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Saratoga: Jockey agent Soulis playing with the big boys

Wednesday, August 14, 2013
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— How many jockey agents watch the races from box seats with their parents?

How many jockey agents work for a person who is old enough to BE their parent?

Until further research is available, the answer will have to be stuck on one, and that was 25-year-old Nick Soulis enjoying the day at Saratoga Race Course in section H with his folks, Steve and Meg, and older brother Steve on a beautiful Sunday three days ago.

The Albany Academy graduate, who moved with his family from Guilderland to Coeymans in 1996, began representing 44-year-old journeyman Jose Espinoza last winter, and is revelling in his first season working the meet among the sharks at his hometown track.

He and Espinoza had a very productive first week at the Spa, enhanced by a win by Amberjack in the New York Derby at Finger Lakes on July 20 to set up a shot at the $250,000 Big Apple Triple bonus for that colt when he runs in the $150,0000 Albany at Saratoga next Wednesday.

Named for a gamefish populating the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, Amberjack will be the subject of a feeding frenzy in the coming days.

The amiable young Nick Soulis, who played “all across the offensive and all across the defensive line” for the Academy football team, will be in the middle of it.

Amberjack has had three different riders in his last three starts, including Saratoga meet leader Joel Rosario, and Soulis would like nothing better than to secure the ride for Espinoza in the Albany. It won’t be easy.

“It’s very competitive, very cutthroat,” Soulis said. “Everybody’s going for the same type of horses, everybody wants to win races. You establish relationships with people and you hope that that’s enough to ride some of the better horses.

“You work very hard in the mornings, and you’re always there for your people.”

Soulis grew up at Saratoga Race Course, where his father, a former trainer/owner of harness horses, has had the same clubhouse box for almost 20 years.

Nick Soulis was so taken by the sport that he studied in the Equine Administration program at the University of Louisville and worked an internship in the racing secretary’s office for NYRA for a few years.

These were endeavors that did not have direct contact with and observation of the horses, though, so Soulis decided to try his hand at being an agent last year, just to shift from the frontside to the beloved backside.

“I just loved the horses,” he said. “I loved being around them and the backside. It’s a different type of lifestyle than most people are accustomed to. You work a lot, and sometimes, it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

In Soulis’ case, that drive and desire at least got him a shot to represent Espinoza on the recommendation of veteran agent Tony Micallef.

Trainers Christophe Clement and John Terranova, among others, were looking for a jockey who had a solid reputation in turf races to ride regularly for them at the Tampa Bay Downs meet last winter, and that provided an opportunity for Espinoza.

Soulis picked up Espinoza’s book and went to Florida to begin his new career, while Micallef concentrated on building business for rising star Irad Ortiz Jr.

“Everybody likes him, he’s a pretty good handicapper and has an eye for the horses,” Micallef said. “Being young and not knowing everybody, it’ll take time, but he’s doing a hell of a job.

“It’s actually a great combination. Jose is smart, and Nick is sharp. They make a good team. This kid knows his stuff and doesn’t have any enemies, so it’s a fresh start.”

“He has a very good memory for the horses,” Espinoza said. “He can remember any kind of horse, from the past eight years, 10 years, and I really like him.

“In Tampa, we had to make a deal with Christophe Clement and John Terranova, and he was kind of young for that, but after a couple weeks, he was on top of it.”

“He’s always been a real nice guy to work with, easy to talk to . . . just basically nice to do business with,” Terranova said. “Obviously, he’s got a love for the game. It’s nice to see him with a rider who’s doing a little something for him.”

The word “nice” is a two-sided coin in the agent business.

You need the ability to coax and sell people without being overtly disingenuous, but also to do what’s necessary to get work for your client. It’s a tricky balance between politics and the harsh bottom line.

Soulis’ father embraced a suggested parallel between his son’s football exploits at Academy and his burgeoning career as an agent.

“They’re both sports-related, and the competition’s what drives you,” Steve Soulis said.

“I told him, ’You’ve got to always treat people courteous and polite in this business, stick to your princ­iples and good things will happen to you.’ He’s in business for himself.

“I’ve been self-employed for 30 years as a real estate appraiser. All businesses are cutthroat. I think what separates the more successful people from the less successful people is you have to have knowledge and the smarts, but more importantly, you’ve got to have the passion. He’s got it.”

He’ll need it at Saratoga.

The jockey colony is the best in North America, and even within that framework there’s a separate structure that tapers at the top to get most of the good horses.

It leaves a veteran like Espinoza, well established as a classy, smart, professional rider, and his young agent with a substantial challenge to find their place.

“It’s very hard here,” Micallef said. “If you’re not in the top five, no matter how good you are, you’ll struggle. Joel, Johnny V [Velazquez] and Javier [Castellano], those three run the show, and the rest of us are fighting for the rest of it.”

Nick Soulis and Espinoza are fighting to get another shot on Amberjack, who is trained by Mike Hushion. Ultimately, that will be decided by owner John Fort of Peachtree Stable.

In a typical jockey-agent arrangement, the rider gets 10 percent of the purse, and the agent gets 25 percent of that, so there’s plenty at stake should Soulis and Espinoza get the mount on Amberjack in the Albany.

The likely scenario is that they’ll have to settle for the one big bite they got in the race at Finger Lakes, which took place on a Saturday when the top riders had more important commitments on the opening weekend of Saratoga.

The following day, Espinoza won on Happy Fella, who paid $58.50, as Soulis celebrated his first Saratoga win with his family in their Section H box.

“There’s no thrill like winning a race, and then to win one at Sar­atoga, where I grew up, it’s great,” Soulis said.

“I don’t think the grind will get to me. Things are never going to be perfect in any business. You just keep going at it every day, being here every morning. There’s nothing I’d rather wake up to and do.”

 
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