The Jockey Factor
Once you’re done with the speed figures, data angles and all the rest of the stuff handicappers throw into trying to figure out how to win at this game, you’re left with what your eyes show you. As the old comedian Flip Wilson used to say, “What you see is what you get.”
Today, in another section of Kentucky Confidential, Kerry Thomas, the renowned “Herd Whisperer,” gives us his unique and fascinating analysis of each Kentucky Derby entrant’s herd dynamics and emotional conformation. Thomas starts with his deep knowledge of the animals and how they conduct themselves on and off the racetrack, in groups and alone, then applies it to what he observes.
Here, veteran turf writer Pete Denk and I try to give you some insight into what we’ve observed of the jockeys in the race. Some of them we have watched more than others, but every bit of useful knowledge can help you create a picture of what you’re likely to see when the gate opens on Saturday.
Every good handicapper, when looking at a big race, should write down what they’ve seen in the past, any tendencies they noticed, the plusses and minuses. Even if something is bugging you, and you can’t quite put your finger on it, it’s worth acknowledging the validity of that feeling. It’s a good exercise in bringing clarity to the jumble of information swirling around in your own mind. – John Scheinman
Rafael Bejarano (Eclipse Sportswire)
Rafael Bejarano (El Padrino)
A complete rider, Bejarano is best-known for his towering stature in the Southern California riding colony, challenged only recently by the ascendance of Joel Rosario. People sometimes forget he had a tremendous run in Kentucky before heading west, winning meet titles at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Turfway and Ellis Park. He is proven in small fields or large, turf or dirt, sprints or routes. Bejarano, though, boasts a terrible record in the Kentucky Derby, with seven off-the-board finishes, his best coming when fourth on Papa Clem in 2009. No single strength stands out — not a negative — and he is a very strong finisher.
Derby strategy: Decided to take his chances with Secret Circle, who was going great guns at Oaklawn Park for trainer Bob Baffert, only to see the colt fall out with an injury after a second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby. Now winds up on El Padrino, a Todd Pletcher horse abandoned by Javier Castellano and whose stock has declined dramatically since earlier this year. El Padrino appears comfortable running on the inside or outside sitting behind the first line of trackers. If the horse is in form, Bejarano should be able to use his tactical speed to get good position and then cruise along and make a move on the turn. At his best, El Padrino has a big, surging charge in him and Bejarano’s finishing ability suits him well. – John Scheinman
Calvin Borel (Take Charge Indy)
Borel has not been elected to the Racing Hall of Fame (yet), but there is no doubt he is a Hall of Famer when he rides at Churchill Downs. Famous for his daredevil, rail-skimming rides, Borel seemingly knows the nuances of every path on the track. His Derby-winning rides on Street Sense, Super Saver, and Mine That Bird were fearless, masterful. Only three jocks have won more Kentucky Derbies than Borel.
Derby strategy: Borel and Take Charge Indy stole the Florida Derby on the lead from likely Kentucky Derby favorite Union Rags. There is probably too much pace in here for that plan, so look for Borel to try to secure a stalking spot, similar to the ride he gave Super Saver in 2010. If the inside is good and the other jocks leave the rail path open, Borel will pounce on it. – Pete Denk
Javier Castellano (Eclipse Sportswire)
Javier Castellano (Gemologist)
Continues to raise his stature as one of the leading riders in the gameg and has largely supplanted J.R. Velazquez as the first-call rider for Todd Pletcher. Rode two of the premier racehorses of the past 10 years, Bernardini and recent Hall of Fame inductee Ghostzapper. Wins on turf or dirt, front-runners, stalkers and closers. His ability to adapt to both horse and situation are his main strengths. Perfectly good finisher.
