Every spring between mid-April and early May, the country's top jockeys play a complex game of musical chairs (or musical saddles). Injuries or multiple commitments often mean at least one or two horses are headed to Louisville without their regular rider. For the veteran with multiple prospects, it can mean the biggest handicapping job they'll ever undertake. For riders on the bubble, there's the chance to get in the action – and maybe get an unexpected victory.
This year, jockey Victor Espinoza finds himself the beneficiary of musical jockeys. In April, John Velazquez was the regular rider for Audible, Vino Rosso, and Noble Indy. He elected to stick with Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, while Javier Castellano picked up Audible. Castellano had previously been aboard Bolt d'Oro and was himself the replacement for Corey Nakatani, who had been in the irons for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. In the end, Espinoza got the call and has been working the colt in preparation for Saturday.
If Espinoza gets the job done in the Derby, it will not be the first time the winning jockey has benefited from rider shuffling.
Agent Ron Anderson knows the game all too well – he has kept the books for four Derby winners and says three of them got the call between the horses' last race and the Churchill starting gates: Gary Stevens with Thunder Gulch in 1995, Chris Antley with Charismatic in 1999, and Joel Rosario with Orb in 2013. In all three cases, someone was out of town or committed to a different trainer.
“The only one I ever had going into the Derby was Silver Charm with Gary Stevens,” he said. “There are political obligations guys get hung up in. Then there are other situations where the rhythm of things gets kind of screwed up. One of my worst stories of all was when I had Garrett Gomez in California and he was riding a horse called Ravel who looked like a Derby-type horse. Steve Asmussen had gotten Curlin, and the first time he ran he called me up and said, 'Could you ride Curlin?' and I said, 'I can't, because Ravel's going to run that day in California.' Then, he called me for the Louisiana Derby and asked if we could put him on, but Ravel was going to run again the same day.
“Ravel after that race, never ran again [on the Derby trail] and Curlin went on to win $10 million. I've had some great stories and I've had some rough ones like that.”
For a jockey who has to choose between two mounts, Anderson said the decision may be less a reflection of which is better and more of which has the most valuable connections. Riders who have close associations with major stables are often willing to take a chance on a longshot rather than face the prospect of losing future work.
“Everyone has their own style of choosing [between two horses]. A lot of times, I can't explain the thought process that guys go through. Sometimes I just shake my head,” said Anderson.
“This is a life-changing type race for anybody. You meet anybody off the racetrack and they don't know anything about racing but they do know the Kentucky Derby.”
Jockey shuffling isn't a modern phenomenon, of course. Famed rider Bill Shoemaker told reporters in 1964 he had a chance to ride Northern Dancer in the Derby but passed it up to take Hill Rise. The winner of the San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby and Derby Trial, Hill Rise was on a streak of eight consecutive victories headed into the Derby. Shoemaker and Hill Rise finished in second by a neck to Northern Dancer and Bill Hartack. Shoemaker told the New York Times he didn't regret his choice after the race and that he'd make the same decision over again.
Hartack had been on the losing end of rider shuffling in the Derby in 1958. He was aboard Tim Tam in the colt's Florida Derby victory but Hartack broke his leg in a starting gate accident before the race. The great Eddie Arcaro was offered the mount on Tim Tam but was committed to Jewel's Reward and reportedly said “No, I'm already on the best horse in the race.” (Oops.) In the end, for Tim Tam trainer Jimmy Jones landed Milo Valenzuela, who got his first Derby win in his first attempt.
In more recent years, Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez ended up with the mount on 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom after his colleague Robby Albarado suffered a broken nose coming off a horse in the post parade Wednesday of Derby week. Velazquez had been named on Uncle Mo but he scratched Friday due to an infection. Velazquez gave Albarado a share of his winnings when Animal Kingdom won the Derby.
“We have no problems,” Velazquez told New York Daily News's Jerry Bossert. “He's a trouper. It happened to me. It happens to all of us. Unfortunately, it happened to him on Derby Day. It was sad.”
Anderson said that's the sort of attitude you have to have – too much bitterness over what might have been can prove awkward in the jocks' room and can hold a rider back.
