Kentucky Derby: Jockeys compete even before race
Exercise rider Mike Heera on Kentucky Derby hopeful Mucho Macho Man, left, and exercise rider Jon Court on another Derby hopeful Archarcharch go for a workout at Churchill Downs May 3, 2011, in Louisville, Ky. / AP Photo
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Jerry Hissam should have the easiest job in America leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
How hard can it be, really, to be the agent for jockey Calvin Borel, the closest thing there is to a sure thing when it comes to the Run for the Roses?
Borel is the only rider to capture three Derbys in four years, winning on favorites and long shots alike while becoming a folk hero at Churchill Downs with his rail-hugging rides to glory.
Yet when Borel's preferred Derby mount Elite Alex flamed out in the Arkansas Derby on April 16, Hissam's cell phone didn't exactly start vibrating incessantly in his pocket.
Ask Hissam why and he just shrugs his shoulders.
"I can't explain it, go ask them," Hissam said while nodding toward the barns of prominent horse trainers like Todd Pletcher, Nick Zito and Bob Baffert, all three of whom have live shots in the 137th edition of the Derby this Saturday.
Zito will saddle 4-1 morning line favorite Dialed In, who will start from post No. 8 with jockey Julien Leparoux. John Velazquez will be atop 9-2 second-choice Uncle Mo for Pletcher while Baffert will go for his fourth Derby win with 10-1 shot Midnight Interlude and jockey Victor Espinoza.
Borel eventually found a ride 12 days before the race with Sunland Derby winner Twice the Appeal, who will start from the third-post in the 20-horse field, not far from Borel's beloved rail.
So you won't hear him complaining about the last-second opportunity. Besides, he was hardly the only high-profile jockey still looking for a mount for horse racing's version of the Super Bowl.
Garrett Gomez, who guided Blame to an upset win over unbeaten Zenyatta under the twin spires in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic, didn't get on Master of Hounds until last Friday. Kent Desormeaux, a three-time Derby winner, will be watching from race from the jocks' room barring any last-second change.
On the surface, securing the best riders in the biggest race would seem to make sense. Yet that's hardly the case.
Finding a Derby ride is equal parts talent and luck. This year's race features a handful riders making their Derby debut, though not all debuts are created equal.
For every Rosie Napravnik, who is making her first Derby start at age 23 aboard Pants on Fire, there is a Jon Court, who is finally getting in the Derby at age 50 with Archarcharch.
Though Court would seem like a lock considering father-in-law Jinks Fires is the trainer for the Arkansas Derby winner, he's not taking anything for granted.
"I don't consider myself in the Derby until the moment I'm in the gate riding down that track, because anything can happen," said Court.
He should know. He's had several near misses in the Derby, none more painful that last spring when he was taken off Line of David five days before the race.
It was a bitter pill for a rider with over 3,000 career victories at tracks all over the country. Then again, he's gotten used to disappointment when it comes to the Derby.
More than once over the years Court has found himself scanning the list of Derby jockeys shaking his head at how less-heralded peers found their way into the race while he watched it on TV.
Court's been around long enough to know it's not so much how you ride, but who you ride for.
"They have some solid connections and when you have those connections you have an upper hand playing the politics," said Court, who will start from the rail in the Derby. "Politics makes a big part of the game and I've been told on more than one occasion not to even use that word politics, but it comes up. I try not to shy away from the facts of the industry and that's just part of it."
So is good fortune. Rajiv Maragh didn't get on Mucho Macho Man until regular rider Eibar Coa sustained a spinal injury in February.
When the phone doesn't ring, it doesn't necessarily mean the rider isn't respected.
Animal Kingdom owner Barry Irwin knows there is nobody better at Churchill Downs than Borel. Yet when Animal Kingdom worked his way into the Derby picture, Irwin gave the mount to Robby Albarado, who is 0-for-12 on the first Saturday in May.
Irwin's familiarity with Albarado trumped any notion of seeing if Borel was available.
"I think this whole game is a matter of people in their own little camps," Irwin said. "People like riding guys that they get along with and are familiar with and I think maybe Calvin might have ridden one horse for us. We just haven't had a trainer that used him. Obviously he's a hell of a rider but we don't know him that well and he's just not part of our group."
Borel wasn't part of Victor Flores' group either, but the owner of Twice the Appeal made a play for Borel even though Christian Santiago Reyes put the colt in the Run for the Roses with a scintillating ride in the $800,000 Sunland Derby. The same race produced 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird who Borel brought home as a 50-1 dreamer.
Dumping Santiago Reyes wasn't a move the owners took lightly, but running in the Derby is a costly proposition. It costs $50,000 just to get into the gate. For a group dealing with its first case of Derby fever, they figured to go all-in with a guy who knows his way around like few others.
"When you're in a 20-horse field, 14 of them or (more) are going to have troubled trips," said trainer Jeff Bonde. "The reality is (the owners) have to be happy with what's going down."
Normally, however, owners leave it up to the trainers to find the right jockey. When it comes to the Derby, those decisions are often made months in advance.
Pletcher, who won his first Derby with Borel and Super Saver last year, had a chance at securing Borel on Stay Thirsty but opted to give the ride to Ramon Dominguez because of their lengthy working relationship.
"I think a lot of times if you have a rider who has been with you for a long time you want to stay with that commitment and stay faithful to those guys," Pletcher said. "You kind of want to go with who got you here kind of theory."
The lure of dropping a rider for a more accomplished one doesn't always work. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas took Terry Thompson off Dublin following last year's Derby after the horse finished seventh. Thompson was replaced by Gomez, who also failed to hit the board with Dublin in the Preakness, finishing fifth in a less-crowded field.
"We should have stayed with Terry Thompson," Lukas said. "The horse ran better for Terry Thompson than anybody but who the hell is Terry Thompson?"
It's a sentiment Hissam used to hear for years about Borel before Borel became a Derby regular a decade ago. Borel's success hasn't gone to his head. It hasn't gone to Hissam's either. He allows he doesn't aggressively court owners. He's been around the barns long enough to know they'll come to him when the time is right.
"You could go to a trainer's house and sleep on their doorstep and if they don't want you, they'll step right over you on their way out the door," Hissam said. "When they want you, they'll call you (in the bathroom)."
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