Photo: Eclipse Sportswire - Sue Kawcynski
By Eddie Donnally, Author: “Ride the White Horse.”
When Hall of Fame Jockey Jerry Bailey is living in South Florida, don’t dare call him on a Thursday evening.
He’s at his home meeting. Only it isn't at home, but takes place in a building with about 125 other alcoholics. Never mind that he’s easily one of the best race riders of modern times, or that he’s become the nation’s face for jockeys when his impish smile, tucked in below a non-existent hair line, and lights up the NBC airwaves from coast to coast. On Thursdays, you get voice mail.
His battle was chronicled in an insightful and totally transparent autobiography entitled “Against the Odds: Riding for my Life,” which he co-authored in 2006 with USA Today’s Tom Pedulla. Eight years later his saga continues. Recovery is like a racetrack. It doesn't have an end.
Bailey’s upbringing as the son of a successful El Paso, Texas, dentist with two older sisters and a stay-at-home mom rings of Leave it to Beaver. He grew up riding his own pony, and for a time, his dad owned Thoroughbreds and hustled his mounts. At age 17 in 1974, Bailey won two of his first three races at nearby Sunland Park. Hardly the stuff one supposes would lead to alcoholism.
“I am thoroughly convinced that the disease of alcoholism or drug addiction does not discriminate,” he said recently from his home in Davie, Florida. “It doesn’t care if you have a degree from Harvard and a hundred million dollars in the bank, or if you didn’t get out of eighth grade and have ten cents. It doesn’t matter.”
Drinking beer with friends at 15 quickly eventually segued into partying at bars with other jockeys. His blond hair stretched to his neck, his bell bottoms stretched to his platform shoes, and his drinking stretched into the next morning.
“When I came around in the early 70's, it was a game that not only accepted alcohol, but encouraged it to a degree,” he recalls. “The more fearless you were from the gate to the wire and the crazier you were, the more people thought of you as a rider. So it was a career and atmosphere that really fostered addictive personalities. I was mired in mediocrity … sure I could reach tremendous heights, but wasn’t willing to put in the work to do it. My priority was not my business but monkey business.”
He won his first stakes at Ak-Sar-Ben a year after he started riding, bought a new red Cadillac from an uncle, and soon dangling over his rear-view mirror was a pair of fluffy red dice. The dice rolled. He lost. Beer became vodka.
“(Vodka) is insidious,” he would write years later. “It creeps up on you like a thief in the night, and I never saw it approaching. I drank vodka and 7-Up, vodka and orange juice, vodka and damn near anything.”
Yet, Bailey was a success. In 1977 he won four $100,000 stakes at Gulfstream Park. In 1982 he topped the money won standings at Keeneland and a few weeks later rode his first Derby mount, finishing 17th aboard New Discovery. The next year, he arrived on the Hialeah backstretch to work Grade 1 winner Tap Shoes for trainer Horatio Luro, after a long night of using his elbows to hold down a bar. His windbreaker was inside out.
The following spring, at the same Florida track, he spotted a beauty named Suzee Chulick making her way through the grandstands, followed by a camera crew. Minutes away from riding Time for A Change in the Flamingo Stakes, he ogled the tall blond with a cover girl face and figure. Always smart, Bailey knew she’d be interviewing the winner. Riding as if his life was on the line—and as it turned out, it may have been—he won by a head.
He returned to the jock’s room with her telephone number in hand, waving it over his head like a winning lottery ticket. They dated, with Bailey even visiting while she taught a religious school class. But his trophy mentality reigned and when he finally asked her to marry him with the condition she sign a prenup, she ran off like a riderless racehorse.
Months of apologies left on her answering machine somehow restored the relationship. A Long Island Catholic monsignor agreed to perform the marriage ceremony, and they set the date, December 17, 1985—a Tuesday—so Bailey wouldn’t have to miss a day of racing. (Inauspiciously, at his bachelor’s party he became so inebriated, he at one point belligerently refused to relinquish his car keys to his future father-in-law.) Suzee, who that week had turned down a lucrative Boston newscasting job, chose to go through with the wedding anyway; Bailey rewarded her confidence by spending much of their Aruba honeymoon drinking.
