A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Billy Reed: It’s always good to wager on experience when handicapping Kentucky Derby prospects

Here is one of the better gambling tips you’ll receive between now and the first Saturday in May: Beware of jockeys riding in the Kentucky Derby for the first time. They will be forced to contend with a set of conditions that are so strange and overwhelming that the chances of pilot error are uncommonly high.

Generally speaking, a rookie jockey usually wins when he has much the best horse. Back in 1979, for example, Spectacular Bid was so superior to his Derby competition that the only way he could lose would be for callow Ronnie Franklin to fall off, which was not beyond the realm of possibility.

But trainer Bud Delp’s big heart had a soft spot for Franklin, a poor kid from the rough Baltimore neighborhood of Dundalk. Alas, however, Franklin wasn’t what you would call a quick learner. He rode Bid so poorly in the Florida Derby that Delp gave him a blistering tongue-lashing on the track, even before the colt was unsaddled.

Three jockeys in this year's Derby, including Gary Stevens, could get within one of the record held by Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, who share the mark for most wins by a jock with five (GaryStevens.com Photo)

Three jockeys in this year’s Derby, including Gary Stevens, could get within one of the record held by Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, who share the mark for most wins by a jock with five (GaryStevens.com Photo)

Still, Delp resisted all suggestions to replace Franklin with a more experienced rider. All went well through the Derby and Preakness, but in the Belmont Stakes, some boneheaded moves by Franklin contributed as much to Bid’s shocking defeat as the infamous safety pin that was lodged in one of his hooves.

Grudgingly, Delp gave up on Franklin and replaced him with the venerated Bill Shoemaker. The rest of his career, Bid lost only once, and that came to 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed. As a 4-year-old, he was 9-for-9 and became regarded as one of the sport’s all-time greats.

So, yes, the jockey does make a difference. So does experience, more so in the Kentucky Derby than any other race. Let us count the ways.

First, most of the field will be going a mile and a quarter for the first time in their lives. The longest of the Derby prep races is a mile and a eighth. If you don’t think that extra furlong – that’s horse language for an eighth – makes a difference, then you need to go back and look at all the horses who start getting weary and rubber-legged as they try to make it to the wire.

Since there are so few mile-and-a-quarter races in the game today, jockeys sometimes get confused. They get intimidated by the distance and hold back longer than they should. That’s what happened in 1985 when Spend A Buck got loose on the lead on a rock-hard track. His competitors dropped so far back that the race was over before the turn for home.

But that was a case of the right horse catching the right track and the right competition at the right time, which doesn’t happen often in the Derby. Usually, a rookie jockey’s biggest flaw is impatience. He sees the prize there for the taking and becomes overcome by lust, throwing caution to the wind. Then he wonders what happened when he finishes fourth.

Second, the Derby is about the only American race where a jockey has to deal with as many as 19 competitors. This means the break from the starting gate is crucial. If the field becomes knotted at the start, the result will be a traffic jam more horrendous than anything you’ve ever seen on the Watterson.

The starting gate is like the bottom of a funnel. Soon as it breaks open, the field charges into a narrowing space. If you’re on the inside, it’s easy to get pinched off, which is often fatal for horses that like to run on or near the lead. If you’re in the middle of the pack, it’s easy to get bumped, squeezed, or knocked to your knees. On the outside, there’s less traffic but farther to run to get a safe and contending position.

There is no way to prepare for what might happen when the gate opens. The jockeys must play the cards they’re dealt and they have only split-seconds to do it. Once again, experience matters. The more Derbies you ride, the more you learn. The track becomes an old friend instead of a minefield.

Finally, there’s all the noise and a frenzy that a crowd of more than 150,000 can generate. Unfortunately, the state of the sport is such that, even on good days, you could fire a cannon through the grandstand of most tracks and not worry about hitting anybody. (It’s the same with newsrooms at most American papers.) The silence is deafening.

But then here you are, thrust into this whirling maelstrom of color and noise and humanity. As the day goes on, the hullabaloo grows louder by the hour, thanks in no small part to massive consumption of mint juleps and other libations. By the time the jocks leave their dressing room and head for the paddock, everybody understands what the Gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson meant when he said, “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.”

In other sports, crowd noise is politely called a “distraction.” That doesn’t quite get it at the Derby. It’s raw emotion unleashed and put on steroids. The paddock is squeezed so tight with humanity that it’s easy to feel claustrophobic. At first taking, it’s easy to see how a young jockey can be so unnerved that he forgets what his trainer has told him.

But here’s the rub: Even the best jockeys can do dumb things in the Derby. The most infamous riding gaffe in the race’s history came in 1957, when the aforementioned Shoemaker, riding Gallant Man for trainer Johnny Nerud, briefly stood up in the irons at the 16th pole just long enough to allow Calumet Farm’s Iron Liege to sweep past him to win the roses.

After initially saying nothing about his mistake, Shoemaker ‘fessed up when confronted with the evidence of the film patrol. He then said he misjudged the finish line. Nerud, for one, didn’t buy it. He vowed he would never again bring a horse to the Derby and he didn’t.

Of the jockeys who will ride in Derby 142, six have won the roses. They are:

* Gary Stevens (Mor Spirit) – Winning Colors, 1988; Thunder Gulch, 1995; Silver Charm, 1997.

* Kent Desormeauz (Exaggerator) – Real Quiet (1998), Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), and Big Brown (2008).

* Victor Espinoza (Whitmore) – War Emblem, 1993; California Chrome, 2014; American Pharoah, 2015.

* Mario Gutierrez (Nyguist) – I’ll Have Another, 2012.

* John Velasquez (Outwork) – Animal Kingdom, 2011.

* Mike Smith (Danzing’s Candy) – Giacomo, 2005.

A Derby win by Stevens, Desormeaux, or Espinoza would put them one behind Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, who share the record for most wins by a jockey with five each.

But Espinoza, who last year became the oldest rider (43) and first Hispanic to win the Triple Crown on American Pharoah, has a special shot at making more history: First jockey to win the Derby three consecutive years.

It’s a longshot, though. The Derby will be his first time aboard Whitmore, who has been running behind the best horses in Arkansas. Espinoza replaces Irad Ortiz Jr., whose main claim to Derby fame came in 2014, when he and brother Jose became the third set of brothers (and the first Puerto Ricans) to ride in the same Derby.

The most fascinating rookie rider in this year’s Derby isn’t Junior Alvarado, who will be aboard the highly regarded Mohaymen, but Yutaka Take, a 47-year-old riding legend in Japan. He’ll be aboard Lani, who earned his Derby trip by winning the $2 million UAE Derby on March 16.

With 4,000 career victories and more than 100 Grade I stakes to his credit, Take is a different kind of rookie. Given the popularity of racing in Japan, he probably has ridden before more big crowds than most of his opponents. He also is accustomed to navigating through large fields.

Still, his next look at Churchill Downs will be his first. He does not appear to be on a superior horse, but who knows? One of the Derby’s international simulcasting outlets is the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and you can bet they’ll be pouring the yen through the windows on Lani and his rookie rider.


Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby

Related Posts

Leave a Comment