HORSEMAN’S DIGEST for March-April 2008, by Jenny Ortuoste
George Young Stribling: Master Horseman
An American who considers himself a “born-again Filipino” reminisces about racing’s past
By Jenny Ortuoste
This article was, for me, an honor and a privilege to write. The subject is my mentor, George Y. Stribling, who taught me the rudiments of flat race riding during my jockeys’ apprenticeship in 1990.
I could have written at length about the history of the Philippine Jockeys’ Academy that he helped establish and still runs today, is very proud of, and which he considers his lasting legacy to the sport. But I chose rather to dwell on his personal story – the story of a remarkable man whom few people in racing know, but to whom Philippine racing in a large part owes the shape and form it has today.
WITHOUT a doubt, the most successful project the Philippine Racing Commission (Philracom) has ever undertaken is the Philippine Jockeys’ Academy. Responsible for upgrading the professionalism, knowledge, and standards of riders, the “Academy” was founded on 7 April 1980 with the support of the then-chairman of the Philracom, Nemesio I. Yabut, in cooperation with Leo Prieto of the Manila Jockey Club (MJC), Antonia Reyes of Philippine Racing Club (PRC), the first Philracom chairman Eduardo “Danding” M. Cojuangco Jr., MARHO (Metropolitan Association of Race Horse Owners) president Justice Federico Moreno, Manila Mayor Ramon Bagatsing, equestrienne Fortuna Marcos Barba, and other racing luminaries.
Appointed to be its director was George Young Stribling, an American who had come halfway around the globe in search of tropical warmth and a fresh start. A horseman par excellence – rider, trainer, and owner – he reshaped Philippine racing and made it closer to globally-acknowledged standards.
Now 91, he has made Manila his home for almost thirty years. He has never left the country since his feet first touched its welcoming soil in 1979. His mind, sharp and clear as ever, instantly recalls names, dates, places, circumstances. His snapping green eyes are alive and full of fire. On his head, he always has a soft hat that’s color-coordinated to his shirt. Fond of television and fried chicken, he rules each batch of the Academy with an iron hand and a wooden rod which he does not hesitate to apply to the backsides of the more “foolish” of his students.
A consummate storyteller, he is a treasure trove of tales, a keeper of history, an archive of the past of American and Philippine racing.
This is his story.
Born 9 March 1917 in Kentucky to Loretta and Garnett “Bee Dee” B. Stribling, George was raised in Washington close to Seattle and grew up “around horses. I was raised within six miles of Longacres racetrack in Washington. Highline High School in Seattle, which I attended, was two miles away.”
The young George enjoyed singing and eagerly participated in school concerts and other activities. His high school yearbook, “The Pirates’ Log”, records that he was a member of the Tennis and Music Clubs; took part in the Senior Vodvil, Glee Club, and Torch Society; and in his senior year, was a member of the Track team and manager of the Football team.
Throughout his education, he was actively involved with horses and when “Strib” obtained his diploma in May 1934, he embarked on a profession that revolved around his love of thoroughbreds and racing.He started working at Longacres and eventually became superintendent there. His fascination for racing took him all over the US.
Churchill Downs, 1936
“From 1912 to 1933,” he recounts, “during the Prohibition period, there was no racing in the US, only in a few places for short meetings – at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, Fairgrounds in New Orleans, Hialeah in Miami, Belmont Park in New York. Also in a few tracks in Mexico and Canada. There was no racing and no pari-mutuel wagering until 1933, when racing was legislated back in by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was president.”
With racing legal again, George attended as many rodeos and fairs as he could to gain experience in horsemanship. “We used to go from one meeting to another in a covered wagon. When I was 15, I saw Phar Lap run. Horses were on heroin that time. This was just after racing came back.”
Phar Lap, 1932
Back then, horse races were difficult to manage as only rope was used to hold the horses back at the start. George remembers the inception of a piece of racing equipment we take for granted – the starting gate.
“I knew Clay Puett when he was a starter and designing a gate,” George says. “He became a state steward. Later he sold the rights of the Puett gate to United. But he later developed a gate where the horse couldn’t move his head; when it opened, the front of the stalls were clear plastic so the horse could see ahead. I recall he (Puett) was a real gentleman.”
The young George had a front-row seat to the resurgence of racing and was an eager witness to the latest developments. Racetracks sprang up all over the nation. “Bay Meadows opened its doors on 12 Sept 1934. I was there. Santa Anita Park opened its doors on 25 December 1934. I was there too. Hollywood Park opened its doors in 1937. Del Mar, in 1937. I was also there.”
Opening day at Del Mar, San Diego, CA, 3 July 1937
He was in California when Pearl Harbor was bombed. His recollection of that historic time? “There was never any racing for five years, as Santa Anita was converted into a military barracks.”
Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Tracks
Having a business turn of mind, George decided to raise horses. “Sometime in the 1930s, I had two farms in the state of Washington where I bred horses. I had a 22-acre stump farm, full of timber, which I cleared to make paddocks for horses. In 1940, I got a 2500-acre farm also in Washington. That was real wild country – deer, bear, cougars. When I moved East, I gave the farm to my parents – my father died there.”
George became a highly successful trainer and invested in more real estate to pursue his breeding operations. “In the ‘50s I went to Ohio, to a little burg called Mechanicstown. There wasn’t a hundred people that lived there. I saw a little place, and got it in 1955 as a lay-up farm. On my property I made a quarter-mile indoor track, twenty feet wide, and built my own stable with my own money. I could train all the time, even when it was snowing.”
Among other things, George taught jockeys and later became a jockeys’ agent. “I started Eddie Maple to ride. Jesse Davidson was leading rider, leading apprentice in 1958. Next year it was Frankie Northcutt who was leading apprentice.”
He continued to train and race his own horses into the 1960s. ”Clem’s Heart, I claimed for $3,500. It ran six times, was a runner-up, and claimed for $8,000. He had lots of speed but was peculiar to eat.” It ran best under one of George’s regular riders, Barry Alberts. The horse’s groom was the jockey’s wife, Nancy Alberts, a colorful person who was a descendant of the wealthy Dupont family and later owned a horse that won the Preakness.
George with Nancy Alberts holding Clem’s Heart, Barry Alberts up.
George recalls another horse he owned named Brown Native, which was often ridden by Frankie Northcutt – “the greatest rider I have ever known. Even at 40, and he had been through the Vietnam War and all, he was still the greatest rider ever,” says George. Sadly, Northcutt never gained fame nor fortune as he struggled all his life with alcoholism and other personal demons.
George made a lot of money on his horses, betting on them and selling them, but eventually the tides of his fortune changed course. He endured heartbreak and loss, too painful for him to speak of. To escape the hurt, he became a gypsy.
George wandered all over the Americas, participating in horse racing wherever he found it. “I have raced all over the Americas, clear from Canada to Argentina and Chile,” he reveals. “I moved from the US West Coast to East Coast, to Canada and British Columbia. I have raced in all countries of North and South America where they have horse racing. I’ve had owner’s and trainer’s licenses in Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic. In the ‘40s, I was in Venezuela. Then in Brazil. I trained there for the biggest coffee merchant in the world, in Rio. I went to Argentina, where I did buying and selling of horses, but the climate didn’t agree with me. I spent ’72 in Buenos Aires, where I discovered unpunctuality is an old Spanish custom.”
He returned to the US and at Entremont, North Carolina, built a magnificent training facility with a stall for juveniles, cottage barns, a covered track, and even a lake with a dock for swimming horses. But an accident in Ohio years before and other subsequent injuries undermined his health. He flew to Puerto Rico to recuperate.
George says, “In Puerto Rico, I was swimming everyday. There I met a six-foot, two-hundred pound Jew from Brooklyn named Jerry. He was badly crippled with arthritis. We kept in touch. Later this guy wrote me that he had gone to the Philippines, and that his arthritis got alleviated and he could stand up straight.”
No Place Like Manila
Deciding to see for himself what his friend Jerry was raving about, George flew to Manila in July 1979. He was 62. He has never returned to the US since.
“Jerry got me a place at Chateau de Manille,” George says. “After ten days, I went to Santa Ana Park. Here I met Jim Hall, three years older than myself, who had come over with MacArthur. Jim trained for Tony Martin. He went back to the US when Ninoy (Aquino) was shot. Jim also trained for Mr. Santos, Pedro Cojuangco, and Mr. Gatmaitan.”
George subsequently met many people in Philippine racing, and recalls that the original idea of a school for jockeys came “from Leo Prieto. He had set up the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) and was the first PBA commissioner. Rudy Salud was Leo Prieto’s protégé. They prevailed upon me to stay in the country.”
The idea of a jockeys’ academy met with much opposition initially, mostly from people who were reluctant to embrace change and innovation. ”We had an awful time getting the Academy started because the jockeys and some Philracom commissioners were against it. Later this commissioner apologized and said that I had done a great job.”
The PJA opened its doors to the first batch of apprentices on 7 April 1980. George has written before that “the PJA was designed and perpetrated for the purpose of improving the skills and talents of the Filipino jockeys, to bring them to equal or superior quality of jockeys throughout the horseracing world, and to create a market for Filipino horsemanship any and everywhere throughout the racing world where skilled jockeys and horsemen are in demand, thus remitting dollars to the Philippine treasury and to bolster the economy.”
