Alberto Delgado sat on a bench facing his locker in the jockeys room at Bowie Race Track. It was about noon, an hour before post time, and the slender, soft-spoken apprentice jockey was thumbing through the day's racing program.
Delgado glanced at the entries for the first race, in which he would ride Sassy Talk, a 3-year-old maiden whose best finish in six starts was a third place. Delgado shook his head.
"I don't believe any rider is going to make a horse run," he said, suggesting the 15-to-1 morning odds on Sassy Talk were accurate. "First you have to have the material, then you have to know how to use it."
Delgado flipped the page to the third race and his mount Ballylinan, who had failed to win or place in 15 tries. With a light Latin accent, he made a vain attempt to pronounce the name correctly.
"I never ridden it," he said. Of Come On Roberta, his mount in the fourth, he said, "I don't know this one." He read no further, putting down the program and reaching for his royal blue racing silks.
Sassy Talk, 20 to 1 by post time, broke nicely from the gate, overtook Bold Kid in the stretch and finished second. Ballylinan, listed as 10 to 1 in the program but made 2-to-1 by bettors, trailed briefly at a half-mile and won by nearly four lengths. Come On Roberta, rated sixth in a seven-horse field, wound up third.
"This kid is the best bug (apprentice) rider I've seen here since Chris McCarron," said Joe Monahan, who, as Delgado's agent, selects the best mounts for him and in turn receives 25 percent of his earnings.
"These days, all the jockeys who are doing well have agents," Monahan said. Even those who have just turned 18.
Delgado is a somewhat atypical teen-ager: quiet, unassuming and polite. A nonsmoker and nondrinker, he celebrated his 18th birthday at Timonium with two victories and three second-place finishes.
He's awake at 5 a.m. six days a week, arrives at the track by 5:30 and begins exercising horses as soon as it's light. He'll break at about 8, then reappear in the jockeys room at 10:30 to check his weight and relax until post time. He gets back to his Laurel apartment by early evening for supper, maybe a little TV, and is in bed no later than 9.
On Sunday, the day Maryland thoroughbred tracks are dark, he's riding at Penn National. He said he'd rather be at church.
His routine, relentless and unvarying, begat success. As of Wednesday, Delgado was the nation's second-leading apprentice for 1982, trailing Troy Grable, also at Bowie, 175 victories to 158. Delgado, who spotted Grable a three-month lead, has had 216 fewer mounts, yet has earned $1,019,095 in purses -- of which jockeys get 10 percent -- to Grable's $786,282. Delgado hopes to win an Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice.
"He's a heady rider with a good feel for the horse," said jockey Charlie Cooke, an 18-year veteran. "He doesn't push a horse too soon. It's good to see a rider that has that kind of ability with such little experience."
For Delgado, it has come naturally. His work, as well as being lucrative, is his social life, and he wants nothing to upset the rather uneven balance of work and play.
"I don't really have time for myself, because I don't have any free time," he said. "This is my job, my life, my pastime."
It's also his heritage. His father, Alberto Ramos, still rides at Massachusetts' Suffolk Downs, where Delgado, at age 5, discovered horses before going back to his family in Caroline, Puerto Rico. In 1980, he left home and 10th grade to return to Suffolk Downs. There, jockey Bennie Carrasco recognized his potential and asked trainer Robert Wheeler if he was interested. Wheeler taught Delgado the finer points of riding and turned his hunch into a profit.
Wheeler signed Delgado to a three-year contract that will expire in May 1984. Delgado already has received substantial offers from California-based trainer Laz Barrera and several New York trainers, but he stands pat. He cannot ride against Wheeler but can, with permission, ride for other trainers.
Delgado became a certified apprentice in March. Apprentices are allowed to carry up to 10 pounds less than journeymen, depending on experience and number of victories, to compensate for lack of knowledge and expertise.
Delgado's finest moment came Aug. 31 when he rode five straight winners at Delaware Park. That same day, still in his jockey suit, he drove 90 minutes to Timonium and won the final three races there.
"I had planned to get to Timonium for the last two races, but I was early enough to ride in the seventh," he said. "I couldn't believe it. That kind of thing comes once in a lifetime." The feat will never be duplicated: Delaware Park officials recently announced that thoroughbred racing there has ended.
The Timonium meeting ended Labor Day with Delgado the No. 2 jockey, trailing Phil Grove by five victories although he had had 81 fewer rides.
Despite his talent, Delgado is admired, not resented, by fellow jockeys.
Said Cooke: "Usually, when an apprentice first goes out, he'll ride a few races, and after a couple of wins it goes to his head. He feels like he knows it all. It's not so with Albert. If he ever gets arrogant, I'll be amazed."
"I saw him coming along at Pimlico and knew he had potential," said Jack Kaenel, who rode 1982 Preakness winner Aloma's Ruler. "He had talent, but more important he was also willing to learn. He listens to what his people tell him."
In earlier days, Delgado was not as receptive when advised he was too tall to become a jockey, that weight eventually would catch up with him. But he has stopped growing at 5 feet 7 and, at 103 pounds, he said, he is happy with only breakfasts and steak-and-salad dinners.
His eating may be the only thing affected by success.
"I don't do this for the money," Delgado said. "I do it because I enjoy it. If I saw someone I hadn't seen in a long time, they'd see I haven't changed -- I'm still the same guy. I don't want to go to New York where all the money is. I don't want to be anything special."
He's not succeeding.