Derby strategy: Undefeated Gemologist appears to want to run the same race every time, set up in the clear in the three- or four-path, stalking the pace. Post position will be critical for Castellano’s chances of making that happen, and the bulky field and chaos of the first run down the stretch complicate matters further. Gemologist lugged in a bit in the lane when winning the Wood Memorial, but the colt will battle. Castellano must find Gemologist’s stalking spot, get him to relax and hope there is something left in the tank for the long stretch drive. – John Scheinman
Luis Contreras (Prospective)
Contreras won the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top jockey in 2011, when he won the Canadian Triple Crown on two different horses: the Queen’s Plate Stakes on the filly Inglorious and then the Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes on Pender Harbour. Contreras showed good finishing skills in those races, with both of Pender Harbour’s stretch-running victories coming by a nose.
Derby strategy: Prospective showed a nice sustained run in the Grey Cup at Woodbine last year and this year over a deep Tampa Bay Downs strip in the Pasco, Sam Davis, and Tampa Bay Derby. Contreras will look for position in the upper half of the Derby field and try to get rolling before the deep closers get in gear. – Pete Denk
Jon Court (Eclipse Sportswire)
Veteran rider has won 10 derbies in his career, but mostly of the Lone Star and Iowa variety. Court did take the $1 million Arkansas Derby in 2010 on Line of David but was taken off the horse for the Kentucky Derby by the trainer. He won the Arkansas Derby again in 2011 with Archarcharch, one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby last year. They drew the rail, a bad post lately, and the colt fractured a leg in the final yards of the race, finishing 15th. Court has had far greater success in his long career on route horses than sprinters, which might somewhat cloud people’s views of his ability. He is patient in the saddle, maintains a nice rhythm and has a good command of pace dynamics.
Derby strategy: Optimizer has had some bad trips in his prep season and also been hot and cold. Colt likes to come from out of it, which he did to crash into the exacta late in the Rebel Stakes. Expect Court to settle in the rear, likely near Dullahan and Done Talking, and watch the race unfold in front of him. If Optimizer can develop some decent momentum, expect Court to be more opportunistic than aggressive, seeking to stay out of trouble and hoping the race falls apart in his favor. – John Scheinman
Kent Desormeaux (Dullahan)
Hall of Fame jockey has won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness twice and the Belmont Stakes once. He remains as good a big-race rider as there is, even at 42 and with recent personal woes. One trainer who has stuck by him and continues to put him on big horses is Dale Romans, who is sky high on his entrant Dullahan. In his Derby win aboard Fusaichi Pegasus, Desormeaux found a comfortable place from which to run on the rail, saving ground and exploding off to the outside through the lane. On Big Brown, he traveled four-wide and struck in swashbuckling style on the far turn. Desormeaux’s dramatics bespeak a master’s sense of timing and pace.
Derby strategy: Dullahan is considered a closer, but I consider him more of a runner with a long, cruising drive. In the Blue Grass, Desormeaux rode him on the rail and had clear sailing into the lane. He will need all his considerable skills to avoid any checking behind others in a 20-horse field. A loss of momentum could spell ruin for Dullahan, so the rider will have to find an open path — that remains open — in which to gallop. – John Scheinman
Ramon Dominguez (Eclipse Sportswire)
Ramon Dominguez (Hansen)
Champion rider the past two years will be about a month into his return from a separated collarbone when he rides in the Derby. Ability to place horses in the clear and his understanding of pace are his strongest suits. Horses almost always appear relaxed and comfortable under him. Rarely rides a race that leaves you wondering what he was thinking and has banished early career instances of finding trouble in major races. If Dominguez has a weakness, it would be in the lane; he is not the strongest of finishers.
