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Tailor earns his stripes at racetrack

Andy Laungani, a tailor who has dressed many top jockeys, walks up the stairs to the Jockey’s Room where many of his clients prepare to race at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Ky., May 4, 2016. Laungani, a tailor based in Lexington, Ky., is a fixture in jockeys’ rooms across the country where he ensures that the riders are as colorfully dressed off the racetrack as they are on it.
Andy Laungani, a tailor who has dressed many top jockeys, walks up the stairs to the Jockey’s Room where many of his clients prepare to race at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Ky., May 4, 2016. Laungani, a tailor based in Lexington, Ky., is a fixture in jockeys’ rooms across the country where he ensures that the riders are as colorfully dressed off the racetrack as they are on it. NYT

The morning after Victor Espinoza pulled off the unthinkable, winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years aboard American Pharoah, everyone in the jockeys’ room at Belmont Park, not only the riders, had an added bounce in their step.

Among the smiling visitors was Andy Laungani, a tailor who has dressed many top jockeys, including Espinoza, ensuring that they are as colorfully dressed off the racetrack as they are on it. Laungani’s custom fashions received prominent display during the Triple Crown run: Espinoza owns about six of his custom sports coats and shirts.

But on this day, Laungani was not there to take the measurements of Espinoza or any of his other clients. He was there to congratulate Espinoza on his historic sweep and to bask in the communal afterglow.

“Now he’s really busy, but he’s still the same man to me,” Laungani, 68, said of Espinoza. “He’s still very humble – just a very nice, friendly guy. Except he’s on top of the world.”

Likewise, Laungani, with his towering frame and jet-black hair, is a fixture in jockeys’ rooms across the country. Wearing his own designs, he is given an all-access pass, even helping himself to the jockeys’ buffet, all the while waving and saying hello to riders as they pass.

Maintaining relationships with his clients is how he keeps up his business, and he has a lot of friends in high places. He has dressed celebrities, politicians, businessmen and Kentucky basketball royalty, including the coaches John Calipari and Rick Pitino. (Calipari’s style is simple; Pitino is a bit more adventurous, but since he returned to Kentucky as Louisville’s coach, he is “really big time” and now buys his suits elsewhere, Laungani said.)

Laungani was introduced to the racetrack life about 10 years ago when he made a custom suit for Jean Cruguet, who won the Triple Crown aboard Seattle Slew in 1977. Cruguet took him to the jockeys’ room at Keeneland and told the riders, according to Laungani: “You guys need good clothes? Get them from Andy. Just look at my clothes.”

It took a little while for Laungani to learn the etiquette of a jocks’ room.

“When he first came here, he was trying too hard to maintain our friendship when we were working,” Espinoza said. “So he finally figured it out. And now he’s a pro. He knows when to talk about making suits and when to let us get back to racing.”

Laungani was born in Bombay (the Indian city now known as Mumbai) but jokes that he is part Italian because of his mastery of fine Italian-style suits. He was a model and actor in Bollywood before going on to learn the tailoring trade in Japan, Italy, London, Hong Kong and New York. In 1976, Laungani settled in Lexington, Kentucky, and established his business, Continental Fashions.

But the place Laungani feels most at home is the racetrack. There he can spend time with what he calls his extended family.

“When I look at beautiful horses, I admire them so much,” he said. “I’m not good at betting. I’m here to see nice people and nice horses. It’s great company.”

One of his biggest clients is Joel Rosario, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2013 aboard Orb and was to ride Shagaf in the Derby on Saturday. Rosario and Espinoza, who was to ride Whitmore in the Derby, have even gone to Laungani’s house.

“When I go there, they treat me good, so when they are in Lexington, I want to take care of them, too,” Laungani said.

Laungani travels with a suitcase carrying the tools of his trade and is often seen carrying bags of suits, jackets, shirts and ties to deliver to his clients. His custom suits run from about $995 to $1,895, but ever the salesman, he points out how reasonable that is compared with most prices for custom-made suits in the United States. It takes him about six weeks to make a suit.

Even though he uses less fabric for jockeys’ diminutive frames, their suits actually take longer to make.

“The smaller a suit gets, it is harder to sew,” he said. “Sure, there’s less fabric, but the workmanship is difficult.”

Espinoza said his taste in sport coats depended on what time of year it was. He said he usually just told Laungani what colors he liked and let him go to work.

“It’s like someone putting me on a horse and telling me how to ride,” Espinoza said. “He knows how to make suits; I don’t know how to make them. But if he comes back, and they don’t fit me right, only then would I say something.”

On Wednesday, Laungani was in the Churchill Downs jockeys’ room. He saw the veteran jockeys Robby Albarado and Corey Lanerie, who was to ride Mo Tom in the Derby.

Albarado, who has several jackets made by Laungani, told him he would be wearing one on Oaks day. Then the talk quickly turned to one of Laungani’s golden rules: Never give anything away.

“He should be giving me free jackets, because a lot of people will see me wearing it, and I make it look good,” Albarado said.

Lanerie laughed and quickly chimed in: “I bet even after the Triple Crown, he didn’t give Victor anything for free.”

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