Two jockeys, one mount

April, 23, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This is the story of one horse and two very capable riders, and the sad and sorry thing that happens when a trainer must choose which of the latter will pilot the former.

On the backside of Churchill Downs on Thursday morning, low rumblings of dismay could still be heard over news that broke two days prior, although it was pretty much what everyone expected. Rafael Bejarano would regain the mount on Line of David for his start in the Kentucky Derby. Jon Court, who had ridden the colt to victory in the Arkansas Derby on April 10, would not.

This is the nature of the game, and one could consider the fact that Bejarano had ridden Line of David in the first two wins of his career while also breezing the horse extensively in California reason enough for the change. Court himself, who has never had a Derby mount, said as much when he spoke to reporters about the loss of his shot at the Run for the Roses 136.

Two weeks ago, however, Line of David's connections were singing a decidedly different tune. Then, when Bejarano chose to ride Interactif for trainer Todd Pletcher in the Blue Grass Stakes, longtime California rider Court picked up the Sadler-trained mount and shipped in to Oaklawn Park from his new base in Kentucky. When the front-running colt shot straight to the lead and turned it on full throttle in the Arkansas Derby, Court managed to get him to rate, clipping along through the 1 1/8 miles with enough gas left in the tank to wire the field at the end. It was a brilliantly executed ride on a speed-favoring track with a horse whose singular running style is to go to the front and stay there. Court pulled it off perfectly.

Meanwhile, at Keeneland, Interactif ran up the track. And so Bejarano's chances to ride a Derby contender for power-player Pletcher were drastically reduced, although Pletcher said this morning that Interactif would work on Saturday and was still to be considered a potential Derby contender. Like any good rider, Bejarano decided to test the waters on a possible return to the mount he'd forgone in Arkansas. Like any good agent, Joe Ferrer got the job done.

Trainer John Sadler told Thoroughbred Times reporter Jeff Lowe that the decision was to go for a rider from "the home team," that Bejarano rides 70 percent of his stock in California. But the bottom line is that Bejarano, who leads the nation in purse earnings this year, is also a hot jock, hotter than the quiet veteran Court. And generally a trainer's guarantee of a mount of this status equals more first-call agreements from a rider of such desirable status. I get it.

Also, the temptation to go with a "name" rider is never stronger than during Derby season, and in many ways this is understandable. You enter the biggest race on the industry's greatest day, you want to get the best rider around. Bejarano has taken the California circuit by storm. He's a consistent competitor, youthful and strong.

But history is rife with stories of riders whose careers were marked by years of quiet consistency, not celebrity, before their Kentucky Derby wins. Calvin Borel, a two-time Derby winner in the past three years, is the perfect — and most recent — example. Sitting in the jocks' room on the Friday before Court's Arkansas Derby win, he talked about how he'd obtained the mount on the Todd Pletcher-trained Super Saver. After taking Derby 133 on Street Sense and Derby 135 on Mine That Bird — not to mention his connection with 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra — opportunities abound.

"It's so much easier for me to get on horses now," Borel said.

Prior to his Derby wins, Borel didn't lack the talent, strength, professionalism, or savvy to get the job done. In marquee races like the Derby, he simply lacked the opportunities. Not any more.

Court is a guy who rides hard, and well, to make a living and support his family. He's also pure class. When the news came on Tuesday, he took the high road and thanked the connections for his Arkansas Derby win. But that doesn't mean the loss didn't pain him. Riding in the Derby — the Kentucky Derby — is every jockey's dream.

Maybe it's the hopeless romantic in me, maybe it's the journalist who constantly seeks a good story line. I would have just liked to see the jock who piloted a 17-1 shot into the winner's circle in a $1 million race get a chance to be his partner in the big dance. Sure, other story lines abound. We'll get to those next time. But the fact that Court believed in the horse and brought him to victory for the connections was deserving of the ride back.

And that's just my opinion.

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