From the head to the belt a jockey is dressed like a clown, from the knees to the ground like an English lord, and for the rest he is covered by translucent nylon breeches that reveal his under-shorts. In such undignified attire it is not easy to be as impressive as Michael Venezia, the 19-year-old apprentice (or "bug boy")who is now riding winners in Florida after a spectacular opening season in New York. Venezia is small, even for a jockey; fully dressed, he weighs 95 pounds and stands one inch over five feet. When he appears atop a horse he looks like a dreadful error, and one waits hopefully for the P.A. announcement: "Will Mr. Venezia come to the starting gate and pick up his lost boy Michael?" A few minutes later the poor child has stormed across the finish line two lengths ahead of his nearest competitor and one begins to get the idea that the little fellow may be adequate after all.
Every year brings its hot apprentices; they tiptoe out of the wings and whirl and pirouette to the oohs and ahs of those who fancy innocence. Then, as quickly as they arrived, the bug boys vanish behind the barns, where they are to be found in their golden years walking hots and shoveling manure. This could happen to the Brooklyn-born Michael Venezia, but don't hold your breath till it does. There are apprentices and apprentices. In 1964 Bug Boy Venezia rode more winners than any other apprentice in New York history and climaxed the season by rattling off six firsts and three seconds on a single day at Aqueduct—a feat accomplished about as often as the electric light bulb is invented. For his labors atop 192 winners last year the little kid from Brooklyn earned about $95,000, or $1,000 a pound. And now one question is heard wherever he is discussed: What will happen when he loses the bug?
The bug is an asterisk, that same mark of punctuation that has bedeviled athletes like Roger Maris and Ford Frick. In horse racing an asterisk is used to show that a jockey is an apprentice, and it is good for a weight allowance that varies from three to 10 pounds—Venezia's is now five pounds and will be until April 23. Many an apprentice has been a winner with the asterisk and an also-ran without it. Is Michael Venezia worried about losing his bug? "I think about it a lot," he says in a rare burst of volubility.
But in the meantime he is finding that life as a bug boy can be beautiful. He drives a Pontiac 2 + 2, a dashing convertible into which he almost disappears when he gets behind the wheel to tool out to the track for morning workouts. The car has 376 horses and pushbutton windows and tires that cost $90 apiece and a radio with two speakers and a "reverb" switch that sends the music rocking back and forth. He prefers driving the car with the top down, and nothing short of a monsoon will cause him to raise it. When he parks the car in the horsemen's lot, he gets out and combs his hair in the reflection on the polished door. He wears his soft brown hair in a small wave disciplined by a touch of greasy kid stuff; he has a minor complexion problem, like many another teen-ager, but seems to be growing gracefully out of it. His big brown eyes and John L. Lewis eyebrows tend to dominate his face, and he has a slightly jutting jaw and low cheekbones that give him a sullen look—an optical illusion, for he is quick to smile and scrupulously pleasant. He lives with his uncle and agent and �minence grise, Al Scotti, who is equally soft-spoken and mild and who is respectfully called Uncle by the jockey. Both of them speak in the new Brooklynese—which is to say they do not refer to 33rd Street as Toity-toid Street, oil as erl, or murder as moiduh, nor do they punctuate their speech with glottal stops. But you would not mistake them for the boys on the train to Scarsdale, either.
At the racetrack young Venezia is the invisible man. While the other jocks play racehorse rummy for a dollar a point and table tennis for $10 a game, Venezia watches television or studies the racing form to see what kind of horses he is going to be racing against. He is neither unfriendly nor antisocial; he simply is perfectly satisfied with his own company. Another jockey with Venezia's 1964 record might have been tempted to blow into Florida's Tropical Park like Charlemagne, with heralds of trumpets clearing the rabble before him. But Venezia was so quiet that several weeks passed before most of the other jocks knew who he was. "Where you been ridin', kid?" a veteran jockey said to Venezia in his second week at Tropical. "New Yawk," Venezia said, in the same respectful tone with which one would answer a college professor. He does not mind being drawn into a conversation, but he is not likely to have anything earth-shaking to say. "What's your favorite food?" he was asked one day in the jocks' room.
"I don't know," he said. "I like good food."
"What kind of good food?"
"Listen, if you had to spend the rest of your life eating one kind of food, what would it be?"
Venezia pondered. "Well," he said, "if I had to spend my whole life eating one kind of food, then I'd have to think about it."