Maryland business helps top jockeys see their way clear

Not a lot has changed in the jockey goggle business since 1947, when Israel Kroop first stitched trim around a molded sheet of plastic, added two brass vents from a mattress, and attached a strip of elastic.

Kroop's design — a made-in-Maryland variation on miners' protective eyewear — was an instant hit with jockeys at the Laurel racetrack and at Pimlico.

It didn't take long for the invention to catch on outside Maryland. Riders around the country swapped cumbersome motorcycle goggles for the wafer-thin, well-ventilated models. Today, the goggles remain a hit and will be worn by most riders Saturday at the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown.

Kroop, the son of a Latvian boot maker, created a business he could call his own — Kroop's Goggles Inc.

Meanwhile, the company Kroop's father built still makes and sells boots on C Street in Laurel.

Kroop "created what most people would think of as the jockey goggle. For years, it's been the racing industry's gold standard," said Andrew Tremblay, who bought the goggle business from the Kroop family four years ago.

Kroop goggles have been worn by skydivers and paratroopers, boat racers and bike riders. They've been seen in movies, from "Point Break" to "Con Air" (but not "Seabiscuit" — Kroop hadn't yet invented the goggles when the thoroughbred ruled racing).

Mostly, though, Kroop's goggles have been worn by jockeys, from Hall of Famer Willie Shoemaker to Mario Gutierrez, who has guided I'll Have Another to the brink of the Triple Crown.

The company, which has 75 percent of the market, advertises that nearly every winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup has won wearing Kroop's invention.

The story began with Adolph Michael Kroop, who came to the United States in 1907 and opened a boot-making shop in New York. He moved to Ellicott City in 1927 and then to Laurel.

Sons Israel and Michael followed in his footsteps — until a jockey asked Israel to build a better goggle. Michael stayed with boots.

Israel Kroop set up shop on Whiskey Bottom Road on the back side of the Laurel track. After he died at age 76 in 1991, the business stayed in the family until Tremblay made his offer.

"I have absolutely no background in horse racing, but I have a background in manufacturing," Tremblay said. "I was looking for a great little company to buy and grow. I looked for five years before I found this."

Making a pair of goggles is a 15-step process, from cutting and shaping the high-grade plastic to attaching the strap and applying a final polish. Tremblay is reluctant to discuss the work in detail or show off the manufacturing area for fear a competitor could pick up tips.

Kroop's Goggles can turn out 1,000 pairs a day, and the company has almost outgrown its 3,000-square-foot space in a Savage industrial park off U.S. 1.

Three things have kept Kroop's goggles at the front of the pack, Tremblay said. First is their ability to be worn stacked like tortillas — as many as seven deep — so a jockey can peel off a dirt-covered pair to uncover a clear one without breaking stride.

At $42 for a pack of six, the goggles are "affordable and semi-disposable," Tremblay said.

And Kroop's has tradition and superstition on its side.

"All the top racers wear our brand," Tremblay said. "The new guys come in and they follow the older guys, and guys who win in our goggles are reluctant to change."

To jockey Edgar Prado, who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby riding Barbaro, Kroop's is to goggles as Kleenex is to tissue.

As a young man in Peru, the only goggles he saw were Kroop's, said Prado, 44.

"They've been very popular for some time — decades," he said by phone Thursday. "But that was then. The last couple of years lots of other brands have come on the market."

But he doesn't remember their brand names as easily as he recalls Kroop's.

With an estimated 8,000 jockeys in the world, the horse-racing goggle market is small, which keeps competition to a minimum.

"They think they can get a piece of the pie and they do get a piece," Tremblay said of competitors.

"But guess what?" he continued. "They can't make a living at it and they get out."

Tremblay is looking for new customers. Kroop's gets a boost from military forces around the world — including the U.S. Army — that distribute the goggles to paratroopers in training. The company also just came out with a more substantial goggle for turf riders. And Tremblay hints at other applications for Israel Kroop's invention.

But Tremblay's heart belongs to what he calls "the real deal."

"I like being involved in a business that's so steeped in tradition," Tremblay said. "I love the fact that I own an old, established, famous business — and I'm going to take care of it."

Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.