At this year’s Belmont Stakes, forget the horse and put your money on the rider
Author Lucas Marquardt Illustration Jungyeon Roh
Each year’s crop of three-year-old racehorses can resemble an incoming class of freshman basketball players in the NCAA. Some years, there are blue-chip prospects that live up to the hype. Other years, an average group takes turns besting each other. Such was the case last year, when three different horses—Orb, Oxbow and Palace Malice—won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, respectively.
It’s largely been the case in 2014, too. Many of the early season standouts suffered setbacks and are on the sidelines, and those left had trouble stringing together wins this spring, leaving California Chrome as the obvious favorite for the Derby—which he won easily.
It’s in years like this that jockeys can make all the difference in the Triple Crown races, this month’s Belmont Stakes in particular. Nicknamed the “Test of the Champion,” the Triple Crown finale is a 1.5-mile tactical run that has sunk the Triple Crown dreams of 17 horses. Many of those fell to inferior thoroughbreds who simply were ridden better. After all, the stars of these races aren’t just the horses, but the unsung jockeys whose heads-up rides got them to the finish line first.
Take last year’s Preakness, when Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens piloted Derby also-ran Oxbow. When other riders, perhaps gun-shy after the Derby’s fast pace, were reluctant to send their horses to the front early on, Stevens cleverly, nearly imperceptibly, slowed things down. With feathery hands, he gently eased off on the bit sitting in Oxbow’s mouth, careful not to goad the headstrong colt into a battle of wills. After three quarters of a mile, Stevens had coaxed Oxbow through a clear lead at a pace nearly 4 seconds slower than in the Derby and, with plenty of gas in reserve, he then dropped the colt into high gear for the win, leaving Derby-winner Orb with a nose full of dust and a fourth-place finish.
“It was one of the best, if not the best, rides I’ve put on a racehorse in my whole career—and the guys in the grandstand probably didn’t even realize it,” says Stevens.
Indeed, sometimes great rides can be hard to recognize, even by regular observers. Think about it like this: Everyone can appreciate the beauty of an NFL quarterback throwing a 60-yard spiral, but sometimes the best decision a QB can make is not to do something, like throw into double coverage in a pressure situation.
“The intangibles that make a great jockey are no different than those that make a great NFL quarterback,” says Stevens. “You need great athletic talent, but what makes guys like Tom Brady great is their mental game. You have to be able to process a huge number of variables very quickly. I’m not saying we’re flying airplanes, but I’m running diagnostics like a pilot every second I’m out there.”
Just like in the NFL, there’s plenty of pre-game preparation. “Before every race I evaluate the horses—what are their running styles, and who are my biggest challengers?” says Stevens. “That includes handicapping what riders are on them. What are their tendencies? What are their pluses and minuses, and how can I use that to my favor? Can I put them in a position and force them to do something they don’t want to do? There’s a lot of mental preparation. In a large field in a distance race, I might have five different scenarios that I’m ready to deal with.”
Todd Pletcher, who has been voted the nation’s Outstanding Trainer at the Eclipse Awards (the Oscars of horseracing) a record six times, agrees that oftentimes riders are underappreciated.
“From a strategic standpoint, there are jockeys who can see how the race will unfold and take advantage,” Pletcher says. “If there’s no pace, they can assume a forward position. If there’s a lot of speed, they can adjust to that. But there’s an X-factor to good jockeys that’s hard to define. Some horses just naturally run for certain riders. There’s some innate ability there—whether it’s the way they balance themselves, I don’t know—but horses respond to it.”
For more than a decade, Pletcher’s go-to jockey has been John Velazquez, another Hall of Famer, who in 2013 established a new North American record for purse money won: $297,922,320.
Velazquez is known as a smart rider whose finest hour may have come aboard the Pletcher-trained filly Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont Stakes. It had been 102 years since a female had won the one-and-a-half-mile marathon, and the stoutly bred Rags to Riches was facing the brilliant Preakness winner, Curlin, and a host of other good colts. After she stumbled out of the gate, briefly going to her nose, the mountain got even higher.
“Johnny did a tremendous job just staying on board,” says Pletcher. “But he didn’t panic. He didn’t try to make up the lost ground all at once. He let her just get comfortable and find her rhythm.”
Rags to Riches was able to inch back into contention and, at the top of the lane, she found herself in a showdown with Curlin. The two were neck and neck in the final quarter mile, where Velazquez went to work, pushing on the filly with everything he had.
“Johnny is certainly one of the strongest finishers in the game, and in a tight race like that, the jockey can make all the difference,” says Pletcher.
It did. Rags to Riches defeated Curlin by a head.
Of course, for every brilliant ride given, there’s another that leaves grizzled railbirds cursing a jockey when he returns to unsaddle. Such was the case at last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, where Bobby’s Kitten was the heavy favorite. Javier Castellano, one of the game’s best jockeys, must have been feeling overconfident when he came out of the gate blazing and maneuvered Bobby’s Kitten straight into the lead through a set of ridiculously fast fractions. But he soon realized he had made a mistake. As they came around to the home stretch, the horse’s early exertions took their toll, and a pair of rivals easily overtook them. The colt’s owner and breeder, the usually affable Ken Ramsey, was furious.
“He’ll never ride that one again,” Ramsey said at the time. “I can’t believe he put him on the lead.”
Ramsey and Castellano have since made amends, but Ramsey says it’s no secret he has little patience for bad rides.
“You wouldn’t ever see me ride a guy who wins less than 10 percent of his races, and most of our riders win at a much higher rate,” he says. “We’re very cordial to our riders and are loyal to a point, but if they win at a lower rate or consistently make mistakes, I’ll tell them to please go find their happiness elsewhere.”
In the end, Stevens says he understands why jockeys often don’t get the credit they deserve. “Every football fan has probably thrown a football at some time,” he said. “Every baseball fan’s probably gone out on a sunny day and tossed a baseball around. But there aren’t many people who have been on a Thoroughbred going 40 miles an hour.”
Lucas Marquardt is a special correspondent for Thoroughbred Daily News. He’s considering launching Jockeys Monthly.