Derby strategy: Chose to ride Hansen instead of Wood Memorial runner-up Alpha. Hansen has a reputation for preferring to run free and doing things his own way. In the Gotham, however, he smoothly gained position out of the No. 12 post position and then stalked before taking over. Dominguez will try to simulate that experience, and his feathery touch always appears to maximize the efforts of horses with limited reserves. Dominguez fits this horse perfectly for the long journey, and expect them to be away from other horses, somewhere in the clear, and sailing along. – John Scheinman
Martin Garcia (Liaison)
Born in Mexico, Garcia beat out Hall of Famer Russell Baze for the riding title at Golden Gate Fields in 2005. He moved to Southern California in 2006 and by 2010 he was one of trainer Bob Baffert’s go-to riders. Garcia rode the Baffert-trained speedster Conveyance to a 15th-place finish in the 2010 Derby. Two weeks later, Baffert put Garcia on Lookin At Lucky, who had finished a rough-trip sixth from the rail in the Derby, to win the Preakness Stakes. Garcia won the 2011 Kentucky Oaks on Plum Pretty. However, Garcia shows up on the Hall of Fame trainer’s second-stringer in this Derby.
Derby strategy: Most of Baffert’s horses break from the gate running, but Liaison is a stalker/mid-pack closer. *The challenge gets even tougher for Garcia, who seems best with on-the-pace types, as Liaison has gone completely off form since winning the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity in December. Garcia will be looking for a mid-pack or better position and first run on the deep closers. – Pete Denk
Garrett Gomez (Eclipse Sportswire)
Garrett Gomez (Daddy Nose Best)
Two-time Eclipse Award winner underwent heal surgery in January following an accident, right as he had begun to dominate at the Santa Anita winter meet. Time lost likely cost him an opportunity to land a major Derby contender early. At his best, one of the premier jockeys in the game, and almost certainly the best finisher. Gomez pumping and slashing through the stretch on a horse running for its life is one of the signature scenes of California racing.
Derby strategy: Might have landed the perfect mount for his style, Daddy Nose Best showed in the Sunland Derby he is willing to race close behind horses, split them and then really gather momentum in the lane. That came under Julien Leparoux, no slouch as a finisher either. Expect Gomez to track in the second or third flight of horses within 10 lengths of the leaders and then ask in the lane for everything he’s got. – John Scheinman
Mario Gutierrez (I’ll Have Another)
Gutierrez, the former leading rider at Hasting Race Course in Vancouver, is probably the least-known jockey in the field. He delivered what could be described as quiet rides in I’ll Have Another’s two races this year. He simply ran away from the field in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, and in the Santa Anita Derby, Gutierrez sat chilly as Creative Cause rolled up inside him, and then he narrowly outfinished that opponent with an outside rally. Considered a finesse rider, Gutierrez is good at getting his mounts to settle and finish.
Derby strategy: Gutierrez has a feel for I’ll Have Another, and he should look to replicate either of his winning trips by getting early position, rating off the front runners and kicking in. Now, he just has to not let his nerves get the better of him in a 20-horse field before a gigantic crowd. – Pete Denk
Julien Leparoux (Eclipse Sportswire)
Julien Leparoux (Union Rags)
The two-time Eclipse Award winner from France is unquestionably one of the top riders on artificial surfaces in the country. Particularly at Keeneland, he appears to understand pace dynamics over the Polytrack better than anyone else, and he towered above his opposition at the recent spring meet. While certainly high-ranking, he is far less dominant on major dirt ovals, finishing fourth in the standings last fall at Saratoga and third at the recently concluded Gulfstream Park meet. Lives more dangerously than some other top riders, finding traffic problems and then extricating himself. His recent ride aboard Union Rags is instructive: He allowed himself to be pinned on the rail much of the way through the Florida Derby, getting clear only when it was too late to win.
Derby strategy: While a wonderful horse, Union Rags is not head-and-shoulders better than this field. With 20 runners signed up, there will be plenty of opportunities to find traffic trouble, lose ground with a too-wide trip — danger lurks everywhere. Union Rags appears more comfortable attacking horses on his inside, and from whatever post he starts, Leparoux must find position to capitalize on that. In his favor is the colt’s ability to relax and then become aggressive as well as his ability to extend a surging drive.
