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O’Bryan has right pedigree for a long run

One can carry family togetherness to extremes, which is what George O’Bryan has done.

He is 87 now, retired for 20 years from the business of being a jockey agent. He lives in Arcadia, with his wife, Mercedes, whom he met at Santa Anita, where she was an usherette.

From that union came a son, Craig, who also became a jockey agent, and a daughter, Shannon, who was not named after the city in Ireland, but after a racehorse.

From Craig, 58, of Monrovia, and former wife, Stacey, came two sons, one of whom, Brandon, 20, of Huntington Beach, is now in his second year of -- you guessed it -- being a jockey agent. The other son, Kyle, 18, appears to have no interest in horse racing and is probably not in the will.

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Oh yes, Craig met Stacey at the racetrack, where she and her sister, Jessica, still run the family on-track ambulance business at the local tracks.

Jockey agents fall into that category of the great unknowns who make racing go. They get up early in the morning, hang around the track and the barns, and carry with them schedules of upcoming races called condition books that tell them which horses are running where and when and who might need a jockey.

They chat and schmooze and network and hope to get the jockey they represent on the best horse they can find. For that, they get 20% to 25% of the jockey’s winnings, which is usually 10% of the owner’s purse. And in this way, they pay the bills, feed their families and become an integral part of the racing product.

Some feed their families quite well, although the norm is a decent living and more Chevys than Cadillacs. Not that the right jockey can’t afford a Porsche or two.

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For example, Garrett Gomez led the country with about $23 million in winnings last year. His 10% would have brought him $2.3 million, and his agent’s 25% would have brought him $575,000.

For Gomez’s agent, and several others, that makes those barns gold mines.

It is a world of Damon Runyon characters, a business that operates without contracts and changes partners more often than Zsa Zsa Gabor. A handshake agreement works until it doesn’t.

Craig lost Corey Nakatani last week and picked up Aaron Gryder a couple of days later.

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“Corey and I had lunch,” Craig said. “He said he decided to go in a different direction.”

One of Brandon’s first clients was a jockey named Billy Anton Georgi, who once had his foot slip out of the stirrup and, unlike a veteran rider who would have got it back in, finished the race that way, winning it.

Must have been a decent rider to do that?

“Don’t know, he fired me,” Brandon said.

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The modern era is nothing like the old days, if George O’Bryan is to be believed.

George was nicknamed “Black Heart” by a trainer named Moody Jolley, who had concluded that George’s riding style resembled those who had “white teeth but a black heart.”

He started with a short stint as a rider at Longacres near Seattle, where he said you learned to tug on the other guy’s saddlecloth at the start, or pull on the other horse’s tail, or bump the horse you were racing while he was in the air for better disruptive effect.

“Got those cameras now,” George said. “Can’t do that stuff.”

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Among others, George had the book for Laffit Pincay Jr., Don Pierce, Ralph Neves and Manny Ycaza, all racing legends.

“Neves fell in a race,” George said, “and they thought he was dead. Even announced it on the radio. Took him to the morgue. He woke up, got up and walked out.”

He also had a jockey named Billy Pearson, who won the 1950s TV show “The $64,000 Question” by answering questions in his chosen category. No, not horses or sports. Art.

“He ended up marrying the Goose Girl from the infield at Hollywood Park,” George said.

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Craig called the most exciting experience of his life the 1983 Kentucky Derby, won by his Eddie Delahoussaye on Sunny’s Halo. Delahoussaye had also won for Craig the year before on Gato Del Sol, but Craig hadn’t been there.

Craig worked the book for Gary Stevens for several years and when Stevens retired, Craig flew to Churchill Downs for the retirement party. His girlfriend, Aron Tapac, who didn’t grow up around horse racing, was mystified at Craig’s good mood.

“Let me get this straight,” she said, as they boarded a red-eye flight on Thanksgiving night. “We are flying across the country to celebrate the fact that you no longer have a source of income?”

Soon, Craig had a new rider and, before he knew it, a son who was adding a third generation to the O’Bryan horse-agent lore.

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“I didn’t know I wanted to do this,” said Brandon, who is currently doing fine with Alonso Quinonez’s book. “But then, I guess I was following my dad around when I was 8 or 9.”

Craig remembered.

“Had his own little condition book,” he said. That triggered a wide smile from Grandpa George.

--

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.


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