The Mig Finally Lands the Big One
Photo: Wally Skalij
Richard Migliore and Desert Code after winning the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
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It was an ordinary rectangular table, with three microphones and a single bottle of water atop it. Behind the table were several chairs and the familiar Breeders’ Cup backdrop. For the past 25 years, Richie Migliore has dreamed of sitting at that table, taking an occasional drink of water and speaking into a microphone, answering questions from the media about how he won his first Breeders’ Cup race.

 

Migliore could have lived that dream in the very first Classic in 1984 when he piloted Wild Again to an impressive victory in the Meadowlands Cup, but when Breeders’ Cup day came he was replaced by Pat Day. It would be the first of many such missed opportunities.

 

If everyone knew the pain, both physical and mental, Migliore has had to endure in order to get to sit at that table they would have stood up and cheered after the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, a race that was added to the event just this year. In fact, many did.

 

Migliore has often said, “You never know in this game.” Winning his first Breeders’ Cup race on a 36-1 shot for trainer David Hofmans, who helped him get started when he came to California last year, bears that out.

 

Migliore’s untimely injuries throughout his career are legendary in New York, where he’s been known simply as The Mig ever since he broke all of Steve Cauthen’s records as an apprentice rider in 1981. He strongly believed his time in the national spotlight finally was going to happen in 2005 when he was scheduled to ride Artie Schiller in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. He had worked long and hard with the horse, along with trainer Jimmy Jerkens, to get him ready mentally for the Mile. The horse was primed to run the race of his life. It was all about to happen, just as he had dreamed. But a freak accident in the paddock six days before the race resulted in his fracturing a bone in his leg. Forced to miss the race, he had to watch with bittersweet emotions as Artie Schiller won the Mile, helping to launch Garrett Gomez’ career into orbit. He was happy for the horse and for Jerkens, but that did not lessen the pain in his gut.

 

This past summer, Migliore, suffering the angst of being away from his wife Carmela and their four kids, decided that being a father at this stage of his life was more important than chasing the rainbow that had eluded him for a quarter of a century. So, instead of remaining in California, where he had scored his first $1-million stakes victory in the previous year’s Pacific Classic (gr. I), he returned home to New York and the trainers who had all but driven him away, many feeling his body was too old and battered to do their horses justice.

 

So, The Mig returned home to where the fans still loved him. But he knew he had to somehow convince the trainers through his passion and hard work that at the age off 44 there still was a youthful flame that burned inside him and that his skills and desire made him a positive force on a horse’s back.

 

The first couple of months had been a bit of a struggle, despite having ridden numerous winners for some of the top trainers. But little had changed, as prime mounts were given to other jockeys.

 

Then, just prior to the Breeders’ Cup, Migliore received a phone call from Hofmanns asking him if he’d ride Desert Code   in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. The Mig and Desert Code had been a formidable team, winning five races together, including the Baldwin (gr. III), Affirmed (gr. III), and Joe Hernandez Stakes, while placing in five other stakes. Desert Code had come off a layoff in the Morvich Handicap (gr. III), finishing seventh under Gomez, but lost a shoe in the race. Who better to ride him in the Breeders’ Cup than his old friend?

 

And ride him he did, with a fury and drive that came from the heart and gut. Although still ninth at the eighth pole, Desert Code was flying. The Mig could taste victory. This was it, the moment he’d been waiting for his whole life. The only horse that stood in his way was the top-class Godolphin colt Diabolical, who was himself making a winning move under Frankie Dettori. But on this day, the stars finally were shining down on Migliore, and he and Desert Code stormed past Diabolical in the closing strides to win by a half-length. The Mig had won his long-awaited Breeders’ Cup and his first ever spotlight in the center ring. There have been few victories more popular.

 

There was no way such a moment would come without the tears welling up or the words having to force their way out. Migliore, his faced flushed with excitement and emotion, let out his pent up feelings by continuously pumping his fist and lashing out with short jabs that probably felt like a Mike Tyson left hook.

 

“Part of me wants to feel euphoric and part of me wants to cry,” Mig said shortly after the race. “I’ve been on the ground so many times and clawed my way back up it gets so overwhelming. It’s amazing. It’s this game; I love this game.”

 

Carmela has endured so much sharing her husband’s frustrations and witnessing his spills, including the one that came within centimeters of leaving him paralyzed for life and was so horrific it was featured on the TV show “Rescue 911. Another serious injury resulted in screws and plates having to be inserted to hold his arm together. But each time he was determined to come back as good as ever.

 

“I pray for the Hollywood story,” Carmela said shortly before the Breeders’ Cup. “If Richie were to win a Breeders’ Cup race you’d need a defibrillator to restart my heart. They better have one in the grandstand.”