Leparoux should settle back 10 lengths off the pace, find a steady rhythm in the clear and then pick off as many horses as possible beginning on the turn for home. – John Scheinman
Jose Lezcano (Rousing Sermon)
Lezcano attended the Laffit Pincay Jockey School in his native Panama before moving to America in 2003. He has won riding titles at the Meadowlands and Tampa Bay Downs. I thought he was a little underrated in 2008 when he won a career best 287 races, but Lezcano hasn’t exactly shined in his opportunities on the biggest stages. He had a super live mount in the 2010 Kentucky Derby in Ice Box, who was full of run but got stopped repeatedly and settled for second behind Super Saver.
Derby strategy: Lezcano is known for his work on late-rallying horses, and Rousing Sermon is a deep closer that will need a hot pace up front and every inch of the stretch. He will look to settle early and then seek a clear path for his grinding rally. After not getting a Derby mount in 2011, this is Lezcano’s chance to show he has better vision and anticipation than he showed in that 2010 Derby. – Pete Denk
Willie Martinez (Trinniberg)
Martinez is a physically strong, veteran jockey. He is good at getting horses out of the gate and knows the importance of early position, but he always tries to let his horse do it as easily as possible. Has won many meet titles at B-level tracks. Martinez’s best performance in the Kentucky Derby was a fifth aboard Noble’s Promise in 2010.
Derby strategy: All three of Trinniberg’s career wins have come on the lead sprinting, so it is hard to imagine him anywhere but up front stretching out to the Derby mile-and-a-quarter distance. However, with this being Trinniberg’s first two-turn race, Martinez will do everything he can to preserve something for the stretch run. That could mean sitting just off Hansen or Bodemeister if either of them get to the lead first. – Pete Denk
Corey Nakatani (Sabercat)
Nakatani is known as a confident, aggressive rider and an emotional competitor. When he has the horse, he will use it, as evidenced by his strong, winning ride on My Miss Aurelia in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Nakatani has ridden 15 times in the Kentucky Derby without a victory. He came close in 2011, when he gave Nehro a forwardly placed trip to finish second behind Animal Kingdom.
Derby strategy: Sabercat’s best runs have come from far back, *when he is able to run at tired horses, so Nakatani is likely to follow that blueprint in the Derby. – Pete Denk
AR Napravnik (Eclipse Sportswire)
Anna Rose Napravnik (Mark Valeski)
Note: Mark Valeski was declared out of the Kentucky Derby by trainer Larry Jones on Tuesday, May 1.
Let’s get the girl stuff right out of the way: I know plenty of people who don’t think she’s good enough to compete at the top of a big-time circuit, and I think that’s ridiculous and hope she gets serious mounts in New York. Napravnik continually has made mincemeat of the Fair Grounds jockey colony, and it’s not because no one else can ride. Race after race, she displays the push-button positioning of a master like Jerry Bailey, setting her horses exactly where they need to be most effective. Her ability to stalk and go by is in an elite class, and she has the physical strength to finish with authority in the lane. With all due respect to Julie Krone, Napravnik is, to these eyes, the greatest female jockey this country has ever produced.
Derby strategy: In his past two starts, Mark Valeski has sat an outside stalking trip – similar to that preferred by Gemologist — and Napravnik has driven him to the front coming off the far turn. Both times, however, he has been defeated and not run particularly fast. Napravnik likely will not change her strategy and can only hope trainer Larry Jones has the horse ready for a peak effort. Expect her to find position early, hope not to get overwhelmed by a quality pace and then take aim at any tiring leaders. – John Scheinman
Colm O’Donoghue (Daddy Long Legs)
Has been an integral part of the Ballydoyle outfit in Ireland for many years now and slowly worked his way up the ladder. Never the No. 1 rider for trainer Aidan O’Brien, he nevertheless has won Group 1 races with second stringers over the more favored horses. Took the 2011 Irish Derby aboard Treasure Beach, beating two other O’Brien runners, after the horse acted up in the gate before the start. Sent to Woodbine with Joshua Tree, he won the 2010 Canadian International. In the UAE Derby aboard Daddy Long Legs, moved quickly into second place behind the leader and stalked under a loose rein to the far turn, where he advanced on the outside and took over. Typical European humping, slashing style in the stretch, yet he maintains a compact seat.
