Saratoga Springs native Muzikar has emerged as a top jockey agent
Matt Muzikar didn’t have a credential.
He was 13 years old, and he didn’t have any type of job that would allow him on the backside at Saratoga Race Course.
What he did have was proximity, resourcefulness and desire.
And some carrots.
He’d ride his bike down 5th Avenue from his house on Henning and Lake, sneak through the back way to the Payson barn and climb the fence out of view of security.
Until one day when someone of authority asked him what he was doing, feeding these horses. Busted.
“So I told him. I said, ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ ” the 43-year-old Muzikar said one sunny morning last month while sitting in the empty seats on the apron at Belmont Park.
He didn’t know it at the time, but his career cajoling and negotiating with some of the best racehorse trainers in the world had begun.
“He said, ‘No, you want a job as a hotwalker?’ It was Jonathan Sheppard,” Muzikar said. “So he hired me.”
Three summers walking hots for the Hall of Fame trainer led, circuitously and not quite resolutely, to his current job as the agent for two of the top jockeys in the country, Javier Castellano and rising star Rosie Napravnik.
Heading into the 144th Saratoga meet on Friday, Castellano, the 2012 North American leader in purse money, is in position to be a significant player, especially in stakes races, and the 24-year-old Napravnik has quickly gained a sure foothold since moving her tack to New York, bolstered by the first Grade I win of her career in the Kentucky Oaks.
Driving this duo behind the scenes — and towering over them — is Muzikar, a 6-foot-4 center on the Saratoga High School basketball team that went to the 1988 state Class A semifinals. His path to this point has included jobs as a security guard at the track and a TV reporter, and a four-year marriage to jockey Julie Krone in the mid-1990s.
He reluctantly joined the ranks of jockey agents in the wake of their divorce, but now that he’s even more deeply immersed in the game, there’s no greater thrill than when one of his jockeys scores big, especially at Muzikar’s hometown track.
“Love it. Stressful? Yes. Anxiety? Yes,” Muzikar said. “Some people take it as a waiter’s job: You go and take what is handed to you. And I take it as a different responsibility.
“I go after what I want, because those are the horses that I feel belong. I don’t wait for people to come to me. Sometimes they do, but usually, I’m the aggressor. And I think in this game, you have to go after what you want. Otherwise, you’re going to get run over the top.”
Not too many people ran over Muzikar, or the Blue Streaks in 1987-88, when they enjoyed one of the finest seasons in school history.
They lost to McQuaid Jesuit of Rochester, a team that featured a host of soon-to-be Division I players, including the 6-6 Greg Woodard, on his way to Rollie Massimino’s Villanova Wildcats.
Saratoga didn’t have much of a chance, especially after star Tim Parker suffered a throat ailment and couldn’t play, and lost, 76-62.
Muzikar continued to play basketball for the Junior College of Albany and Hartwick, where he graduated with a degree in communications.
His summers hot-walking for Sheppard, meanwhile, led to a job as a security guard at Saratoga, where he was assigned to escort Krone between the jocks’ room and the track.
They were married in Saratoga Springs, to much fanfare, riding a horse-drawn carriage to Marylou Whitney’s Cady Hill estate and a reception for which only People magazine was officially credentialed.
By then, Muzikar had shifted careers, working as a sports reporter for Ch. 10, then for Major League Baseball Productions in New Jersey.
He and Krone divorced in 1999, at which point Monmouth Park-based jockey Eddie King began trying to coax Muzikar into being his agent.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Muzikar said. “I thought it was kind of ridiculous or contradicting to go to school to be in communications and then leave to go do something that you don’t really know if you’re good at. So that was my problem. Twenty-seven years old, starting something new, and for what? It was a big move.”
As it turned out, it was the right one, based on the success Muzikar has had.
Besides King, who won the Iselin Handicap that year, Muzikar has booked mounts for Patrick Husbands, Joe Bravo, Roberto Alvarado Jr., Mike Luzzi, Aaron Gryder, Shaun Bridgmohan, Channing Hill as an apprentice and Eibar Coa, with whom Muzikar shifted from New Jersey and set up shop in New York, and Cornelio Velasquez.
He and Coa went on a tear, winning several meet titles and, in 2006, becoming just the fourth jockey to win 300 races in a year on the NYRA circuit.
It was frequently an acrimonious relationship, though, best illustrated in 2009, when they quarreled to the point where Muzikar dropped Coa’s book the day before Coa won the Grade II Commonwealth on Eternal Star and Grade I Blue Grass on 14-1 General Quarters at Keeneland.
“We had some professional issues, and the lack of communication was rubbing me the wrong way,” Muzikar said. “I’m not easy, either.”
By then, Castellano had been badgering Muzikar to take his book.
Castellano, no longer one of the preferred riders for Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, was struggling mightily, and after Muzikar finally made a permanent break from Coa, he told Castellano “just leave me alone for six, seven weeks.”
Eventually, they joined forces, “and we turned it around,” Muzikar said.
Through Friday, Castellano was first in North America in purses ($11,147,214) for the year and Napravnik was seventh ($6,367,514). Both are in the top 15 in wins.
With the Saratoga meet just days away, Muzikar anticipates a big meet, perhaps 60 wins, for Castellano, one of the top riders for trainer Todd Pletcher, and a solid one for Napravnik as she continues the gradual and difficult process of establishing herself in the intensely competitive rider colony.
“I think I’m loaded with stakes for Javier, I think we could win a third straight Travers,” Muzikar said. “We have plenty of options. Dullahan, Gemologist is coming back, we could end up winning some big handicap races with Stay Thirsty. We have Contested, Grace Hall. We have turf horses, we have Corporate Jungle, Doubles Partner, Hudson Steele. He’s going to have a big meet, barring injury.
“Rosie, it’s her first Saratoga. I’ve had real bad Saratogas with jocks. I remember winning two on opening day and three the rest of the meet. What would I consider a good meet for her? Twenty-two [wins] and up. What do I want? Thirty.”
Muzikar calls his job, which requires ongoing dialogue with trainers and owners, and is colored by competition from rival agents all scrambling for the best horses, “a big, big, big puzzle that has to be put together. It’s not any one thing, it’s a lot of things all at once.”
Sometimes, pieces are missing, or they fall off the table into a frustrating, head-swimming jumble on the floor.
For example, at one point during the Kentucky Derby preps this year, Castellano had to choose between Starlight Racing’s undefeated Algorithms and Union Rags, who nearly won the 2-year-old male championship last year, for the Fountain of Youth.
He and Muzikar weren’t willing to make an early commitment to Union Rags, stuck with Algorithms (along with three other good Derby prospects, including Wood winner Gemologist), and Algorithms eventually got hurt and missed his next start anyway and has been on the shelf since.
Gemologist ended up as Castellano’s Derby mount. He finished 16th, suffered a foot bruise and missed the Belmont.
The multiple permutations of potential mounts and races is what keeps Muzikar combing the condition books at night, deciding which carrots to dangle, and which to follow.
“I always second-guess myself, because that's my nature, even though I know I made the right decision,” he said. “I'm a worrier, I have anxiety. That's just me. For this profession, that's not a good way to be. Not at all.
“I’m usually in bed by 11, but it takes me awhile to settle down. I'm always thinking.”