When Jerry Bailey was a young rider based in New York he went up to veteran Angel Cordero Jr. and asked the Hall of Famer what was the first thing to go after a jockey hits 40 years old. Was it the legs, his eyesight, or the reaction time when something unpredictable happened?
Cordero didn't hesitate. “Your business,” he said.
Bailey kept that in mind throughout his own Hall of Fame career, but as he hit the north side of 40 in the late 1990s began to notice some little things that did affect his physical abilities, and he penciled in 45 for his own retirement age. “I had watched a lot of the guys who were older than me and felt 45 was the line where the success rate started dropping precipitously,” he said.
The fact that Bailey kept riding until he was 48 years old, retiring in January 2006, says something about the condition he kept himself in. He went out nearly on top, finishing third in the 2005 national standings by money won (despite having about half the number of mounts as the leader), riding the winners of more than $18 million in purses and winning at a 26% clip.
“People said I still looked good, but I noticed things starting at around 45,” Bailey recalled. “I used to be able to see 10 lengths in front of me when a guy moved his finger. And I wouldn't be able to break out of the gate as quickly, and couldn't see nearly as well. The smallest of things began to go.”
Bailey reminded me that the horse does 90% of the work. “It's unlike any other athlete,” he said. “A jockey's physical abilities don't diminish to any significant degree until they are about 40. Ongoing weight problems or injuries will bring a guy to his knees quicker. But everything being equal, a guy that is 38 is almost equal to a 26-year-old in terms of physical ability. And whatever 2% or 5% he may have lost physically, an older jockey more than makes up in experience.”
That brings us to the 2010 jockey standings and the fact that the two men at the top of the American Graded Stakes standings—John Velazquez, with 26 victories in AGS races, and Garrett Gomez, with 21—are both 38 years old. Velazquez is narrowly ahead of Ramon Dominguez in the money race, with Gomez—with far fewer mounts—ranked sixth by money won.
Velazquez is tied in to the powerful Todd Pletcher stable, so for as long as he is Pletcher's No. 1 rider (presuming Pletcher's stable remains strong), his business doesn't figure to drop off any time soon, even after he hits 40. Gomez remains in demand from many top stables to ride stakes horses around the country.
But there are some younger jockeys poised to give both Velazquez and Gomez a run for their money. Joel Rosario, who is just 22 years old but has been riding for nearly eight years in his native Dominican Republic and in the U.S., has won a very impressive 21 American Graded Stakes this year. He is clearly a jockey on the way up, one who seems to have a natural ability to get horses to run for him, and his future is as bright as any young rider I've seen in a long time.
Just behind Rosario is a trio of twenthysomethings. Rafael Bejarano, a 28-year-old who arrived from his native Peru as a proven young rider in 2002, has won 20 AGS so far this year. Frenchman Julien Leparoux has had a steady ascent up the ladder since coming to California in 2003, when he began as an exercise rider for Patrick Biancone. He's won 19 AGS in 2010. Martin Garcia, the most unlikely success story, was working in a San Francisco-area deli seven years ago when he was first introduced to the racetrack. Garcia, who turns 26 years old on Saturday, burst into the national spotlight earlier this year when he won the Preakness Stakes aboard Lookin At Lucky—taking over the mount from Garrett Gomez—and the Mexican native has won a total of 18 AGS races, most but not all of them for trainer Bob Baffert. He is learning his craft very quickly after getting his first victory in the saddle just over five years ago.
According to Bailey, one thing that may be helping the young riders get more chances for live mounts in AGS races is the fact the day-to-day product is changing. “There are so many more claiming races because the product is deteriorating,” said Bailey. “Look at the maiden claiming races at Saratoga as an example. The guys on top may have passed on claiming horses, giving these younger jockeys a chance to ride for some of the leading trainers. When good mounts become available they get a shot. A prime example of that is Martin Garcia for Bob Baffert.”
So Velazquez and Gomez may not be slowing down—not yet anyways—but in the end Father Time will always win that race. Neither jockey should look back; there is some very skilled competition riding in their shadows.
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