Mike Smith may have won 25 Breeders' Cup races, but there's still one man who has him beat. If they had a Hall of Fame for jockey agents, Ron Anderson would hold a special place of honor with his total of 27 Breeders' Cup and 14 Triple Crown race victories.
“I've been very fortunate,” Anderson said. “I've represented the right people at the right time. They make it pretty easy; it's like a good horse, they make the jockey and the trainer look good.”
Anderson has represented Hall of Fame riders Gary Stevens and Jerry Bailey, and represented Garrett Gomez through a four-year streak of leading the country in earnings. At times, Anderson would represent two riders at once, including greats like Kent Desormeaux, Chris Antley, David Flores, and Richard Migliore.
He didn't start out with such talented riders, of course. He was in junior college, thinking about going to UCLA to pursue a law degree, when friends introduced him to the unique opportunity at the racetrack.
“I kind of took a rider almost on a whim,” Anderson recalled. “My friends Scotty McLellan and Craig O'Brien, their fathers had kind of set them up and I thought, 'Maybe I'll try this.' I took somebody nobody really wanted – he wasn't a nice guy and he wasn't a very good rider. But I got my license and things started happening.”
He couldn't turn back, and in 1980 Anderson got his “big break” when he took on a rider named Fernando Toro. The jockey won the first-ever running of the Breeders' Cup Mile in 1984 aboard the John Gosden-trained Royal Heroine.
“He was just a really special guy, who explained to me a lot about this means this and that means that, because I wasn't a horse person,” said Anderson. “I knew a little about a horse but not a lot, and he explained and sat down and kind of mentored me.”
Toro wasn't mentoring Anderson in the art of representing a rider, but about the sport itself – the meaning of different terms and the ability to read what a horse is doing during a race.
Anderson had to learn for himself how to be more than just an “order taker” when representing his riders.
“I tell people this all the time: there's no rhyme or reason to what I do,” he said. “I can't take you and tutor you, coach you on how this works. There's no blueprint, there's no book to read. It's just a lot of relationships and jocks with relationships, and I tell people it's almost like piecing a big puzzle together: the condition book, the stakes, do you ride the better horse or do you ride for a client, do you travel or not travel, is this going to complicate things leading up to something else?”
Not only does a good jockey agent need to have all those puzzle pieces rolling around in his head, said Anderson, but he also needs to be able to read the mood of the trainers he propositions.
“When you approach people in this business is very important, because everybody has turmoil in their life,” he explained. “There's a lot of things going on in people's lives as to when they're approachable and when they're not. You have to be able to sense the vibe of the moment – am I okay to ask, or should I wait until a little bit later?
“Then again,” he laughs, “if you're lucky enough to have an elite rider and they want you, I can be on the moon and they'll find me.”
For the past five years, Anderson's elite rider has been Joel Rosario. The pair have collected wins in the Kentucky Derby, Dubai World Cup, and Arlington Million, as well as four Breeders' Cup races. Rosario's earnings in each of his years with Anderson have been higher than any of the years prior.
These days, the people skills of both the jockey and his agent have become even more vital than they were when Anderson first started in the business.
“You're always looking for Derby horses and you're always looking for Breeders' Cup situations,” said Anderson. “There's no picking horses anymore. You kind of have to cultivate and be with them right along the way, because anything that can win, guys are sleeping with the horses. Years ago, the guys wouldn't show up from Europe and you'd end up on something live. Anymore, this is a huge, huge deal.”
Earlier this week, Anderson was dealt a major blow to his 2017 Breeders' Cup chances. Rosario was taken off Distaff contender Forever Unbridled at the last possible minute, replaced by John Velazquez, leaving the agent no time to find his rider another mount in the race.
“To get a call at 11 a.m. the morning of entries, it's like 'this is a joke, right?' I thought it was a dream,” Anderson said. “It's sad. Like I told everybody, if I win every other Breeders' Cup, it's still going to be tainted by this situation.”
Anderson decided to take the matter before the stewards at Del Mar, and after lengthy conversations with Forever Unbridled's owner/breeder Charles Fipke, they ruled that Fipke would have to pay both Rosario and Velazquez their appropriate percentage of any purse money Forever Unbridled earns in the race.
Rosario had been aboard the mare since April of 2016, riding her to two Grade 1 wins and a Grade 2 win, as well as a second and two thirds in Grade 1 company. The pair were third behind Beholder and Songbird in last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff.
In her most recent start, the Grade 1 Personal Ensign at Saratoga, Forever Unbridled was faced with the challenge of running against champion filly Songbird. With just a four-horse field, Songbird had no pressure on the front end, galloping along on the lead as she pleased under Mike Smith. The typically late-running Forever Unbridled was in her usual spot at the rear of the field, and Rosario could see Songbird rolling solo up ahead of him.
“I don't know that I could say, in all the years that I've worked and all the stakes and all the races, that there was ever a better ride,” Anderson said. “You've got a champion on the lead, you don't panic. If he'd have chased her at all he wasn't going to get there because (Forever Unbridled) would have flattened out. He just waited, waited, then he angled out so (Songbird) can't see him. Even Mike (Smith) in the gallop out was saying 'Wow.' He never turned his stick over for $750,000. You'd think at some point there he would have panicked and went to whack a couple times. I mean, it was so amazing.”
Forever Unbridled defeated Songbird by a neck at the wire, after Rosario had taken her way out to the center of the stretch. The strategy was designed to prevent Songbird from seeing her rival and engaging that filly's competitive juices, and it was perfectly executed to Forever Unbridled's success. Anderson recalled the scene at trainer Dallas Stewart's barn the next morning, with Fipke enthusiastically embracing Rosario and gushing about the ride.
His confusion about the last-minute rider change seems justified, despite the fact that Anderson has been heavily criticized on social media for taking the matter before the stewards. He maintains that the decision was made to protect Rosario's best interests.
“For me, it's not about the money, it's about the sport and winning the race,” said Anderson. “If somebody said to me 'you're not going to get paid but you can ride the filly,' I would go to Joel and say 'we're not going to get paid but we need to ride.' That's how much it means to me.”
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