The summer before, he had been riding for trainer Mack Miller and the powerful Rokeby Stable. Bailey swept the Metropolitan, Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps with Rokeby's Fit to Fight—a Grade I triple play that took his career to a new level. His ego grew along with it and he began informing trainers of his losing Belmont mounts that their horses belonged upstate at Finger Lakes. Consumed with partying in bars (with what he called “yes men”), Bailey’s life was becoming a bottle cork bobbing along on a river of vodka. Yet, to talk to others about his problem was to admit he had one. He was afflicted with what he called “terminal uniqueness.”
“Most difficult for me was the thought that nobody understood. In my mind, I was so unique, no one would understand me, so why even try talking about my problem? Nobody like me had my problem, so how could I expect anybody to understand me? And if I couldn’t expect anybody to understand, why bother trying to talk to them about my problem? It was the way my alcoholic mind worked.”
Marriage did not stop his drinking and as his mind fogged, his body slowed. Though Miller had become a valued mentor, he was, as are most good trainers, an astute observer. In 1986 when two of Bailey’s mounts for Miller were disqualified in major races, Miller began using other jockeys. Bailey quickly hooked up with trainer John Veitch and, for a while, his career never missed a beat. Yet, like many alcoholics, he continued to tell himself a lie that only he could believe. His “terminal uniqueness” had become full blown denial.
“Why would anyone get up at 6:00 a.m. and start drinking—cause all kinds of personal problems, do things that will ruin their career—and wake up the next day and do it all over again if they were thinking clearly? They wouldn’t. As an alcoholic I didn’t think right,” he admits now. “It’s a disease that tells you, you don’t have a disease.”
With Suzee, he became verbally abusive, demanding dinner be on the table when he walked in the door, telling her she was getting too fat or too skinny—too this or too that—and sometimes blowing up and throwing things in her direction. Nothing seemed to please him.
“I had reached the point where drinking wasn’t fun anymore. It was a lot of fun when I started out. Now it was painful, a beat down. I was losing my marriage, losing my career … and my self-respect was next to go.”
At one point, Suzee left and went to her brother’s house in St. Petersburg, something Jerry described as fine because he could now drink without being hassled. But as weeks stretched on, he admitted to himself, perhaps for the first time, he might have a problem. Yet, he worried that reports of rehab might damage his career. He promised Suzee he’d stop drinking and she returned home, but during a picnic outing soon after, he verbally lit into her in front of others. When she checked his glass, supposedly filled with soda … she found straight vodka. Bailey’s “terminal uniqueness” was getting a headache.
“It was an emotional roller coaster that I’m sure most who are married to addictive people will understand,” she recently explained. “Those times when they are feeling guilty about how they acted—or what they can remember of how they acted—the sweet day-after behavior can be golden and reminiscent of the real person behind the alcoholic. That golden part keeps you coming back … makes you hang in there.”
"Suzee tried to tell me, but I didn’t listen,” Bailey added. “I lost mount after mount, trainer after trainer, and it wasn’t until I was going to lose Suzee that I took it seriously. And even then I wasn’t sure I could stop.”
In the fall of 1987, Bailey visited a Long Island priest who suggested he attend the aforementioned church AA meeting. He sat in the far back and when members began describing how alcohol destroyed their lives, he left. His “terminal uniqueness” was by now in intensive care, and he spent several weeks telling Suzee he was attending meetings when, in fact, he was drinking in bars. Yet … something had happened at that first meeting.
“I got to the door and they were all laughing and having a good time. I remember thinking—‘I don’t want to stop drinking, but I want to be happy like those people.’ It stuck in my mind even though I left. Again, that’s the mind of an alcoholic. But there was enough of a seed planted that I saw some kind of hope.”
The bottom was approaching as fast as the sidewalk below the ten-story building he had jumped from. Yet on the way down, he was considering a parachute. Determined not to drink during a December skiing vacation in Colorado, and later in the Cayman Islands, he failed miserably. Suzee tried to talk him into rehab, but Bailey continued to fear for his career. She left at Christmas to visit her parents, only to return to find him passed out on a couch, the gin bottle she had marked to check on his drinking, filled with water. His “terminal uniqueness” had entered hospice.
At long last, he decided to get help. A friend suggested a six-week outpatient program run by Terry Grant. Bailey stayed three months.
