Maribona was living the dream, able to give his wife and son everything they needed – even if he never reached the heights of a Manganello, the perennial leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey who won the 1970 Kentucky Derby on Dust Commander.
And like every jockey in that rough-and-tumble era, Maribona knew he could be stripped of everything whenever he climbed onto a horse. “My dad was a heck of a jockey, and everyone had a lot of respect for him,” Sonny Maribona recalled. “But he got busted up a lot.
Sonny (foreground) and his mom Hilda (far left) celebrate, but they also worried
“I remember one time when I was 7 and he was riding at Finger Lakes, I heard a loud scream from the tunnel that led to the jockeys’ room there. I couldn’t put it all together at first, but I ran toward the noise. Then I saw the ambulance going to the room and my mom running past me, screaming.
“When they pulled my father out of the ambulance, he had blood all over him,” Sonny said.
Over the course of his career, Maribona broke his collarbone, his leg, his ankle, numerous ribs and his cheekbone, in addition to puncturing his lung “I don’t know how many times,” Sonny said.
“He broke his face once on the inside railing at the fairs. They had to scrape the teeth out of his gums.”
Maribona was riding at Northampton Fair in Massachusetts in 1976 when he was involved in the accident that hastened the end of his career. His injuries included seven broken ribs – “you can still see the way they stick out when he takes his shirt off,” Sonny said – and a punctured lung.
It wasn’t long before Maribona had to find another way to make a living. He galloped horses for a while for Tampa Bay Downs’ late co-owner, George Steinbrenner, but the magic that enabled him to compete was gone.
“I came back for a little while, but I wasn’t the same,” he said, shrugging as if to indicate time has wiped out the heartbreak. “I had to quit.”
Weighing out after a freak St. Patrick's Day snowstorm at Finger Lakes in 1974
“EL COMANDANTE” RULES THE ROOM
For the most part, what happens in the jockeys’ room, stays in the jockeys’ room. It is the private enclave of bantamweight men (and a few women) seeking vicarious thrills and potential wealth, and their personal assistants who keep the operation running smoothly.
Valets (rhymes with mallets, when referring to a jockey’s aide-de-camp) are akin to clubhouse attendants for a professional sports team. At Tampa Bay Downs, two valets are generally assigned to work with 6-8 jockeys on a daily basis, while helping trainers saddle and unsaddle horses.
Duties include arranging each jockey’s cubicle with their silks and breeches; putting on helmet covers to correspond with the color of their saddlecloth; polishing boots and saddles; equipping helmets with goggles to a rider’s preference; filling water buckets; purchasing drinks, snacks and vitamins; and adding the correct additional weight to a saddle.
Throughout the day, valets also deal with the changing moods of riders who win major races, spring shocking upsets and make a mistake that causes them to get beat on a 3-5 favorite – all in the span of a couple of hours. “As a valet, you just have to keep moving forward,” said Belleville, whose late father, Ron Belleville, was a jockey.
“When your jockey gets beat, you let them blow off steam, and once they calm down a little, you start talking to them like you normally would. It’s more of a morale thing. You have to try to know what they’re feeling,” Belleville said.
One of Maribona’s jockeys, Jose Ferrer, has ridden 3,928 winners – including 26 graded-stakes winners – since starting his career in 1982, according to Equibase statistics. Ferrer has failed to win more than 23,000 times.
There is no record how many times Ferrer walked back to the jockeys’ room questioning what he could have done different, or blaming himself for a loss. On those occasions, he was always grateful to find Eddie Maribona in his corner of the room.
“I’ve known Eddie for 20 years, since the first time I came down here to ride,” Ferrer said. “What makes him a good valet? Attitude. Anybody can clean tack; tack is pretty much soap and a little sponge. But when you get a good valet with a good sense of humor, it makes it easier for you.
