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The Bug Who Sings Like a Sparrow
William Leggett
November 05, 1962
Ronnie Ferraro (above) is 19 years old, weighs 98 pounds, owns three saddles, one whip and a Chevrolet Impala. "When I drive to work," he says, while combing his stringy black hair in front of a mirror, "I take a look into the gutters to see if there are any old jockeys lying in them. How many stories have you read about jockeys who destroyed themselves with drink or who believed everything that was said about them and who just went plain, flat bust?"
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November 05, 1962

The Bug Who Sings Like A Sparrow

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"By the time I was 15 I was hooked. My family lives in Bucks County [Pa.] now, in a place called Cornwells Heights. We have a ranch home and about two acres of ground. My father is an air-conditioning contractor. I used to get up at 3 o'clock in the morning and hitchhike to Atlantic City or Pimlico and gallop horses. Finally, a trainer named Lyle Marmon hired me. By the time I was 16 I was taking care of six horses, galloping and mucking stalls for $21 a week.

"Right now Ambrose Cremen, a trainer, has first call on me. I gallop his horses and ride wherever his horses are stabled. I get paid $350 a month plus the standard fees for a mount ($25)."

The advantages of a bug

Ferraro, of course, is still a "bug boy," the racetrack term for an apprentice, and he rides with a five-pound apprentice allowance. He will lose this advantage on December 12. There are many opinions about what happens to a jockey when he loses his bug. "Once you lose that five pounds," says Bill Boland, who rode Middleground to victory in the 1950 Kentucky Derby while still an apprentice, "people start to look the other way. A lot of people don't like to try a kid once he has lost his apprentice allowance. For some riders, losing the five-pound edge becomes a mental block."

Johnny Sellers has a different opinion. "When I lost my bug," he says, "I knew that I was still the same rider and, if I could produce, people would ride me."

Ronnie Ferraro feels that the loss of the bug will hurt him not at all. "I think," says Ferraro, "that I have what it takes. I won't let things bother me. There is a man, a big fat guy, that follows me around from track to track. He stands in the grandstand in a sport shirt and when I go to the post he hollers, 'Come on Ferraro, you Rat Face.' Actually I hope that he enjoys himself. He is paying to yell and after all he's probably paying at least $2 a yell."

Ferraro's style of riding is unusual for a youngster; most apprentices, still learning a sense of pace, try to get out of the gate first and stay there. Ferraro has the courage to lay off the pace, come from behind and drive his horses inside along the rail. Twice this season he has been suspended for driving through holes too small, but suspensions are not likely to stop him. His ability is such that he has already been put on horses good enough to win three stake races this year, and three stake victories for an apprentice is a remarkable number. Already he has tried to sell his contract to the best stables. "I'd like to sell it to a stable like Greentree," he says, "because I figure they are the best outfit for a jock to get mixed up with. Mr. Whitney [John Hay Whitney] and Mrs. Payson [Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson, who also owns the New York Mets] are fine people. When you are young you must put yourself in the way of success."

Last May 21 Ferraro courted success as few young riders had ever done before. He decided that he was ready for New York and good enough to ride against the Ycazas, Baezas, Bolands, Rotzes and Shoemakers. He walked into the jockeys' room at Aqueduct in a magnificent brown cashmere jacket, brown slacks and tiny, pointed brown shoes. He was met by silence.

He slid into a pair of purple silks, put on a gold cap and examined the jockeys' room. He stopped in front of Ismael Valenzuela's locker, stood on tiptoe and looked inside at a note written on yellow paper. "Dear Daddy," it read. "Just a few lines to say I love you Daddy and miss you a lot." It was signed, "Your son that loves you very much."

Ferraro walked a few lockers away and gazed into one that said "Shoe" on the top—Shoemaker's. At the bottom of the locker was a blue American Legion cap with gold piping that said, VICE COMMANDER ROBERT F. WAGNER. Wagner, the Mayor of New York, had given the cap to Shoemaker in 1959 when Shoemaker won the first race ever run over the Aqueduct track.

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