by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick

I always considered Jerry Bailey to be a thinking man's jockey, and when I called him to talk about what it was like to ride in the Kentucky Derby, I wasn't disappointed.

Bailey, a member of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, hung up his tack in 2006 after a career that included 5,892 victories, mount earnings of $296 million, 15 Breeders' Cup wins (including five Classics), four Dubai World Cups, and two wins each in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The first of his 17 Derby mounts came with New Discovery in 1982, but he didn't win until teaming with Sea Hero for trainer Mack Miller and owner Paul Mellon in 1993, his sixth Derby attempt. Bailey came back to win with Grindstone for trainer D. Wayne Lukas and W.T. Young in 1996, edging Cavonnier in the very last jump. He rode in 13 consecutive Kentucky Derbies from 1991-2003.

Now 52 years old, Bailey has brought his expertise to racing telecasts on ESPN and ABC. In my opinion, he's the best racing analyst on television since the late Eddie Arcaro, another Hall of Fame jockey who appeared on racing telecasts from the 1960s until the early 1980s. Since retiring, Bailey has also produced a two-volume DVD, “Jerry Bailey's Inside Track,” designed to provide insights on the intricacies of the game for racing fans and horseplayers. Click here to learn more.

I spoke with Bailey earlier this week as he was preparing for Saturday's five-hour ESPN telecast of the Kentucky Derby undercard from Churchill Downs.

When would you start mentally preparing for the Derby?

It can vary somewhat. In general, you start as soon as the horse that you've chosen to ride comes out of his last prep and you see how he is training for the Derby. You begin to get a general idea of his chances. In my era it was three or four weeks out. Inside of those three weeks you start paying attention to other horses, how they train, what their running styles are, so I have a sense of who to follow and who not to follow in the race, who's training well and who isn't.

It's great now that they have these works on video, but before the videos were available I depended on people watching horses work. I would have known about the problems Eskendereya, Rule and Dublin were having in their training this week from the people I talked with who would watch the horses in the morning.

What were the tools you might use to prepare?

Three things: who was training the horse, the pedigree of the horse, and the class they had–and I determine their class using Beyer Speed Figures. Pedigree tells me about their stamina. Looking at the trainers tells me who knows how to get it done. Some guys just know and others don't.

I assume you put together a Plan A for how you'd like the race to go and a Plan B or C if something happens.

I always have a Plan A, B and C for an everyday race,  but in the Kentucky Derby you can't use those. In the Derby so many things take place so quickly. Invariably it changes everything in that first eighth of a mile. I would always try to pick two or three horses to get behind that would carry me through the race—kind of like blockers for a running back.  I was trying to be in my own bubble, trying to finding a spot, even if I had to lose a position in the first quarter of a mile, so I don't get bumped around.

Were you the kind of guy who'd get butterflies in your stomach or have trouble sleeping the night before the race?

You're always anxious—I'm not going to say nervous. The first couple times I rode I had no idea what was going to happen. I was excited. After you get a couple tries under your belt you know what's going to happen. But until two minutes to post, I'd be pretty anxious. Then I just got calm. I think that comes with experience.

What do you remember about riding in the Kentucky Derby for the first time (1982, the longshot New Discovery, finished next to last)?

I was waiting to see how I would feel when they played my “Old Kentucky Home” (in the post parade).  It was everything they said it would be. I got tears in my eyes. Honestly, I'm choked up just talking about it now.

The race itself, there just a mass of horseflesh in front of me, like rush hour traffic–bumper to bumper, mane to tail. I had never seen that many people go that crazy. You're aware of all that crowd noise until the gates open. Then I didn't hear any of it.

How much are the riders talking or yelling at each other during the race?

It's mostly just curse words. “Hey, I'm in here. Watch out.” Going by the stands the first time there is always some yelling. Those things day to day happen routinely. We really try and take care of each other in a race. But in the Derby nobody gives you a chance. You don't give it and you don't expect it.

Both of your Derby winners—Sea Hero and Grindstone—came from well off the pace. As far as what kind of horse wins it, is the Derby just another race, or do you think a certain running style is better because it is so unique?

Every kind of running style can win the Derby. It really can. You think you need enough speed to have tactical position—but that's not true. The pedigree is the most important factor. You have to be able to go the distance.

I look at both sides of the pedigree. Take a look at Noble's Promise (a son of the Carson City stallion Cuvee out of a mare by Clever Trick). I don't think you can put him in a wagon and make him go a mile and a quarter. Those are the kind of things I look at.


I will say it's harder for a horse to win on the lead. There's always speed in the Derby, and it's difficult for a horse to get an easy lead.

Does it matter whether a horse's Derby jockey works the horse in his final preparations?

I don't think so. I like to see a horse get over the (Churchill Downs) racetrack well, but not all horses like it. Some are uncomfortable over it. Sea Hero worked horribly over the track. I worked him and he worked terrible. But we took the blinkers off him before the Derby and he came through for us.

Are there any other sports that come close to race riding in terms of the strategy or the split-second decisions that have to be made?

That's an interesting question. I analyze baseball a lot, but it's a slow game. The preparation you do in baseball analyzing the other team may be similar to preparing to ride in a big race. Most sports that go this fast, though, like auto racing, the positions don't change as quickly as they do in horse racing. No, there's nothing quite like this.

Copyright © 2010, Paulick Report

Savvy businesses recognize value. Advertise in the Paulick Report.

Sign up for our Email Flashes to get the latest news, analysis and commentary from Ray Paulick

Twitter Twitter
Paulick Report on Instagram