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Can Migliore finally win the big one?

3/24/2004

It had been quite a spring for the 21-year-old jockey, and now he was exactly where he wanted to be on the first Saturday in May: on a live mount parading in front of the Churchill Downs grandstand as the band played "My Old Kentucky Home."

Richard Migliore and Eternal Prince had dominated the 1985 Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial, and the brilliant front-runner was a wise-guy pick in the 111th Kentucky Derby. Chief's Crown was the 6-5 favorite and Proud Truth had a lot of support, but both were closers who might have traffic problems. Spend a Buck was the other speed, but if anything happened to him, Eternal Prince and Migliore might be able to dictate the pace, get clear and be long gone.

The gates opened, and Eternal Prince was doomed immediately. As the chart says, "Eternal Prince failed to break alertly, was steadied along looking for room between horses approaching the first turn and was finished before reaching the far turn." As Spend a Buck wired the field, Eternal Prince plodded home 12th of 13. In the next 17 years, Migliore would ride in only two more Derbys, doing no better than fifth.

Yet it's not as if his career fell apart. Not even close. In the year of Eternal Prince's Derby flop, Migliore was New York's leading rider, just as he was in 1981, when he won an Eclipse as a 17-year-old apprentice. He's approaching 4,000 wins, and for more than 20 years has been a force at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga. He's bright, articulate and a respected, influential voice in the jockeys' room. He wins going short and long, on the lead and from far back, on dirt and turf.

Yet on the days when champions are crowned, Migliore usually isn't around. Big-race glory has eluded "The Mig," who also hasn't won a Preakness, Belmont or Breeders' Cup race. His friend Jerry Bailey, the world's top stakes rider, can't understand why.

"Richie's a top-class rider," Bailey said recently. "He's a world-class rider. He's just as good as any of us, but we all need the stock. And as soon as you get it, you get the job done.

"He's always been a jockey who could get the job done with the best of us, and on many occasions he does that. Why it hadn't happened for him in a $1-million race, I mean, that's just pure chance. I'm happy for him."

On March 14, Migliore's 40th birthday, he finally went to the winner's circle after a race that had a seven-figure purse. Longshot Friends Lake came charging late to take the Grade I Florida Derby, and 19 years after Eternal Prince, Migliore thinks he finally has another realistic chance at the Run for the Roses.

"Well, it was a big thrill," Migliore said. "It's really hard to articulate what it's like to see all of your life's work starting to come to fruition . . . To win a million-dollar race as prestigious as the Florida Derby goes far beyond money.

"To win a major Derby prep and know you're sitting on a contender for America's race is very hard for me to put into words. But anybody who knows me knows that's what everything in my life has been pointing toward. It's my ultimate goal."

At 40, many people encounter the dreaded mid-life crisis, when regrets and doubts can cause depression and confusion. Two major injuries have put Migliore through plenty of anguish already, so perhaps fate is paying him back for taking more than his share of pain in his 20s and 30s.

On Memorial Day in 1988, Migliore went down in a horrific spill at Belmont and suffered a nearly fatal neck injury. The multiple-horse pileup was so scary that four years later, the television series "Rescue 911" showed it and Migliore's "rescue." Six months later, on Thanksgiving, Migliore returned and heard cheers from the hard-bitten Aqueduct railbirds after a victory.

In July 1999, Migliore again was sidelined six months after suffering a badly broken right arm in another accident at Belmont. He needed bone grafts and multiple surgeries and said that for the first time, he considered retirement. Six months later, he was back at the Big A, riding winners.

Migliore credits three former riders -- Eddie Maple, the late Mike Venezia and his own valet, John Millano -- for helping him keep his head and priorities straight. Migliore and his wife of 18 years, Carmela, have four children, Joseph, Philip, Luciano and Gabrielle. For the previous three winters, Migliore rode cheaper horses on Aqueduct's chilly inner track instead of venturing to balmy Florida in search of Triple Crown contenders.

"There's a part of you that's always aspiring to win those kinds of races," Migliore said. "But when I looked at the whole picture, I'm going to be a jockey for X amount of years, but I'm going to be a father and a husband for the rest of my life. So, I just think at the end of the day, I needed to make choices that were important to me.

"And I was lucky enough to be able to stay home and do my job and make a very good living at it. This year, I made a definite effort to get down to Florida as much as I could.''

Like Migliore and Funny Cide, last year's Derby and Preakness winner, Friends Lake is a New York-bred. Unlike Funny Cide, he has fashionable classic bloodlines, being by the potent distance sire A.P. Indy, the 1992 Horse of the Year who won the Belmont and Breeders' Cup Classic.

"I've gone to the Derby with a few horses that probably didn't have a great chance . . . But Friends Lake just won the Florida Derby, so it kind of stamps him as the definite legitimate contender,'' Migliore said. "He gets a tremendous amount of air and has a very big stride, and distance is never going to be a problem for him. I believe he'll go as far as we ever need him to go."

Although stamina is not a worry, Friends Lake's temperament is. Before the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 17 at Gulfstream, he got worked up and lost all chance to win, though he did run a distant third behind Second Of June. In his next race, the Florida Derby, he worried trainer John Kimmel and Migliore when he delayed the start by balking at going into the gate.

"In the Holy Bull, I felt like I was sitting on a keg of dynamite. I couldn't wait for them to open the doors, because he was going to explode if they didn't,'' Migliore said. "This time, when he got in the gate, he actually relaxed again, and I said, 'Well, that's a great sign.' And it was a much, much better effort."

After winning the Florida Derby off a two-month layoff, Kimmel plans to train his wired colt up to the Kentucky Derby. Not since Needles in 1956 has a Derby winner not raced in April, but Migliore expressed confidence in his longtime patron.

"John is strongly leaning towards not running him again because he feels like he can have him ready physically," Migliore said. "What he has to work on is the horse's mental status. He can be a very difficult horse in a lot of respects. If he doesn't have enough time to school him between races, he could blow up Derby Day and lose his race in the paddock or in the post parade. I think John has a very good handle on this particular horse's needs. So, whatever John decides, I'm very comfortable with.

"He's a horse you have to treat with a lot of respect and with kid gloves. Hopefully, he'll keep his composure on Derby Day so he can show his best."