“I'm a big believer in this business that if you can't flip the page and get to the next situation, you're going to beat yourself up and you're going to be in trouble,” he said. “You have to be able to get by what's already happened and don't dwell on it. it's part of a healthy mentality. Even if you're batting at 20 percent, four out of five times you're going to get beat – and that's doing real well. It's a tough game and it gets tougher if you let it.”
Mike Ryan's 'Good Magic'
By Chelsea Hackbarth
Bloodstock agent Mike Ryan not only co-bred the 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming with 30-year business partner Gerry Dilger, but he also picked out the 2017 Preakness winner Cloud Computing from the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Added to that, Ryan and Dilger were involved in pinhooking 2015 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist.
At the Breeders' Cup last fall fall, Ryan's yearling purchases Rushing Fall and Good Magic both captured their respective juvenile races, giving him the seventh and eighth Championship winners of his career.
Now, Good Magic has earned a starting spot in the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby.
“I'm so blessed to be doing something I enjoy, and it's the best year of my career for several different reasons,” he said. “It's the epitome of accomplishment in American racing… I take such satisfaction in identifying young talent in yearlings and foals, especially in this constantly changing business. It's hard to get to the top, but it's even harder to stay there.”
Irish by blood, Ryan is a third-generation horseman from County Meath in Ireland. He didn't grow up wanting to be a top agent in America; in fact, like many other Europeans at the time, Ryan firmly believed there was no better Thoroughbred than one bred in the Emerald Isle.
It wasn't until the late 1960s he really started to take note of American-bred racehorses. Ryan had recently decided veterinary school didn't suit him and was splitting his time between the family breeding operation foaling out mares and the Curragh Racecourse. The horses demanding his attention on the turf included stars like Sir Ivor, Nijinsky II and Mill Reef, all North American-bred horses which were able to defeat the Europeans on their own ground.
“Forty years ago in Europe, there were no American pedigrees—none,” Ryan said. “It was crazy to me that they could come over and beat the Irish horses, though I was probably a little bit biased. I decided I needed to go to the U.S. and learn what their breeding industry was all about.”
Out on his own for the first time in 1986, Ryan bought his first “really good horse” in 1989. On behalf of owner Tommy Volando, he picked up a Time for a Change (Damascus) yearling colt for $80,000 at the Keeneland July sale. In 1990, Fly So Free captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and was named champion 2-year-old; the colt eventually ran out earnings of over $2 million.
That buy epitomizes one of Ryan's main philosophies when it comes to finding a good horse. On his X-rays as a yearling, Fly So Free showed lesions in his stifle joints, which likely brought down his price significantly.
“That horse was never lame a day in his life,” said Ryan. “If you look hard enough, you can find something wrong with any horse. It's a question of what they can overcome on the track, which is why demeanor and attitude are so big for me. It forces me to keep an open mind, because good horses come in every shape, size and color.”
Other Breeders' Cup winners Ryan has purchased include 1995 Juvenile Fillies winner Caressing, now the dam of Travers and Pennsylvania Derby winner West Coast ($180,000 Keeneland September); 2005 Classic winner Saint Liam, also voted Horse of the Year ($130,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga); 2008 Turf Sprint winner Desert Code ($150,000 Keeneland September); 2015 Juvenile champion Nyquist, also winner of 2016 Kentucky Derby (pinhooked as $230,000 yearling to $400,000 2-year-old); and 2016 Juvenile Fillies Turf winner New Money Honey ($450,000 Keeneland September).
At the sales and during his regular farm visits, Ryan may be most recognizable for the multi-colored pens and pencils adorning his shirt pocket. Those colors translate to a system of shorthand marks on his catalog pages, and the catalogs themselves, none of which he throws away, and become an encyclopedia of Thoroughbred bloodlines.
“I write my concerns about the horse in red, with blue and some green being the most dominant colors,” Ryan explains. “I only use black when I'm seeing a horse for the second or third time, or to record vet work on him. It helps me to separate my notes, and to quickly form an image of each horse in my mind.
“Later on, I'll go back and look at a horse I may have passed over who went on to be successful on the track. Why did I dislike that horse? It helps me keep an open mind for the future.”
