Beating the odds
Before each race, Jorge Periban makes the sign of the cross on the foreheads of his horses, then whispers through his gold-capped teeth into their giant ears.
“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you for my life.”
These horses broke him, humiliated him, healed him.
“God help you to be safe,” he says. “God help you for keeping my family safe.”
Before each race, with more than $2.3 million in earnings as one of the rising trainers in the racing business, Jorge Periban strides proudly through the track concourse to his finish-line seat.
In doing so, he literally walks amid the cluttered garbage of his past.
The straight-backed horseman was once a stooper.
After suffering a back injury as an exercise rider, he spent five years supporting his family by rummaging through trashed betting slips tickets in hopes of finding neglected winners.
The practice is called “stooping” because the scavengers bend over to pick up the slips. But Periban did more than bend. He grabbed, he stuffed, he kicked, he bagged.
Every afternoon from 1998 to 2002, he would visit one of three Los Angeles area tracks and furtively collect hundreds of crumpled and stained tickets. Every night, he and his family would spread them across the table of his tiny apartment and compare them to winning tote boards around the country.
Two of his children’s first words were “Arlington” and “Aqueduct.”
His wife’s first ironing job was not with his shirts, but with those wrinkled tickets.
The process would take hours. Sometimes the results would net a dime. Sometimes more.
Sometimes they were so desperate, if they found a winning Los Alamitos ticket, they would rush to the racetrack to cash it before 10 p.m., then buy food for the next day.
“We would thank God for our good fortune,” said his wife, Caroline. “Then we would run, run, run to cash the ticket.”
It was risky business, because, while not illegal, stooping is against racetrack rules.
Periban thus is perhaps the first top trainer to have been banned from all three local tracks.
He was thrown out of Los Alamitos when he stuffed so many tickets in his shirt and pants, security guards questioned his shape.
“I looked like Santa Claus,” he said. “When they realized I wasn’t, they banned me.”
He was thrown out of Hollywood Park when he was caught walking away from a trash bin with two handfuls of tickets.
“I tried to tell them I was a big bettor,” he said. “I guess I didn’t look like one.”
He was thrown out of Santa Anita when guards realized that his giant stuffed white grocery bag did not contain groceries.
“What could I do?” he said. “My family needed to eat. I did what I had to do.”
All those days, in the hours before stooping, he was back in the barns schmoozing. He couldn’t ride the horses, but he could study them, pass along his knowledge as a former trainer in Mexico, rake a stall, give a tip.
Nobody knew him. Then everybody knew him.
“The training business is not about training, it’s about selling, and Jorge has this knack of making people like him,” said fellow trainer Ed Halpern. “He’s such a good person, so honest, so humble, so smart, people were drawn to him.”
Watching a horse work out one cold morning before stooping, Periban made a comment to the guy standing next to him. That guy was an owner. Periban became the horse’s trainer.
One horse, then two, then three, all in different barns, but all his, as he slowly weaned his way out of the garbage and into the backstretch.
“I would tell people, I am richer than Bob Baffert, he has just one barn, I have three!” he said.
Soon he was given enough horses that he opened his own barn, which will soon be permanently at Santa Anita, a stable populated with 30 horses and enough hope to fill a mile and a quarter.
“I once dreamed to eat,” said Periban, 49. “Now I dream to be in the Kentucky Derby.”
On Friday, out of that Santa Anita barn, he will move close to that dream with a chance to win his first stakes race with Pistol Pete Afleet in the $100,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes.
“In any business, it’s very rare that you see somebody rise from the very, very bottom into the top 10, but that’s Jorge,” Halpern said. “It’s an amazing story. It’s an American story.”
It’s a holiday story, framed today by the twinkling white tree that adorns his chilly Santa Anita barn, and the shining smile of the wife and two children that he has brought to the interview.
Their shoes were once purchased by a bettor who accidentally threw away a $2,390 exacta ticket at Hollywood Park.
Today they have iPods and cellphones and a new house on the way.
Is this going to be a good Christmas?
Jorge Periban pats his heart.
“Every day is a good Christmas,” he said.
It figures Jorge Periban’s first breaths were at a racetrack, literally, one of 18 children born to parents who lived in and operated a racetrack restaurant in Mexico City.
“From the very start, the horses have been my life,” he said.
He wanted to be a jockey, but he became too big, so he began training, and wound up with 130 horses in Mexico City before the racetrack closed.
He walked across a river near El Paso to start again. He did it a dozen times before making it. He later brought his wife and children in the back seat of a car, and settled in to become an exercise rider at Santa Anita.
“Then one morning, a horse jerked,” he said.
He wasn’t thrown, but his back was, and by nightfall he could barely walk. It would be five years before he would be working in the stables again, his back beset with herniated disks, his insurance forcing him to wait nearly two years for surgery.
Said Halpern: “What kind of guy, in that kind of condition, stoops for tickets? Nobody does that.”
Said Periban, who is now a U.S. citizen: “I will not take help from anybody. I will support my family whatever it takes.”
When his back finally healed and he began working with horses again, word of his story spread through the backstretch.
“Everyone is impressed with him and what he’s been through,” said horse owner Steve Campbell. “He is really the American dream and, as an owner, you want to be associated with that kind of man.”
Campbell and others signed up. Grooms and exercise riders followed them, flocking to a barn where the trainer showers them with gifts and affection and the sort of fairness that he was once denied.
Periban began whispering. Horses began winning. The Derby seems a distant dream, but, then again, once, so did eating.
Tonight, his family will gather around their Christmas tree and rock a statue of the baby Jesus and offer prayers for the new year.
“We will pray for people who have not been as lucky as us,” said Jorge Periban, this giant of a stooper.