The 100 Day Countdown
by Tom Carley
The calendar turns to February. We are now under 100 days to the Derby. I have started my Derby diet to fit into that favorite sportscoat on Derby Day. More importantly, we are starting to see the real Derby contenders start their 3 year old seasons. Every day is an important one as each workout generates a little more stamina to allow the horses to get 10 furlongs in 12 weeks.
This week we will look at the last part of the human connection, the jockey. A jockey has the sole purpose of winning. That is why many (none more than myself) pay particular attention to see which horse each jockey picks to ride in each race. Each jockey has an agent, whose sole job is to place his jockey on the horse that gives each jockey the best chance to win. Some jockeys go as far as to fly across country just to ride a horse during a morning workout. This not only lets the rider get to know the mannerisms of the horse, but also keeps another jockey from sneaking in and stealing the mount. There are a handful of jockeys in my eyes that are more talented than the others. I pay much attention to who they are riding in the prep races. Last week we saw Irad Ortiz fly to Hot Springs on a Friday to ride Three Technique in the Smarty Jones. He did not do that as a favor to the owner, but rather he wanted to have as many choices as possible when it comes to selecting a horse to ride Derby week.
First, let’s recap last week’s Derby prep race action:
The New York horses went 9 furlongs (1 1/8 miles) Saturday at Aqueduct. A relative long shot, Max Player, came from off the pace to win in a game effort. Things I noted about the horse:
1. He does not like kickback (the dirt thrown from horses in front of him). Yet with his come from behind running style, what will happen in a field of 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby when he gets kickback from 14 or so horses?
2. His trainer announced he is not running until the Wood Memorial. This means he will take off about 6 weeks and will have to run 4th to ensure he has 30 qualifying points.
Both of these do not make me think well of this horse for the Derby.
Like most preps this year, I was most impressed with a horse that did not win the race. Portos ran 3rd. However, he is a front running horse and he was dead last going up the backstretch. Whether confidence or indecision (I did not observe traffic trouble), I do not know why the jockey had him so far back. The horse is part of the talented Pletcher barn, so he will run the New York preps and not ship elsewhere as Pletcher has to run his other contenders at other racetracks to avoid facing each other (discussed last week). The New York crew has done little in recent Derbies and I do not see that changing after watching this race.
Always one of the most anticipated early year Derby preps as we get a first glimpse of what the
strong Florida group of 3-year-olds look like on the track. Tiz the Law was heavily favored after winning the Champagne 2 races back and breaking his maiden in the career debut at Saratoga. He had a rough trip on a sloppy racetrack in the Kentucky Jockey Club and ran 3rd. He put in a strong effort and won the Holy Bull easily despite a rough trip. His trainer, Barclay Tagg, who won the Derby with Funny Cide knows a good horse when he sees it. Afterwards he said Tiz the Law would wait until the Louisiana Derby to run his final prep. That blows my mind. Why skip the Florida preps to space out a start that will lead to the horse either having 6 weeks off until the Derby or be in a spot to run 3 times in 6 weeks if he needs to earn qualifying points?
Toledo is a highly respected horse trained by Chad Brown. While never running in a stakes race prior to this race, his speed figures were the highest in the field. He ran a respectable 3rd and both horses should be in the gate in Louisville.
This compact field of 6 looked to be a contest among the two Bob Baffert trained horses. Thousand Words won easily, justifying all of the hype given to the horse. Stablemate High Velocity ran 2nd. I actually might like the second place finisher more than the winner in Louisville. The win was the 3,000th win for trainer Bob Baffert in his career.
This week we focus on the jockeys. Certain names are synonymous with Derby success.
The first jockey most follow to his mount is Mike Smith. Smith is a 53-year-old big money rider from the West Coast. He does not ride 8 races a day like younger jockeys, rather he focuses on larger purse races. He has won the Derby twice with Giacomo in 2005 and Triple Crown winner Justify in 2018. However, no jockey has won more big money races around the world than Mike Smith. He notably rides Bob Baffert’s first call (best or first choice) horse, but will ride another horse (as he chose to last year with Omaha Beach before the horse had to scratch out of the race) over a Baffert horse if he feels it has a better chance to win.
Javier Castellano is the best jockey never to win a Derby. He simply is the best turf rider around and is almost as good on dirt. He travels the Florida, East Coast and Kentucky circuits. He selects a Derby horse early and will show more dedication to that horse more than most jockeys. In prior years, he would fly across the country just to work a horse and will follow his Derby horse to any prep regardless of his rider obligations at his home track. I always give a hard look to any horse that Castellano feels is good enough to take the mount on.
Johnny Velazquez is Todd Pletcher’s number one jockey. Many years this has made his choice of a Derby mount easy as he did in 2017 when he won the Derby for Pletcher with Always Dreaming. He also won the Derby with a long shot in Animal Kingdom. A master of two turn races and he is known for his studying of pace and the effects in a full field.
There are other riders who will get good Derby mounts. The press coverage of them leading up to the Kentucky Derby is sufficient information for a handicapper.
With apologies for any oversight, I will break down the riders into tiers as I see them:
Mike Smith, Johnny Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Irad Ortiz, Jose Ortiz, Florent Geroux, Victor Espinioza
Flavian Prat, Joel Rosario, Ricardo Santana, Junior Albarado, Julien LeParoux, Brian Hernandez, Joe Talamo
Tyler Gafflione, Luis Saez, Jose Lezcano, Kendrick Carmouche, James Graham, Corey Lanarie
Remember, a good jockey will not make a bad horse a winner. Rather, he will maximize the effort of a good horse and will give the horse the best chance to win.