Horseman’s Digest #6 (March-April 2008 issue)
by Jenny Ortuoste (writing as “Jane Ortega”)
Patience Makes Perfect
Cong. Jeci Aquino Lapus proves that all things come to those who wait
On each wrist, he wears a bracelet of lucky beads from Tibet, “to attract luck”. As he speaks, he twists them absentmindedly. He believes in feng shui, but also that you have to work at your luck, that it doesn’t just come to you. In short, he covers all his bases, lays his plans carefully, and waits for their fruition. “I’m very patient,” he declares.
Jeci “Bong” Aquino Lapus, congressman from the third district of Tarlac, knows that life often manifests the unexpected and withholds the desired. Two elections back, he ran for mayor in his hometown – but lost. Disappointed but undismayed, he bided his time. “I thought it was not the right time. I told myself, I would just run for congressman in 2007.”
He spent the intervening years ministering to the bailiwick of his brother, then-congressman and now Department of Education Secretary Jesli A. Lapus, in Tarlac, where they called Bong, “Vice Cong.” The patience paid off. Last year, he beat five other opponents – several of them relatives on the Aquino side – and took 48% of the votes, a landslide. “I won pulling away by 22,000 votes. I never dreamed I would be a congressman this soon.”
On the morning of this interview, he is in his private room at his stable at Santa Ana Park. It was the day he and other congressmen voted Jose de Venecia out of the Speakership. Before proceeding to House of Representatives for the stressful voting session that afternoon, he relaxed by visiting his horses.
Two mobile phones beeped incessantly as he watched the ANC business channel. The screen showed a video of a gathering that had taken place the night before at the home of the president’s son. Congressmen and other politicos were seated at round tables, talking. He points. “That’s the back of my head.” He watches intently, and as the camera pans around, he gesticulates and grins. “That’s me!” Though fully aware that he is to help make history later that day, he shows no sign of tension.
He brings to horse racing the same serenity he brings to politics. “I started in 1970,” he says. It is unusual that he has been in the sport for almost four decades, yet his name is barely known in racing circles. Shrugging, he remarks, “I’m not in it to be famous. I just love horses.” He mentions the horsemen in his family. “I inherited my love of horses from my uncle on the Aquino side, the brother of my mother. He had horses, as did my cousin Senator Ninoy Aquino.”
A natural speaker, words flow freely as he gestures animatedly. The story of his journey in racing is one of his favorite topics. “My first horse was Dong. I got him from Mr. Aniban,” he says. “Later I had Supreme Element, a native horse. It won the Sweepstakes in 1980. Maliit na kabayo.”
Back then, Bong explains, races were classified according to the size of the horse: minore siete, minore 60, and the third, “no height limit. Race horses then were not all Thoroughbreds but backyard horses. Trainer Rosendo Mamucod helped me get Supreme Element for P9,000.”
Supreme Element (Colossus Toso out of Star of Banaba) was, he emphasizes “maliit talaga. Kaya noong sukatan para sa Sweepstakes na iyon, may nagbiro, “Bong, bakit ka naman nagpasukat ng kambing?” His opponents in that race were larger, the likes of Luzuriaga’s runner Feathers and Fernando Poe Jr.’s Lord Joseph. “T-breds were selling at P60,000, maganda na yun,” he recalls. “Wala pa ung mga imported noon.”
For decades he languished at the bottom of the rankings, but as his fortunes improved, he started buying better runners. Bong has a knack for identifying overlooked or worn-out horses in bigger stables and nursing them back to health, extending their racing career and ensuring a modest rate of growth for his operations at minimal cost.
“In 2006 I was at rank #16 or #17,” Bong remembers. He has come a long way since then. In 2007, he ranked eighth overall, with total prize money of P10,343,667.69. Out of 361 starts, his stable has a 37-47-45-36 record. That’s 165 “in the money” finishes, a percentage of 45.7 percent for this nearly invisible horse owner.
In fact, with only twenty or so horses, he has fared much better than many other owners, some of whom have sunk millions of pesos in imported horses but whose stables’ earnings don’t reflect their investment.
He wasn’t quite as fortunate some years back. “I was able to gather a pretty good batch, but then the EIA (equine infectious anemia) epidemic hit and all my horses were wiped out. I started buying again one by one. Luck was with me at the time; I won the Winner-Take All,” he laughs.
Other men would have quit the game in frustration or despair. Bong, patient as ever, rode out the crisis. “Slowly, slowly, I replenished my stable. Some horses came from Hermie Esguerra, older ones like War Alert and Joint Account. I recently acquired Capretiosa from him. Harrod’s Magic and Modern Classic came from Peping Cojuangco.”
War Alert, with a cheerful Patty Dilema up, after a regular race at Santa Ana Park in 2 March 2008. Patty wears Bong Lapus’s eye-popping purple and chartreuse silks, a combination Bong says he chose for maximum visibility “even at the backstretch.”
Bong’s mind, it is apparent, is very linear and organized. An engineering graduate, he also has an MBA from the Asian Institute of Management. He explains about making decision trees and applying other quantitative methods of analysis not only to business but also to life.
In his racing operations, he insists on the need to plan and program. “You can’t run your horses to the extent of exhaustion,” Bong maintains. “You program them to run at most six months of the year because you have to preserve them. Athletes do have to rest.” He does practice what he preaches; his walls are covered with charts that provide guidance and instructions for his grooms. The charts bear the names of his horses, timetables for the duration of their active campaign, the dates for their vacations, and supplement and vitamin regimens and dosages.
Over and over Bong emphasizes the need to keep horses sound. “Are we sheiks or shahs that don’t look after them? So I don’t force my horses. Let them run and seek their own group. If you treat them properly, they will come up to it; you don’t need to worry about monthly financing.”
The energetic politico shares, “I’m not into breeding. So I just use the Mamon or Rupisan farm to spell my horses.” He ticks off from a mental list. “Joint Account and Modern Classic are now on vacation; Pivotal is coming from a year-long rest; Money Man, from nine months’ spell. Capretiosa is now on vacation but will be back on the tracks by June. She had a chip bone so I rested her for a year. There should be a program for running and resting.”
Pressed to choose his favorite, Bong says, “At present it’s Pivotal. I was lucky with it, won a lot on the Winner-Take-All and other bets. But the winningest is Modern Classic with 13 wins in her group.” He is also proud of the others. “Ferrarione, ten wins. Joint Account, also winning!” Although not all his runners are performers, he takes it in stride. “As long as some horses are winning, I’m not affected by the ones that are not.”
As he nears his fortieth year as a horse owner, Bong surveys the future of racing. “I still have to look at the forecast of the Philracom (Philippine Racing Commission), what they envision the racing industry to be. I think they should be more realistic. Currently, good horses are rewarded too much, while bad horses are punished too much. I’m talking about last year’s inflated purses for some stakes races benefiting only a few big owners, and recently the return of the 75-meter rule for horses who reach the finish line late.”
His wish for the industry? “For it to prosper. Also, officials need to be more considerate to the medium-size horse owners, those who have ten or a dozen horses, and not to blindly think that a couple of stables are the key to success. It takes everybody to tango,” he concludes, blithely mixing metaphors as he scoops up his mobile phones and heads to his car, bound for Congress and the pages of political history.
Congressman and “Top Ten” horseowner Bong Lapus has never advocated instant gratification, but knows that the best-laid plans need patience – and luck – to succeed. For him, the combination of feng shui and fortitude constitute his winning formula. ***