“Hi, I’m Jerry and I’m an alcoholic,” he would say. It was that simple, yet that difficult. He learned to take a scathing look inside his soul … to unload the burden of perfection and take up what he called “good enough.” His “terminal uniqueness” at long last passed away. The unpredictable, ego-challenging messiness of life would no longer be a reason to get numb.
It wasn’t easy. When the three first met, Grant informed Suzee that she, too, would have to recover, and he recommended she attend Al-Anon, a program for spouses of addicts. The woman whose profound faith had kept her hanging in there for so long, abruptly took off to sort it all out.
“I drank a bit but never even smoked a joint,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I’ve lived a relatively clean life, and now I have to go to meetings?’ I wanted to leave. I had skid marks, so I headed to California.”
“There’s actually a good reason why spouses need a program," Bailey explained. “I’d inflicted damage on Suzee and everybody close to me. They have to recover as well. For them it doesn’t involve drinking, but they still have to recover.”
Suzee returned and entered Al-anon, and that same year Bailey won his first million-dollar race on the prophetically named Home at Last in Louisiana Downs’ Super Derby. Celebrating with a drink was not an option. Terrified of slipping, he insisted Suzee travel with him to major races. In addition to regular AA meetings, the Baileys began attending Mass.
“I am not a Bible thumper,” Bailey says, “but I’d tried to quit drinking on my own and couldn’t. When I turned my life over to God, all of a sudden I quit. That was enough for me.”
Suzee termed her husband’s recovery “a miracle.” At the same time, they prayed that God had another one in his back pocket. “For me, after years of marriage, we were not only dealing with Jerry’s drinking but with infertility. It was like bam! Bam! Either one of those could try a relationship.”
Asked in his program to name his greatest fear, Bailey wrote: “Never being able to father a child.” They tried fertility drugs. Nothing. They prayed and even had a friend visiting Rome arrange for a novena, a set of special prayers, to be said there. He returned with a blessed set of rosary beads. Bailey carried them everywhere. On November 22, 1992, their son, Justin Daniel Bailey was born, and Suzee had her second “miracle.”
No longer bearing the weight of alcohol and arrogance, but girded with a confidence born of dedication to the craft, a fledging faith, and a loving family waiting for him after work, Bailey’s career soared during the 1990s.
In the 15 years between 1974 through 1988, his mounts won $36.1 million. During his first four seasons without alcohol, Bailey’s mounts banked $38.5-million. From 1990 through 2005, horses he rode earned $251.7-million. There were two scores in each of the three Triple Crown races, a record 15 Breeders' Cup victories, 16 consecutive wins aboard the great Cigar, triumphs in four of the first 10 Dubai World Cups, and a record seven Eclipse Awards as outstanding rider.
Bailey served as Jockeys’ Guild President; his fellow riders honored him with the prestigious George Woolf Award; and in 1995 he slipped on the green jacket worn by Racing Hall of Fame inductees. He retired from a legendary race-riding career in 2006 with his mounts earning $295-million, second all-time only to Pat Day’s $298-million. His single-season earnings record of $23.5-million established in 2003 was not surpassed until 2012—when Ramon Dominquez required 1,398 races to do so compared to Bailey’s 776. Then as smoothly s Bailey had climbed aboard champion racehorses, he climbed into the broadcast booth.
These days, the Baileys live a comfortable life, six months in South Florida and the same in Saratoga. Both do charitable work. She has been active with child welfare programs, including playing an instrumental role in developing the Belmont Park daycare facility “Anna’s House.” He has been involved with the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, and is also readily available to speak in confidence to those in the Thoroughbred industry battling addiction.
“The only way I keep it is to give it away,” he’ll tell you. “The only way I can stay sober is to reach out and try to help another alcoholic. To help others and to talk about my own alcoholism helps me.
“At meetings, I remember what it was like when I did drink. People usually relapse when they stop going. You stop hearing the things you need to hear in terms of pain, suffering, and the sickness of the disease from others who just came in. If I can remember 20 years ago when I had to take a drink to survive, then there’s a good chance I’m not going to drink … at least not today. It’s a daily reprieve.”
So, if it’s Thursday, Bailey is in Davie and you want to talk to him, you’ll have to visit AA.
Author Eddie Donnally, who himself battled inner demons, before coming out on the other side, can be found on Facebook. For much more on his incredible story, please visit his book website, Ride the White Horse.