Make the Right Moves

Jockeys and their agents are faced with tough decisions every day. In a profession where, for the most part you’re rewarded for winning and blanked for losing, the pressure is always on to ride the best horse in each race that you can. Sometimes the decision is made for you by a trainer or even owner, but if you’ve worked your way up to be a top rider, it will often be your call which horse you ride.

Sometimes being on the right horse isn’t as simple as just knowing who gives you your best chance. Calls on horses are given out in advance and part of being a good agent is knowing which horses are running back in which races. Agents often have to know this before the entries are drawn. They work off the condition book and have to maintain close ties with the outfits you ride for.

This is horse racing however, and we all know things change quickly. A horse not expected to enter a race, can be entered leaving a rider with two calls or commitments. One outfit is not going to be happy with your decision. When a rider takes a call on a horse, and subsequently another horse enters the same race and he abandons the first call, it’s called spinning. The initial trainer got “spun” in favor of the perceived better mount. Agents who do this frequently get a reputation and it can come back to bite you.

Riding the best horse in a particular race, can also be compromised by not only prior commitments but also by relationships. If you are riding a lot for a barn, especially a barn who has a lot of live horses, you may at times ride a horse for that barn which may not be your best chance at a win. However, you don’t want to jeopardize future live mounts from that outfit. It is a constant balance and juggling act and it often can be difficult to keep everyone happy. That’s the top end of the spectrum. The other end is made up of new riders, or riders in less demand, who are happy to ride anything and just get their name in the program. That’s how it all usually starts.

We often see in past performances where a horse is ridden by one rider, who has had success on them or for the barn, and inexplicably they are named on another mount, or maybe not even riding in the race. Some of what I described above can lead to those situations and you can’t see that in the past performances. Accordingly, it is likely best not to read that much into it. Remain cognizant there could be many legit reasons is my suggestion.

If there is one race where all the protocols sort of go by the wayside, in my experience it is the race coveted by all jockeys, the Kentucky Derby. Riders and agents are almost always looking for that Kentucky Derby mount. International riding star Ryan Moore recently stated the Kentucky Derby is on his bucket list. He will likely ride Mendelssohn on the first Saturday in May as opposed to staying in England and riding Saxon Warrior. I wish we could wager on where Ryan will be Derby Day. The Derby is the Derby. As such loyalties and prior commitments are usually given a pass, almost everyone understands you want to take your best shot. Most trainers will forgive a rider jumping ships in the Run for the Roses.

This year’s Kentucky Derby has had a fair share of musical jockeys already. Bolt d’ Oro’s trainer Mick Ruis canned the regular rider Cory Nakatani following a post workout decision and disagreement. He was replaced by Javier Castellano, who despite all his success still seeks that first elusive Derby win. Javier rode Bolt d’ Oro to a controversial second place finish to McKinzie, in which he was awarded the win via disqualification. He came back to chase the highly regarded and much hyped Justify, but could not really make him sweat. Javier stated he was happy with how his horse ran as he was chasing the best horse in the country. After that statement, which was almost a concession, it should have come as no surprise Javier, a jockey with options took himself off Bolt d’ Oro. He opted for Audible, a popular winner of the Holy Bull and Florida Derby, for the powerhouse barn of Todd Pletcher. Audible became open after John Velazquez, his rider in both the Holy Bull and Florida Derby, made a decision to ride recent Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso in the Kentucky Derby. This move by Johnny V surprised a lot of people, but not me. Between Audible and Vino Rosso, I would have chosen Vino Rosso myself. Being a good agent, means being a good handicapper and the Derby is at a mile and a quarter. At that distance Vino Rosso looks better in my opinion.

All that shuffling left Bolt d’ Oro open. Victor Espinoza got the call to pilot him in Louisville and it will be the first time he rides him in a race. If not for Javier’s defection, Victor would have probably watched the Derby on TV. Now he is on a horse a lot of people like.

Some people think Javier made his decision based on loyalty to Todd Pletcher and the fact he rides for him. Don’t buy it. If he thought Bolt d’ Oro was the winner, or his best option, that’s where his weight would be come Derby Day. Todd would understand. The Derby is the Derby.

Mike Smith was in the spot most riders would envy. He rode two top prospects in McKinzie and Justify. Had McKinzie not been injured, he would have had a tough choice. He made one last year when he rode Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and gave up the mount on West Coast, knowing West Coast would be running in stakes in 2018. It’s tough to be on top and stay there.

You have to make the right moves. Sometimes that is easier said than done. The great Bill Shoemaker was offered the mount on Northern Dancer in the Kentucky Derby by the great trainer Horatio Luro. Shoe refused and rode favorite Hill Rise. The two colts battled down the stretch and Northern Dancer, under Bill Hartack, got the best of Shoemaker and Hill Rise by a long neck. We don’t always get it right. Go with your handicapping, instincts, and gut. I always do. Don’t read into the above as any tells on who I like in the Derby this year. I won’t know that until I handicap the race. If you want to know who I like come the first Saturday in May, just find me and ask. It won’t be that hard.

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Jon Stettin

Since childhood, Jon has always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. His years of experience have earned him a well respected spot in the industry as a handicapper. He now is a frequent contributor to AmWager as well as writing for his own site.

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