Mike Vinci, Arlington Park & Hawthorne Racecourse
Teamster Valets Perform Year-Round Daily Doubles
Local 727 Members Prep Jockeys, Horses at Area Racecourses

Horse racing is in Mike Vinci’s blood.

His father was a horse trainer for 50 years, so Vinci began spending time around racetracks at a very young age. The Berwyn native became a jockey and rode his first race at Arlington Park in 1968, but his jockey career was cut short after just three years when he was injured in a frightening fall.

“I was riding and the horse broke his leg and he fell on top of me and crushed my foot,” said Vinci, now 63. “I got lucky that it was only my foot. After I recovered, I started doing this job, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Thirty-five years later, Vinci, a jockey valet, said he still enjoys coming to work every single day.

Teamsters Local 727 represents the 12 jockey valets (pronounced va-let) at Arlington Park and Hawthorne Racecourse. Valets are responsible for preparing both jockeys and horses for racing, as well as cleaning and organizing their equipment.

What do you like most about your job?
“I love being around the horses, and I’ve worked with some really great riders over the years. Most of the riders I’ve made friends with have all retired, but I’m still here.”

What does a typical day look like for you?
“The day begins at 9 a.m. and ends around 6:30 p.m. On a typical day, I’ll prep my jockeys and saddle their horses for about 15 races. Valets work with the same 3-5 jockeys each season. During my busiest stretch when I was working with the top five riders at the track, I was saddling about 30 horses a day. It was hectic, but I really had a lot of fun.”

What other duties do you have as a jockey valet?
“A lot of our work takes place in the jock’s room. We’ll cover the jockey’s helmet with a colored cap to match their racing silks and put their goggles in place. Arlington has Polytrack, so jockeys only need two pairs of goggles. On a regular dirt track, depending on the conditions, jockeys need three or four pairs of goggles to get through a race. The goggles are really thin and can be stacked on top of one another. When one pair gets too dirty to see through, the jockey will flip it down around their neck with their thumb. They do it so quickly, you can hardly even notice.”

“Also, after jockeys weigh in before each race, and we weight the saddles. For example, if the weight requirement for a race is 124 pounds and a jockey weighs 120 pounds, the valet will put four pounds of lead weights in the saddle. The top four finishers then have to be weighed again right after the race.”

What work do you do outside of the jock’s room?
“Before the race, we go to the paddock to help saddle the horse with the trainer. After the race, we remove the saddle and take the jockey’s equipment back to the jock’s room to clean it and start the process all over again for the next race.”

You and the other valets split your working year between Arlington Park and Hawthorne Racecourse. What is that like?
“It used to be that we’d finish at Arlington on Saturday and then start at Hawthorne on Sunday, so we’d have to pack up all our stuff and get to the next park in a hurry. Now we usually get a few days in between to make the adjustment. It’s much better that way.”

I understand you were working on July 31, 1985, when a fire completely destroyed Arlington Park’s grandstand and clubhouse.
“I was one of three valets who went into the jock’s room to try and save their equipment. We were working as fast as we could to save anything and everything until the firefighters told us we had to get out of there because the fire was spreading. The way they rebuilt this place? Wow. They sure did a beautiful job.”

Do you have a favorite horse that you’ve worked with over the years?
“I had the honor of saddling Cigar during the Arlington Citation Challenge in ’96, which was his record-tying 16th straight win. What an incredible horse. Just great. He retired after that season and lives at Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions in Lexington. I really want to go visit him someday. I’ve never been to Churchill Downs, either. I’d love to go to the Kentucky Derby, but it probably won’t be until after I retire since I’m always working on Derby Day here.”

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