By Ray Paulick
Each day this week, I'll take a look at the pedigrees of four Kentucky Derby starters. On Monday, we looked at the horses at the bottom of the leaderboard, numbers 17 through 20. Tuesday it was horses listed at 13 through 16. Today's Pedigree Corner examines numbers 9-12.
BRAVAZO (12): Reclusive Calumet Farm owner Brad Kelley doesn't talk about his bloodstock operation, but the pedigrees he's generally sought speak volumes about his intention to breed horses that can get a classic distance. While many of his homebreds have A.P. Indy blood, G2 Risen Star Stakes winner BRAVAZO is by G1 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Awesome Again out of Tiz o' Gold, a daughter of Cee's Tizzy, sire of BC Classic winner Tiznow. Kelley purchased the mare while carrying Bravazo for the bargain price of $35,000. Most of the black-type runners from BRAVAZO's female family are sprinters, but Awesome Again has sired numerous G1 winners at classic distances, including Game On Dude, Ghostzapper and Oxbow.
SOLOMINI (11): The top three finishers in the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin all became successful sires, none more so than Curlin, sire of SOLOMINI. A two-time Horse of the Year by Smart Strike, Curlin has sired G1 winners Exaggerator, Keen Ice, Stellar Wind and Palace Malice. Curlin has two other Derby starters, Good Magic and Vino Rosso. Incidentally, finishing 18th in that 2007 Derby was the late Scat Daddy, a major success at stud and with four entrants in this year's Kentucky Derby. What an extraordinary group that year's Derby produced. Solomini's dam Surf Song (by Storm Cat) was unraced and generally unproductive as a broodmare until SOLOMINI, but she was produced by the G2 Encino Stakes winner Fleet Lady, dam of G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and champion Midshipman and G2 Cotillion winner Fast Cookie, dam of G1 Metropolitan Handicap winner Frosted. Solomini's pedigree should not be a deterrent to him getting the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby.
FLAMEAWAY (10): One of four Derby starters by the late Scat Daddy, FLAMEAWAY was bred in Ontario, Canada, and out of Vulcan Rose, a daughter of Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus who was undistinguished on the racetrack but is from a good Irish female family that includes the Group 2-winning Flame of Tara, dam of Group 1 winners Salsabil and Marju. Considering FLAMEAWAY's pedigree, it's no wonder trainer Mark Casse aimed this colt at turf races early in his career, but he's shown that he can run on any surface.
JUSTIFY (9): The first three dams of this Scat Daddy colt were all stakes runners. First dam, the graded stakes placed Stage Magic, is a daughter of Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, who carried his brilliant speed 1 ¼ miles in the G1 Breeders' Cup Classic. There are multiple influences of Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector on both sides of the pedigree of JUSTIFY, beginning with Scat Daddy, whose sire Johannesburg is a grandson of Storm Cat, the latter a son of the Northern Dancer stallion Storm Bird. Scat Daddy was produced from a Mr. Prospector mare whose dam is by the Northern Dancer stallion Nijinsky II. Broodmare sire Ghostzapper traces back to Northern Dancer through his sire line of Awesome Again, Deputy Minister and Vice Regent. Dam Stage Magic goes back to Northern Dancer through her female family via Baldski, a son of Nijinsky II.
Barn Buddies Lite: Mini-Chickens
A pair of miniature roosters keep their distance from the increased activity around trainer Dale Romans' barn. Romans assistant and longtime partner Tammy Fox said the barn has always had chickens around (and there are even more at the farm) as a throwback to the trainer's childhood.
Fox says this pair is fully grown and has been with the barn for two or three years now. She sometimes finds them wandering in the horses' stalls or roosting above them. None of the racehorses are fazed by them.
Trainer Mick Ruis, Bolt d'Oro
“My favorite Derby memory is when — I grew up in San Diego county so in those days we'd go across to watch the race at Agua Caliente racetrack. And I remember watching Gato del Sol in the slop (1982) and I had $300 on him and that's a lot of money in those days, and he won and that was incredible to see him win and come through the mud. It was hard to see with the TVs they had in those days at Caliente. That was probably my most memorable, watching Gato del Sol win.”
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