“What I’m looking for in a valet is somebody with a good spirit and positive energy. Eddie has it, and it makes all the difference,” Ferrer said. “Another good thing about Eddie is he treats everybody the same. Whether you’re winning or not winning, Eddie treats all his jockeys good.”
To outside visitors, Maribona cultivates an aura of the quiet man in the room, going about his business and preferring to remain in the background.
But those who know him best say appearances can be deceiving. Alternately, he is known in the room as “The Champ,” “Hercules,” “El Comandante,” “Honest Eddie” and “The Cuban Casanova,” with the growing Eddie Maribona legend subject to whomever is doing the telling.
“Eddie, quiet? Maybe to people who don’t really know him,” said veteran jockey Scott Spieth, who has employed Maribona as his valet, on and off, for the past 30 years. “If you get him talking, he is a blast. Being around him is a lot of fun. But he is meticulous about the stuff he does. Eddie is very professional with his job.”
“He acts like he’s quiet, but he’s not,” echoed Butler. “The valets will get to joking and playing, and Eddie acts like he is the innocent one. But he does his fair share of playing.”
Fellow valet O’Connor never hesitates sticking the needle to Maribona, teasing him about his background in Cuba, his career as a jockey and his prowess with members of the opposite sex.
It’s often little more than base, locker-room humor, but it serves a valuable purpose.
“This is a high-pressure atmosphere, and by razzing Eddie, it helps relieve that pressure,” O’Connor said. “It would be a major change for me to turn the corner in the room and not see mi amigo there.”
“I told Eddie, the worst thing he could do is retire, because this is his life,” Ferrer said. “People think they want to retire to play bingo or go to a museum or the beach, and two weeks later they’re sick because their body shuts down.
“I hope he keeps doing it, that old SOB. Don’t go nowhere.”
The possibility of Maribona riding off into the sunset seems remote for the foreseeable future. He says he is 100 percent recovered from his bleeding ulcer and has no plans to leave the room.
“I’ll be back next year,” he vows. "When I can’t do it, then I’ll retire.”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
After a half-century together, Hilda Maribona died of leukemia in 2008. The following year, Eddie remarried Miriam Santos, 16 years his junior. “She takes wonderful care of him,” Sonny said.
Maribona is reluctant to open up to strangers about his family; while many relatives eventually came to the United States, others remained in Cuba. A sister died last year.
The jockeys and the valets have become his family, the people who sustain him through life’s trials. And seeing Maribona at his station, setting up for a full card of racing, lets them know all is right in their world.
“I’ve been here 26 years, since I was 18,” O’Connor said, “and Eddie is the last remaining valet from when I started. I learned everything from him and those other guys. He has been around horses his whole life, and his role in here is very important.”
Maribona has worked at other tracks as a valet, including Finger Lakes, Indiana Grand and Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania, but has worked only at Tampa Bay Downs the last seven years. He and Miriam relax during the summer, enabling Eddie to gear up for a new meeting.
“I play golf, but not too good. I might shoot 90 depending on the course, and I had a hole-in-one,” Maribona said. “I go to the beach once in a while. But this (the jockeys’ room) is home.”
To those who know him best, the thought of Eddie Maribona slowing down is inconceivable – even as it happens before their eyes. A full, rich life, with a final chapter (or two) being written.
Each Sunday morning, Sonny spends a couple of hours with his father shooting the breeze and catching up. He is uplifted by his father’s enthusiasm for his job and his keen insights on the jockeys he oversees.
“He has been a mentor for so many riders over the years,” Sonny said. “When Jose Lezcano came here as a bug rider, my dad and my mom helped him out. They all learned a lot being around him.”
Maribona is part of a rare breed of individuals who have given more than they have taken from racing. Inside the jockeys’ room, he is a bottomless treasure chest of knowledge, still eager to be tapped.
“Eddie is pretty much the Godfather of valets,” Martinez said. “He was always there for me and for a lot of riders, and he will always have a big place in my heart.”