Derby strategy: They didn’t run particularly fast in the UAE Derby and O’Donoghue has limited — if any — experience racing on dirt. Daddy Long Legs appears to have good stamina, so there is no reason not to at least attempt to duplicate the UAE Derby race. That said, likely to find the pace much faster than he has ever faced, and O’Donoghue probably will find himself mid-pack trying to get his sea legs under him and avoiding dirt kick-back. Likely will spend a lot of time just trying to settle into a good galloping rhythm and hoping Daddy Long Legs can carry him to the front on his own. – John Scheinman
Joel Rosario (Creative Cause)
The first time I noticed Rosario was in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, which he won with a perfectly timed ride on longshot Dancing In Silks. When a jockey can win with less than the best horse, especially in a Grade 1 race, that’s usually a sign of something special. Rosario has shown that ride was no fluke, ascending to the top of the always-tough Southern California jockey colony from 2009 to present. Rosario is an aggressive rider, and he seems to have an excellent sense of how much horse is under him. He looks comfortable on or off the pace and is a very strong finisher.
Derby strategy: Rosario’s versatility should come in handy on Creative Cause, who has tactical speed and a closing kick. He will look to find a comfortable spot in stalking range of the leaders, then make his move somewhere on the far turn. Rosario’s two previous rides in the Derby were solid efforts. He guided 30-1 Make Music For Me to finish fourth in 2010 and 28-1 Brilliant Speed to seventh last year. – Pete Denk
Sheldon Russell (Done Talking)
Top rider in Maryland won all three meets — two at Laurel, one at Pimlico — in the state in 2011. Son of a jockey who rode in England, South Africa and Germany, looks good in the saddle, riding low and compact. Powerful hand-rider through the lane. Looks good on front-runners, stalkers and closers. Comfortable riding inside and going between horses; commodities in short supply in Maryland. Got his first Triple Crown experience last year aboard Concealed Identity in the Preakness for trainer Eddie Gaudet.
Derby strategy: Should ride the same way he did in winning the Illinois Derby, allowing Done Talking to settle and then finding holes to run through. The colt might not be the fastest in the field, but he acts fearless. Russell should just scan the field from fairly well back for opportunities to move past tiring horses. Can’t visualize nerves getting the best of him. – John Scheinman
Mike Smith (Bodemeister)
Mike Smith has won 13 Breeders’ Cup races, plus the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes once each. He was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 2003. Of the jockeys riding today, I put Smith in that very small, select group who get the absolute most out of their horses. Smith connects with his mounts extremely well, and horses run their eyeballs out for him. My only criticism is that sometimes it seems he does not appreciate the importance of avoiding ground loss.
Derby strategy: The break from the gate and Bodemeister’s post position in relation to the other two speed horses — Trinniberg and Hansen — will dictate Smith’s strategy. Even though they set a strong pace in the Arkansas Derby, Bode and Smith paced themselves well, travelling the last furlong of that 1 1/8-mile race in 12 seconds. Bode will be forwardly placed – he has not won from anywhere but the lead. However, Bodemeister’s classic pedigree, *high cruising speed and the finishing kick in Arkansas will give Smith confidence that he can sit off the other speed in the Derby if he has to. – Pete Denk
J.R. Velazquez (Went the Day Well)
Velazquez, who won his first Kentucky Derby last year on Animal Kingdom, will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame later this year. He has been one of the best big-money riders in America for more than a decade. Velazquez is a good judge of pace and he usually saves ground when possible. For my money, he is one of the most versatile riders of his generation.
Derby strategy: Velazquez will want to take advantage of his mount’s combination of speed and stamina by finding a comfortable spot somewhere in the top half of the field. The connections are considering adding blinkers, perhaps because of concerns of a slow start and/or idling on the lead. – Pete Denk