If it wasn’t for a bum knee, April 2 wouldn’t have been retirement day for 48-year-old Billy Troilo.
It’s not easy to walk away from a career—even a dangerous one. But he did, after 2,514 trips to the winner’s circle and purse earnings of $27.5 million in 28 years as a jockey.
Troilo won 80 stakes, only one of them graded, and that win came last year with a pickup mount. He won 10 riding titles, and most of his victories—1,769—came at Turfway Park and River Downs, the two tracks that make for an almost year-round circuit in the Cincinnati metropolitan area.
As a rider, Troilo wasn’t known for flash, but for consistency and dependability. Like many other jockeys, he didn’t achieve everything he set out to do, but when the gig was up, he had accomplished plenty. There were no Kentucky Derby (gr. I) or Breeders’ Cup wins, but there was a lasting impression.
“We all set out with high goals, but it’s tough,” Troilo said before the closing-day program at Turfway. “My career has always been consistent, and I’m so proud of that. People trusted me and depended on me, and I think that’s why they rode me.”
For Troilo, it wasn’t just about winning races. Behind the scenes, primarily in the jockeys’ room, he was an unofficial leader—a guy the younger riders looked to for guidance, and one that sometimes made racetrack executives uncomfortable when he took a stand on issues.
“It was a privilege to give opinions to younger riders,” Troilo said. “I wanted to help the younger riders to make races safer. If you’re not headstrong like a cowboy, it makes the whole race safer. You’ll live to fight another day.”
Troilo and two other riders on the circuit—Jeff Johnston and Rodney Prescott—were known for trying to make a difference. Their efforts weren’t always well-received.
Johnston, who retired a few years ago, is now a regional manager for the Jockeys’ Guild and last year was kicked off the grounds at River Downs for pushing safety-related issues. Prescott got the boot from River Downs several years ago—he’s back riding there—for making noise about the racing surface at a time when he was leading rider.
Troilo also got into it with River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian but left before he was asked to leave. He decided to ride year-round in Kentucky.
“I have no hard feelings,” Troilo said. “Our safety concerns were addressed to the fullest. You can’t put a price tag on someone’s life. All we ask for is a safe racing surface.”
Troilo is a straight shooter. He never ducked questions from the media and usually spoke his mind.
Case in point: When asked if things are better now than when he started riding, Troilo said: “On some issues safety has improved, but I don’t see where a whole lot has changed in 28 years. Anything the industry does to improve the safety of horses does filter down to us, but when you’re dealing with a 1,000-pound horse, there aren’t a whole lot of safety issues you can address.”
Troilo once produced pairs of goggles shattered by frozen dirt clods during winter racing on the old dirt surface at Turfway. Sometimes, four pairs weren’t enough. It was a difficult trade-off, because if he didn’t ride the winter meet, his income was greatly reduced.
For Troilo and other riders, a few mounts a week in Florida or in Louisiana weren't options when they could ride the card every day in Kentucky.
“It was never easy,” Troilo said of the winter grind in Northern Kentucky. “You never really learn to accept the cold and the track conditions. But you have to get a mindset: Focus on your horse, not on what’s going on around you.”
He went out on a good note, with a victory in the sixth race and a near-miss with the final mount of his career, appropriately at Turfway, where his wife, Mary, has worked for more than 25 years. A group of fans gathered to wish him well. He insists he’s not going ride again.
“I’m healthy other than my knee, which needs a replacement,” Troilo said. “I’m young, so I’m looking into a few options, but coming back isn’t one of them. My real estate license is active, and I’ll probably try to become a racing official. I plan to go to stewards’ school in November.
“I want to stay in the industry. Being in it this long, I can’t imagine not being in it.”
Tom LaMarra is news editor of The Blood-Horse.