 

Unfortunately, for Carmela, she wasn’t in the grandstand. Instead of being at Santa Anita to join in her husband’s celebration after so many years of waiting, she was a few minutes up the road at the Santa Anita Inn watching by herself on TV, suffering from a severe bacterial infection in her sinus.

 

“My nose had swelled three times its size, and the swelling went into my eyes, and I was shivering while I was screaming at the TV, watching Richie win,” Carmela said. “I had told Richie to go to the track and I would get some sleep and take Motrin and make it out for the Classic. I was still shivering, and when I got there I sat on a park bench under a tree outside the paddock and didn’t see Richie until he left the jock’s room to go ride Fairbanks in the Classic. I felt so bad not being there for the Turf Sprint and could not stop crying about it, but I didn’t want it make it about me. After the race, Tracy Pletcher (Todd’s wife) was fully expecting to see me and called saying, ‘Why aren’t you the winner’s circle. What happened?’ I think she thought I collapsed somewhere. When we landed back in New York I had a 103-degree fever.

 

“I think it’s fitting and poetic that it was this scrappy little red horse that gave Richie his first Breeders’ Cup win. He has been so good to us, and he’s been one of my favorite horses ever since Richie first got on him. I love this horse. Maybe I’m personifying the race a little bit to fit my emotions, but I think the race was a perfect example of why Richie is the rider I know him to be. This horse digs down deep and has got grit and determination. Is he the world’s fastest turf sprinter? We know he’s not, but he’s talented and honest and has always run well for Richie.”

 

Watching the race, Carmela could sense something good about to happen when she saw Desert Code beginning to pick his way through the field.

 

“I could see that he was starting to run,” she said. “At first, I felt he was going to get third. But then he set his sights on Diabolical, and I could tell he was going to nail him. He wasn’t going to be second; this wasn’t going to be Magic Weisner, who came up inches short (in the 2002 Preakness Stakes). This time he was going to get it.”

 

The cruel memories of Artie Schiller and the missed opportunity had finally begun to dissipate. Thoughts of what might have been turned to thoughts of what was destined to be.

 

“Artie Schiller and the racing gods were so cruel,” Carmela said. “I still feel to this day if I tried to pitch that to a book publisher or movie producer they’d say it was too made up. The cruel joke of that is something we still can’t get over. We knew from the day he broke his maiden this was going to be the horse Richie was looking for. Belmont was home, the horse loved the course, and he was never better. That was Richie’s horse; that was Richie’s day. It seems every time Richie was getting to where the gate was about to open, these injuries came and set him back.”

 

When Migliore’s business in New York continued to suffer, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to California and search for a fresh start.

 

“When Ron (agent Ron Anderson) told him to come to California, Richie said, ‘You know, for the first time in 23 years it would be nice not to freeze my butt off all winter. Maybe Ron can jump start me there, because I’ve gone dead here, and I still have a lot of ride in me.’

 

“When Richie pulled out of the driveway the day he left, I cried like a baby. I was devastated. But he was filled with so much hope and promise. I couldn’t believe he was being forced to leave New York. He probably enjoyed his time in California, but the kids are growing up fast. From the time he went to California to the time he came back Joey (his oldest son) changed dramatically. Your kids are only around in high school once and you don’t want to miss those days.”

 

One of the trainers who took Migliore in and gave him choice mounts was Hofmanns, who put him on a fast, talented young colt named Desert Code. The colt and Mig hit it off right from the start.

 

“I’m so happy for Mr. Hofmanns, to see him get rewarded for all the hard work,” Carmela said. “He’s one of the honest guys and he, along with Bill Spawr, believed in Richie and put him on all his horses. Dick Mandella also helped Richie get started. So, if we had to trade Artie Schiller for Desert Code I’d gladly take it, and maybe that’s why Richie had to back out of my driveway that day. Maybe there was a plan with the racing gods after all.”

 

A portent of things to come occurred earlier in the year when Migliore was awarded the prestigious George Woolf Award from his peers that honors riders whose careers and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing.

 

Prior to the Breeders; Cup, Migliore said prophetically, “Sometimes things are meant to be and you just have to go with it. Odd things happen in life.”

 

When asked about his more fancied Breeders’ Cup mount Fairbanks running the Classic as a longshot instead of in the Marathon as the likely favorite or second choice, Migliore supported the decision, but added that he would have been just as happy riding him in the Marathon.

 

“To be honest with you, I just want to win,” he said. “I don’t care what race it is. Forget the money, forget the graded status, I just want to go there and win whatever kind of race it is. That’s what this game is about. You just got to win.”

 

Migliore has always been a winner to everyone who has known him. But now he is a Breeders’ Cup winner. The Hollywood story has a happy ending after all.

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