A very tall order indeed. Has George succeeded in pulling it off?
He takes out a detailed list of all the Academy batches, their win-loss records, money earned, their whereabouts. He is very proud of the riders working overseas, mentioning jockeys Tuazon, Osit, Dayaca, and Higinio Borbe in the UK. “Let me tell you, those boys and two others are getting 13,000 English pounds a year, that’s US$26,000 a year, and they have contracts for five years!”
Many Academy graduates, George says, are in Japan as exercise riders and grooms, where the minimum wage is $1,500 a month. “Some jockeys are making more than that,” he says. “Others even have businesses on the side. Osumo is a travel agent.”
Another rider he’s proud of is Jeffrey Dino, from Academy Three. “That boy was in a lot of trouble before,” he says. “But now, Jeffrey is the stable foreman of the King of Saudi Arabia, along with Padua and Romy Baylon, and he’s making twice what they’re making.” Ramon Guce, he says, has a fairly successful career in the US, where he earned $33,000 in 2007, while his brother Lyndon made $22,000.
The demand for skilled Filipino riders is high, George says. “I got contacted by Pat Payne from Australia, and he wants three apprentices to ride in Melbourne and Sydney, while just recently (Australian racecaller) Peter Morrison wants an apprentice to ride in Western Australia.” Academy graduates “have been dispatched to places like England, Ireland, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Cyprus, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Turkey, Bahrain, Qatar, Japan, the US, and other countries.”
The Endearing Filipinos
George has made the Philippines his home, and not the least among those that endeared the country to him is its people. “I have met so many wonderful people here,” he says, “among them Rudy Prado (former MJC Racing Manager). I consider him to be a very good fellow. Pete Paraiso, formerly of MJC, was a really terrific gentleman, the comptroller of Prieto businesses like Dunkin’Donuts and Shakey’s. Mayor Ramon Bagatsing was a very fine man. But I don’t think I have met a nicer man than Leo Prieto. He kept talking about having a riding school for jockeys. He pushed for it a long time. I also consider Putch Puyat a very true friend. About Juaning Macaraig, in all of the years I knew him, I never heard him say a bad thing about anyone, even when he was very angry.”
George at the Jockeys’ Quarters, Santa Ana Park. (14 Jan 2008)
Apart from the friends he has made along the way, George also credits this country with giving him a chance to make a new life in the sport that he loves. He threw his heart and soul into bringing about the changes he felt were necessary and appropriate.
“Some of the major projects I have been responsible for are getting rules changed, such as disqualification rules; rules for the Academy; and I am responsible for straightening the mile out here at Santa Ana; they built out a shoulder on that turn to bring it out.” He elaborates that “mile” here in the Philippines is the metric mile, “which is 39 feet short of the statute mile, where 100 meters equals 1/8 mile. At Santa Ana Park, the 6-1/2 furlong track is built on the statute mile.” George was also “the one who got in the 900-meter sprints. I tried to get claiming races going but they didn’t click.”
He also was heavily involved in setting up a one-mile racetrack in Lipa called the Metropolitan Equestrian Association in the early ‘80s, but that’s a very long story for another day.
George Y. Stribling is a respected mentor to generations of jockeys and students, including myself, who passed under his tutelage or influence. The world of Philippine racing owes him a debt it does not realize or acknowledge – nor can ever repay. ***
GYS on GYS
- “I’m a gypsy – I wanna go where I wanna go.”
- “I’m a born-again Filipino. I have planted my roots here; I will die here in the Philippines.”
- “I want my ashes scattered over the centerfield at Santa Ana Park, because I’ve made this my home base. The Academy was started here.”
- “As far as horse racing is concerned, I’m the most knowledgeable in the Philippines; and I’ve done as much as anybody to help the racing and breeding industries.”
GYS on the Philippines
- “Life here is so much less stressful; the credo here is ‘bahala na’. It’s all unpredictability, a ‘maybe land’. The important thing is that this country is a much less stressful place than other places.”
- “The Filipinos have quaint habits such as unpunctuality- and hospitality. A child with one pandesal or a handful of rice will offer to share it with you.”
- “I have been in the Philippines one-third of my life – and they have been the most enjoyable years of my life.”
George Y. Stribling thanks…
Putch Puyat, Amado Bagatsing, Ramon P. Ereneta, Dan Valmonte, Paul Manesse, Rudy Prado, Don Augusto Santos and family, Peping Santos, Ochie Santos, Romy Santos, Tito de Jesus, Coco and Val Cayco, Tonet Lagdameo, Butch Mamon and family, Dr. Tony Alcasid, Sandy Javier, Hermie Esguerra, Benhur Abalos, Nonoy Niles and so many others…